Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

‘Soul’ and the Transformation Trope

Pixar’s Soul was the center of a meme that circulated this summer, prior to the release of the film, which suggested that it was racist for the lead character, an African-American, to be transformed into a blue-green blob in the trailer. The question was raised on this post back in July:

Representation Without Transformation: Can Hollywood Stop Changing Cartoon Characters of Color?

Of course it’s absolutely a minefield for a pasty-white guy like me to jump into a topic like this, but I’m going to do it anyway, because I think there are some points that need to be addressed. I’m also going to work in a sort of mini-review of Soul, and there will be spoilers. So here goes.

The author, Andrew Tejada, starts off making a reasonable case, but he lost me with his conclusion, when he urges filmmakers “to prevent this transformation trend from creeping into future stories”; in so doing, he misses the point he started out making. There is a different solution to this problem, one that makes a lot more sense than declaring a tired old plot to be racist.

The obvious solution is to produce a lot more movies telling other kinds of stories about people of color, to get a lot more people of color in the writers’ rooms, in the directors’ chairs, and in the board rooms where these decisions are made. More diverse voices telling more unique stories, showcasing cultures, communities and traditions that have been avoided and overlooked for too long, are what is needed.

The problem is not the few films Tejada cited; it’s the context in which they exist. The films in which white characters transform represent a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of films in which white characters stay human throughout, while the five examples cited here represent a large percentage of the few animated films with protagonists of color. If Brother Bear were just one film among many about indigenous people, then the hero’s transformation into a bear would carry no more of a racial implication than when it happens in Brave.

Maybe Disney should lay off the magic transformation stories, not because the plot is racist, but because the plot is over-used. They need to tell other stories about Black people and Black culture, as well as other stories of the wide panorama of people around the world. And those people must be involved in the telling.

Focusing on this new trope gives Hollywood an easy out: it tells them that as long as they avoid any plots or cliches tagged as racist, they never have to change what they are doing or include people of color in the decision-making. If given the choice between “don’t tell this kind of story” or “hire more people of color in decision-making roles,” which do you think they will go for?

I am absolutely on the side of those who are calling for more minority representation on screen and in studio decision-making positions, but I also feel it’s important to take an honest look at the various assertions being made about the “transformation is inherently racist” myth that this article and the subsequent memes are fostering.

Jamal Igle (creator of Molly Danger) commented on a Facebook post about this article, calling it “One I disagree with, actually. We’ve gotten to point where this is beyond ridiculous. We have thousands of cartoons where white characters get transformed into animals and magical creatures (The Sword in the Stone, The incredible Mr. Limpet, Brave, The Witches) but suddenly, if its a character of color, its a disservice. This is as dumb as people complaining about black actors portraying aliens on sci fi shows. There were more white guys on Star Trek in make up than any other race. Theses are stories. Theses are parts to be played.”

The problem is that Tejada, whether intentionally or not, appears to imply that this is a deliberate prejudice-based trope, that filmmakers are intentionally choosing to transform these characters in order to dehumanize them, while ignoring the reality that therianthropy (stories of people transforming into animal form) has been a staple of entertainment for millennia all around the world, going all the way back to Paleolithic cave drawings found at the Les Trois Frères archeological site in France. It’s one of the oldest stories humans have told about themselves.

Tejada focuses on the fact that characters of color transform in some fairly recent movies, and cites a few examples: The Princess and the Frog, Spies in Disguise, Coco, Brother Bear, and The Emperor’s New Groove.

He cites those five because they are the few popular examples to be found in the entire history of motion pictures in which this tired plot involves people of color. He ignores the far larger number of films featuring white people similarly transformed, including, aside from the ones Igle mentioned: Pinocchio, The Swan Princess (and its umpteen sequels), Howl’s Moving Castle, Rock-a-Doodle, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, as well as live-action films like The Fly, Willow, The Shaggy Dog, Ladyhawke, Jumanji, Cat People, Sssssss, The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, and Teen Wolf, (basically just about every werewolf movie except Benicio Del Toro’s), and of course the shapeshifting characters in Harry Potter, X-Men, and Teen Titans, among countless others.

My point here is not to argue that racism is not a serious problem in Hollywood and particularly in animation, nor to argue that representation is not important. It absolutely is, and people of color have waited far too long to see people who look like themselves portrayed positively in cartoons. It’s not even to argue that this isn’t a trope or that it’s problematic; it’s in the process of becoming one, and could very well become problematic. I do think it’s premature to label it as such based on five films and a trailer spread over  20 years.

My objection is to the assertion that character transformation is inherently racist when it happens to a non-white character and that it has been done deliberately for that reason. It seems to be implied that these characters were transformed into non-human forms because of their ethnicity, for the explicit and specific purpose of either denying their humanity or negating their ethnic identity. Taking a look at the films Tejada cited, and the context and messaging of each, might be in order.

The Princess and the Frog
This is a 300-year-old story that’s been retold a whole lot of times, and always featuring only white characters. “The Frog Prince” is evidence that Disney has worked their way pretty far down toward the bottom of the catalog of classical princess stories, but if they were going to go ahead and do yet another princess movie, would we have wanted it to have been another generic white blonde princess?

Many versions of the Frog Prince
A small sample of retellings of the story.

Tejada also ignores the fact that in more traditional versions of the story, the Princess is the antagonist, not the hero. She’s usually a spoiled brat who lies to the frog and is ultimately forced by her father to keep her promise to kiss it, and ultimately she is objectified, becoming nothing more than the prize the prince-frog gets after being restored to human form. Centering the story on the princess instead of the prince was a progressive decision, despite the many other problematic parts of the film.

It’s pretty clear from the sequence of events that Disney chose the story and then decided to make the lead character Black, so the transformation was already baked in. The book upon which the movie was based, The Frog Princess, by E.D. Baker, was originally illustrated with all white characters. Disney’s version adds both representation and agency, making the character a fully-rounded person, even as a frog. It’s to Disney’s credit that they chose to embrace diversity, though they could have done better.

The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker
The book that Disney adapted.

One could legitimately complain that Disney’s first black princess story should not have been set deep in the Jim Crow South, and she should have been an actual princess instead of a poor girl whose “dream castle” is a restaurant. The “diminished expectations” inherent in the story are a far more problematic cliché than her transformation. And honestly, the BFF relationship between Tiana and Charlotte in that time and place is more of a fairytale than the transforming frog story.

Tejada’s complaint is actually that Disney didn’t choose to tell a different story for their first black princess. He’s right, they should have. With the countless other fairy tales, legends, and folk tales they could have drawn on for their story, including many African and Caribbean ones, maybe the Frog Prince wasn’t the best choice. The alternative story he proposes is a great idea for a movie; the problem is, it’s not a “Disney Princess” fairytale story, which is what the studio wanted to make.

They wanted to add diversity to their Princess brand. Ignoring the fact that Kida from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, brilliantly voiced by Cree Summer, is arguably Disney’s first black princess (though they did give her a much lighter skin tone than they should have), certainly there are other fairytale princess stories that could have been adapted for Tiana that would have kept her human throughout, and in retrospect they certainly should have. But the “transforming people of color” trope did not exist yet (this film is one of the earliest examples of it), so nobody saw any issue with it.

Emperor's New Groove

Brother Bear and Emperor’s New Groove
In both these films, Tejada overlooks the fact that every single character we see is of the same ethnicity and culture as the transformed character. In the case of Emperor’s New Groove, the real heroes of the story are Pacha, the villager who carries Kuzco through his ordeal, and Kronk, the imbecilic but good-hearted guard who accidentally interferes with every one of evil Ysma’s plans. In Brother Bear, Kenai’s brothers and all the other members of their tribe provide representation every bit as much as he does. Neither of these movies can be reasonably described as transforming the character in order to avoid representing his race, since in each case, their races are the only ones represented at all.

That said, unfortunately, there is a different and much bigger problem in both films; the representation in these two films is inauthentic and superficial. Having Joaquin Phoenix, David Spade, Patrick Warburton, and John Goodman playing these roles obscures the fact that NONE of the characters are supposed to be white or American. If the voices matched the characters’ heritage, Tejada might not have reached the conclusion he did.

If you want to make the case that characters who are Inuit or Peruvian should not be played by white guys, I’m totally with you. I recently watched the Avatar: The Last Airbender series for the first time, and was really put off by the characters all being visually coded as people of various non-white cultures, but sounding like middle-class white kids from the San Fernando Valley. (That may be what led M. Night Shyamalan to whitewash the cast in his live-action version.) Certainly one of the reasons for the “live action” (more accurately “photo-realistic”) version of The Lion King was to correct the absurdity of most of those African animals being voiced by white actors, not to mention hyenas named Ed and Banzai voiced by Jim Cummings and Cheech Marin. But again, that’s not the same thing as what’s being put forward here.

Spies in Disguise
This film was inspired by a short film called Pigeon: Impossible, in which a spy is tormented by a pigeon. Here, watch it. It’s hilarious and only about 6 minutes long.

It’s only in the feature film version that the pigeon is shown to be a transformed human, and Will Smith was obviously cast as a deliberate wink to his role in the Men in Black franchise. They could have cast any of a number of different actors known for spy roles without making a single change to the script; Lance Sterling could have been played by Matt Damon, Daniel Craig, Tommy Lee Jones, Pierce Brosnan, or even Jackie Chan, to name a few. A large number of the other characters in the film are also people of color, voiced by Rashida Jones, DJ Khaled, and Masi Oka, among others, so again it’s not a case of trying to avoid the character’s race. The filmmakers decided to turn an animal character into a human role, and then cast an actor who (a) can do comedy and (b) is well-known for playing a similar character in the genre they are parodying.

This is a case of casting a role as a person of color instead of defaulting to a white guy, in other words, exactly the sort of casting and representation people of color have been asking for since forever. The fact that it inadvertently contributes to this trope is unfortunate, but again, this film is one of those responsible for it being a trope in the first place.

Miguel disguised as a skeleton in 'Coco'
Miguel disguised as a skeleton using makeup.

Here the claim of transforming a character in order to conceal their race is belied by the fact that every single character seen in the film is of that same race, and more to the point, that Miguel never actually transforms the way Tejada says he does. We only ever see his hands transform; his face remains human throughout. He does disguise himself as a skeleton by applying traditional Dia De Los Muertos makeup (which is in itself a form of cultural representation) in order to blend in among the skeletal characters in the world of the dead, but the actual facts of the film do not support Tejada’s claim in this case. If “transforming people of color” is really a trope, Coco is not part of it.

Miguel partially transformed
Miguel near the climax of the film, partially transformed into a skeleton.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Tejada cites this film as an example of good representation, but in order to do so, he has to explain why it’s okay that Miles Morales’ race is completely concealed by his costume, while Miguel’s face being partly obscured by traditional Mexican makeup constitutes erasure of his race.

As it happens, the reason Miles Morales exists at all is precisely because the Spider-Man costume totally conceals all of the character’s features. In 2004, in issue #4 of She-Hulk, Spider-Man suggests that the reason J. Jonah Jameson hates him is because he’s black:

She-Hulk #4 page
“It’s because I’m black.”

A few years later, Marvel began discussing the possibility of replacing Peter Parker with a black man, at least in the “Ultimate Universe” version. This change was considered at least in part because the all-concealing costume would provide continuity between the original and the new hero. At about the same time, Sony was casting to replace Tobey Maguire for the relaunch of the Spider-Man films (a role that eventually went to Andrew Garfield).

Donald Glover in Spider-jammies
Donald Glover in Spider-jammies on ‘Community’

Somebody started a Twitter campaign nominating Donald Glover for the role, citing again the fact that Spider-Man could very well be black under the costume. As a result, Community included a gag in Season 2’s premiere episode in which Glover wore Spider-Man pajamas.

Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis saw that episode while working on the planned reboot of the Ultimate Universe Spider-Man. He later explained “[Glover] looked fantastic! I saw him in the costume and thought, ‘I would like to read that book.’ So I was glad I was writing that book.” As a result, Miles Morales was modeled on Donald Glover.'Soul' poster

Contrary to Tejada’s assumption (based on his only having seen the trailer), Joe does not spend an hour as a blue-green blob in Soul; a good portion of the film centers on his human form, and always in the context of a primarily African-American environment. I did not notice a single white face in the film, and we never see the only coded-white character in her human form. There’s representation throughout, not only of Black faces, but ofBlack American culture, with a heavy emphasis on jazz music, and even the minor characters are people of color. One of the nice bits is that the “angel” characters do not have the typical white-American voices for a change. They are played by Alice Braga (Brazilian), Richard Ayoade (British of Nigerian ancestry), Wes Studi (Native American), and Rachel House (New Zealand, playing a character that’s coded as male).

Joe and Dorothea in 'Soul'.
Dorothea (Angela Bassett) gives Joe (Jamie Foxx) a try-out.

As a matter of fact, like some of the previous examples, the film was well along in development before the decision was made to make the character Black. In its original version, Joe spends almost the entire film as a blue-green blob with no ethnic identity at all and no memory of his time on Earth. Eventually Pete Docter and the Pixar braintrust decided they needed to show his previous life in order to make him relatable. After going through a number of possibilities, they decided he should be a musician, and then, after deciding on jazz music as his genre, realized that he and his environment should be African-American. So once again, the transformation was in place before the race was chosen. As soon as they decided that Joe was Black, they immediately hired acclaimed playwright and author Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami…) to make sure the portrayal was accurate and positive. Powers was quickly elevated to Co-Director status because of his extensive contribution to the film.

The biggest problem in Soul, and the ultimate source of several complaints about the film, is the casting of Tina Fey as Soul Number 22. The problem with her casting is that it causes the film to stumble into two long-established racial cliches, the “white savior” and “magic negro” tropes. In the first, the poor disadvantaged black person needs to be rescued by a good and noble white person; in the second, a wise black person has to put aside their own goals and dreams in order to teach a white person to be better. Somehow, Joe manages to fulfill both tropes at once, simply due to the casting of 22. If she had been played by a black actress, they would have completely avoided all of that and made a genuine story about one lost soul helping another and thereby finding himself, more clearly articulating the theme that would have given more weight to the film’s conclusion.

There was absolutely no reason why that character should have been played by Tina Fey; Cree Summer could have done a great job with it, or (off the top of my head) Zendaya, Lupita Nyong’o, Susan Kelechi Watson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, or any number of other talented women of color. This was probably the biggest misstep Pixar made with Soul, and I think it hurt them more than the “transformation” trope. They clumsily inserted an irrelevant subtext about race that undercut and redirected the story they were trying to tell.

Without the distraction of the unfortunate casting choice, the central theme of the story would be more explicit and clear, which is that Joe takes on the project of “rescuing” 22, not because of racially-coded storytelling, but because his true purpose, his “spark,” the thing that gives his life meaning, is teaching and mentoring. Joe loves helping others discover their own talents and passions and nurturing them. You see it in the scenes in the classroom, when he’s talking with the young trombone player, with the former student-turned-drummer who tells him “you’re the only reason I even went to school,” and in the fact that Dorothea’s nickname for Joe is “Teach.” When one of the Counselors says “you mentors and your passions; your passion isn’t your spark,” they are pointing out the difference between passion and purpose; music is Joe’s passion, and it is the vehicle through which he exercises his purpose. This plays nicely into his last line, “I’m going to live every minute of it.” The best way to live every minute of your life is by spending as many of them as you can doing the thing that fills you with joy and gives your life meaning.

Unfortunately, people seeing the posts and memes about Tajeda’s theory, especially those who don’t bother to read the article, are likely to conclude that magical transformation of characters is the problem. Some might even come away believing that these films were made this way deliberately as part of a racist agenda.

Avoiding this particular story because it’s a cliche that has been done too much is legitimate; I heard complaints about it with Brave: “I liked it better when it was called Brother Bear.” But pushing the idea that this kind of story is inherently racist is a bad idea because it limits possibilities for the future. If it becomes established as a rule that transforming people of color into non-human forms is considered inherently racist, then only white characters can be cast in those stories. Accepting this premise means denying people of color certain roles; Marvel’s Mystique and DC’s Beast Boy would have to always be played by white actors. All of the many folk-tales, myths and legends involving transformation would have to either be cast with white actors or never filmed at all. This would impact the number or kind of roles that actors of color could be considered for.

Every culture on earth has myths and stories about people being turned into animals. It would be a damn shame to put all those stories off-limits because of the perception that such transformations are automatically racist. The only thing worse would be recasting those stories to feature white characters. Especially when transformation stories are not the problem.

Comic writer Justin Peniston (Hunter Black) summed it up, “The problem isn’t that Black characters in animated films get turned into … whatever. The problem is that there aren’t enough animated films with Black characters at their center, period. If representation wasn’t so hard to come by, if there was also a bunch of animated films where Black folks just stayed Black folks, this wouldn’t be an issue. The simple truth is that we need more stories about minorities and by minorities. If we get that, everything else will fall into place.”

I really hope Pixar takes the right message from this. It would be a shame if they decided that transforming into animals is something only white characters can do, or that all the wonderful tales about people being transformed are now off-limits to them. Instead, I hope they grasp the more useful and effective conclusion, that they can avoid a lot of grief by including more diverse voices in their development process. Authentic representation on both sides of the camera will lead to more authentic and less problematic films. The one thing everyone is praising about Soul is the gorgeous and specific environment and interesting characters of Joe’s life, and a great deal of that is entirely due to their wise decision to bring in Kemp Powers and a number of other people of color to craft the film. Hopefully that is the lesson they will learn.

One comment

  1. Coco was a terrible choice for that article. It seems (I admit I don’t have the cultural knowledge to state it as a fact) intensely Mexican and wouldn’t be any less if the kid had indeed been transformed.
    The transformation in Princess and the Frog was where the story fell apart for me, because it became a generic funny-animal cartoon. But that would have been the case with a white protagonist too. And “too devoted to her job to find time for love” is a cliche that I’m tired of.

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