Confronting disability with animation
01 Mar 2012 by iclover
Groundbreaking animation Punky is breaking new territory around the world, so is this the beginning of the end for the taboo that is disability in the arts? Melissa Johnson investigates.
A fantastical, imaginative medium that enthralls children across the world, animation has a huge impact on how children perceive life and their environment, through the educational singing, bright colours and moralistic messages found embedded in many cartoons.
The integrity and diversity of the many characters that have graced TV screens early on a Saturday morning have evolved over the years to incorporate a wide range of cultures, creeds, castes and ethical groundings. Where boundaries have been broken, animation has always been present in the dissenting crowd, its ingenuity a weighty thrust against the barriers of conservatism.
However, animation’s character ident parade has so far largely overlooked one pretty sizeable section of society: that of the disabled – either physically or mentally – protagonist.
Other mediums, particularly Hollywood and the wider film and TV industry, have successfully tackled society’s relationship with disability on a number of occasions. Notable performances by Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Sean Penn in I am Sam, Kristen Stewart in The Cake Eaters and John Malkovich in Of Mice and Men have eroded the taboo of actors of sound mind and body portraying individuals with physical and mental impairment.
Lifting the lid on a range of disabilities and disorders, the films that depict these issues reveal the complexities of disabilities, such as the autistic spectrum, and confront the misconceptions that commonly exist, leading to negative stereotyping of people and their disabilities.
Elsewhere in the arts, the main character of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is heavily autistic, although the first-person narrative never uses the term directly, which proved a success in bringing the issues of autism and Asperger syndrome into the mainstream.
The benefits of raising the veil on disabilities, both physical and mental, are an essential lesson for preschool children upwards. Helping to curb prejudice, minimise bullying and victimising children with disabilities, the few animation producers that tackle the issue and integrate it into their characters and plot, are to be applauded.
Although speculations can be made whether certain popular cartoon characters display certain disabilities, such issues are seldom addressed directly in children’s animation.
But things mays soon change following the growth of Irish animation, Punky. The first in the world of its kind, Monster Animation’s 2D preschool cartoon, created by Lindsay J. Sedgwick, is the first to feature a lead character with Down syndrome (DS).
The eponymous Punky is a six-year-old, fun-loving little girl who lives with her single mother, her grumpy grandmother named Cranky, her cool older brother Con, and her dog Rufus. The program portrays Punky’s experiences, daily interactions and relationships, and how she takes in the surrounding world in her unique way.
Sedgwick contributed to the first series’ story ideas, but Humf creator Andrew Brenner generated the bulk of ideas. Aimée Richardson, a 29-year-old Dublin woman who has DS, voices the lead character.
“Our aim was to make a great pre-school TV series for children dealing with diversity and disability,” Monster Animation Producer Gerard O’ Rourke exclusively told Imagine. “What we achieve is that our viewers don’t see a show about difference, they see a main character who just happens to have DS and does lots of fun stuff just like them, and gets around certain incidents in her own way…we hope that they will equate DS with a person first and the disability second.
“Often diversity is handled in ‘special programmes’, and may be perceived to be for people with disabilities only.
“We wanted to stay 100 miles away from that format.”
Charitable, not just commercial
The former CEO of Leading rights management company Target Entertainment, Alison Rayson, who has a son with DS, found a special connection with the show when Target brought the global distribution rights of the 20x7 series. Rayson hopes that preconceptions of the misunderstood genetic condition, which affects about 5.8 million people worldwide, will change, and that the quality of life for those with DS will improve.
“Children with down syndrome globally now have healthy, fulfilling lives in most countries. There are still countries, however, where a child with Down syndrome or any disability is marginalised and mistreated, and that is not acceptable.
“Our imperative with Punky is not just a commercial one for Target, but also a charitable one. We will be donating half of our sales commissions to Down Syndrome Education International, which pioneers inclusion at schools for all children with Down syndrome.”
Although Punky is the world’s first animation with a DS lead, in 2007 Aardman Animations teamed up with charity Leonard Cheshire Disability’s (LCD) and created a highly original campaign called Creature Discomforts.
Adapted from stop-motion favourite Creature Comforts, the hallmark plasticine characters were reworked with disabilities, in order to create greater awareness of certain disabilities. As with Punky, the disabled characters and the plots in Creature Discomforts were voiced by disabled people who based the plots on their own experiences.
With the shocking figure that nine out of ten disabled people in Britain believe they are the victims of prejudice or discrimination (based on research carried out by LCD charity), the ability to portray a serious issue with humour has a huge impact on how people perceive disabilities.
Steve Harding-Hill, the campaign director at Aardman said at the time of production: "This new campaign is an important step towards changing everyone's attitudes towards disability. Working on it has been an amazing experience for us all at Aardman.”
Rayson spoke at the time of the first series launch: “we want Punky to become a global ambassador for DS and for all children with learning difficulties worldwide, breaking down old-fashioned and negative stereotypes and championing the joy of individuality.”
Commissioning Editor for Young Peoples, RTÉ Television, Sheila de Courcy, said: "RTÉjr is delighted to be introducing Punky to audiences for the very first time. As Ireland's public service broadcaster, we strive to represent and reflect the diversity of growing up in Ireland in 2011.”
O’Rourke seconded that vision, telling Imagine: "We wanted it to be shown among mainstream cartoons. It's not like a special show being shown at a special time. It'll be shown in among Dora the Explorer and Peppa Pig…Punky is not a Down syndrome person, but a person with Down syndrome. If we can pass this message to our next generation through Punky, then we have created a very worthwhile TV series.”
The first series was launched in April 2011 successfully, with future hopes for a second series, “and maybe even a Christmas Special on the cards,” said O’Rourke.
You heard it here first. We’re still some way from characters with disabilities appearing merely as ‘characters’, but these are encouraging signs that we’re heading in the right direction.