By Chris Hoenig
The face of Hollywood is changing: Movies are casting increasingly diverse characters, the Oscars are rewarding their work and Vanity Fair included a record number of Blacks on the cover of its Hollywood Issue this year (six out of the 12 actors and actresses).
But there’s one corner of the entertainment industry that is reaping even bigger benefits for embracing diversity: cartoons.
Like any industry, Hollywood is in the business of making money. Understanding your audience and casting characters that better reflect the cultural diversity of the United States equal bigger paydays: Movies with casts 21 to 30 percent Black/Latino/Asian have a median box-office revenue nearly $100 million higher than movies with casts that are less than 10 percent Black/Latino/Asian ($160.1 million versus $68.5 million, according to a study from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA).
“Hollywood does pretty well financially right now, but it could do a lot better if it were better reflecting the diversity of America,” said lead study author Darnell Hunt, Director of the Bunche Center and a Professor of Sociology at UCLA.
For cartoons, it’s hundreds of millions of dollars—or more—in merchandise sales.
Doc McStuffins, the story of a Black girl who plays doctor to her stuffed animals, generated about $500 million worth of revenue from toys, dolls and other merchandise last year—a record for a toy line based on a Black character. The Walt Disney Company, which only began airing the show on its Disney Channel and Disney Junior stations in March 2012, is No. 34 in the 2014 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.
“I think what attracts her is, ‘Hey, I look like her, and she looks like me,'” Melissa Woods said of her 2-year-old daughter, Jade Goss. “She has the Doc McStuffins sheets. She has the Doc McStuffins doll. She has the Doc McStuffins purse. She has Doc McStuffins clothes.”
The draw of a Black character extends far beyond just Black kids, as consumers clamor for toys that are more representative of a country where nonwhite births already outpace white births and the majority of Americans under age 18 will be Black, Latino or Asian by 2018.
“If you look at the numbers on the toy sales, it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t just African-American families buying these toys,” said Nancy Kanter, General Manager of Disney Junior Worldwide. “It’s the broadest demographics possible.” Kanter is the one who suggested that the Doc McStuffins character should be Black.
“The kids who are of color see her as an African-American girl, and that’s really big for them,” said Chris Nee, the creator of Doc McStuffins. “And I think a lot of other kids don’t see her color, and that’s wonderful as well.”
The Doc McStuffins franchise follows in the success of the wildly popular Dora the Explorer series. Merchandise from that show, which chronicles the adventures of a young Latina girl, has topped $12 billion in revenue, and the show is one of the longest-running programs ever on Nick Jr.—with its 183rd episode at the end of the current season, it will have aired 40 episodes more than the next closest program on that channel.
Diversity amongst cartoon characters almost disappeared after Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids went off the air in 1985, but the days of including a blue-skinned or redheaded best friend (such as Skeeter on Doug and Chuckie on Rugrats) or using one voice to portray multiple characters (Howie Mandel as Bobby in Bobby’s World, Skeeter in Muppet Babies and Gizmo in Gremlins) are ending. Three girls—all Latinas—have voiced Dora, while 15-year-old Kiara Muhammad hopes to transition her success as the voice of Doc McStuffins into a larger career in showbiz.