21st-century character designs reflect our concerns, as always

What exactly are our current global character designs communicating? Juliana Cuervo

Character design permeates our culture through film, radio, literature or television. And for the last few generations, we’ve all been witness to the anthropomorphisation of objects, animals, and caricatured humans that purvey aspects of the human condition.

So what exactly are our current global character designs communicating?

As a character designer and academic focusing on this area of design, I find the way our culture, society values and ideas, are embodied in characters worldviews a fascinating topic.

Some of the most politically-incorrect animated characters were developed in the 20th century. Just think of the almost unbelievable depiction of American Indians in Peter Pan (1953) or the Crows (as representations of African Americans) in Dumbo (1941).

In the process of developing characters, designers tacitly evaluate the sociology, psychology and physiology of the character in order to translate meaning. In doing so they perpetuate specific beliefs in the global and national conversation, an area that’s expertly explored in the 2009 book Disney, Pixar and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Films.

With the above in mind, I’d like to highlight some pop culture examples of characters from both the 20th and 21st century that have presented pushed or moved agendas and perceptions.

20th-century characters

The Spirit of Donald Duck, cropped version. Wikipedia Commons

Donald Duck (The Wise Little Hen, 1934) is a character rooted in a stoic, emotionally temperamental, boisterous, and prankish all-American sailor stereotype – a stereotype also embodied by Popeye and Donald Duck’s Warner Bros. equivalent Daffy Duck.

Donald appeared in seven American propaganda films during the second world war. Der Fuehrer’s Face won the 1943 Academy Award for Short Film. At the time, the imperatives of war adjusted the meanings animators needed to convey.

In those outings, underlying Donald Duck’s character, there is a glorification of war, the American dream, the exaltation of sailors’ debaucherous nature and irony relative to commenting on the current situation. The clear message of “America is the greatest” is pushed by Donald’s 1930-1940s demeanour.

Astro Boy. Cover for Mighty Atom volume 8 from the Osamu Tezuka Manga Complete Works edition. Wikimedia Commons

Of course, Donald survives into the present day, but he does so through adaptation to current ideals, as seen in the 2001-2002 show House of Mouse, in which he was depicted as a nightclub owner.

Astro-boy (The Birth of Atom, 1952), is a Japanese-developed character who highlights pronounced concerns, interests and curiosities surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) and the possibilities of futuristic technologies.

He emerged only six years after the first computer was developed in 1946. Through Astro-boy, character designers seem to have brought certain reactionary concerns or interests to the forefront of the global discussion. And those concerns persist. As recently as last year, Stephen Hawking told the BBC that:

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.

Bart Simpson. Wikipedia Commons/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Bart Simpson (1987, Good Night, TV short on The Tracy Ullman Show) is an intriguing character that contributed to the critique of the nuclear family, and brought implicit and widespread attention to the issue of attention deficit disorder in youth in the 1990s.

The American Psychiatric Association only seriously recognised the condition in the 80s with the second and third revisions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Here we can see a representational character - in Bart – mimicking and responding to growing trepidations around the condition.

Considering – in theory, at least – we now have a more pluralistic, integrated and global society, are 21st-character designs becoming relatively pluralist? Or less fascinating?

21st-century characters

Cody Maverick (Surfs Up, 2007) is a great example of the 00’s animators dealing with the universal challenge of “coming of age” and the issues surrounding adolescence.

Up. Wikimedia Commons/Walt Disney Pictures.

Given surfing history dates back 300 years, the narrative doesn’t touch on specifics, using surfing culture as a vessel for a young teenager discovering purpose.

Carl Fredrickson (Up, 2009) is the hero of an ageing generation. His portrayal focuses on new notions of age and the inner child, introducing perspectives on a global ageing population.

This reflects how youth can interact and respect the elderly as individuals, not a bad thing considering the 2015 Australian Intergenerational Report highlights issues surrounding ageism and a shifting demographic:

The number of Australians aged 65 and over is projected to more than double by 2055 compared with today.

Merida (Brave, 2012) is a fantastic embodiment of the new feminist princess. A growing critique of Disney princesses has outlined a new approach to the portrayal of young women going through adolescence.

Chris Buck, the director of Frozen, recently visited Newcastle and sparked my interest in this phenomena.

Along with Frozen (2013), Divergent (2014) and The Hunger Games (2012), Brave beckoned a new – not universally applauded – age of feminism in young adult fiction.

In each of these examples, characters are designed to respond to specific concerns relative to time and context. As we move deeper into the 21st century the concerns become a little more universal, tackling global discussions on feminism, age discrimination, sustainability, racism and much more.

As we move forward into a post-postmodern global perspective, the development of characters seems to move towards the breakdown and re-appropriation of stereotypes, in order to understand and communicate our current cultural and social contexts.