In the past several years, there has been a greater push for greater diversity of people of varying ethnic groups, sexual affiliations, gender identities, etc in popular media. Hollywood has always been a monolith of white heterosexual patriarchy and have always been (well, for as long as my brief years alive anyway) risk-averse. The voices screaming in your ear for more visibility of women, people of color, and people within the LGBT+ community are getting harder and harder to ignore these days. At the same time, when you’ve raised generations of your audience on the same ol’ mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder Bread, throwing a little pepper into the mix could be upsetting to their palette. What’s a Hollywood executive to do? Ignore the protesting crowd and going with more of the same (and justify it using The Princess and the Frog’s respectable, but below expectations box office numbers vs. Frozen’s record-breaking commercial success)? Or do you take that chance and risk a backlash from the audience you’ve already cultivated (i. e. the fallout over Michael B. Jordan being cast as the Human Torch)?
Nickelodeon found themselves in a very similar quandary in the early 1990s. This little network that could started building up a steadily growing audience during its formative years in the mid to late 1980s. It cultivated its audience as a television network that was dedicated to kid’s programming all the time. As such, it was important that it spoke the language of kids, related to kids, and celebrated kids simply for being kids, unlike most children’s programming at the time which was mostly interested in patronizing their youthful audiences and making them want to buy toys. As Nickelodeon was growing into a bigger cultural force in the early ’90s, some couldn’t help but notice that the kids the network seemed to speak to, relate to, and celebrate were exclusively white. By then-studio executives’ own admission, they were totally cognizant of the fact that there were only featuring white kids on their programming, since the channel was only available on cable in the ’80s and the incomes that could where financially well-off enough to afford cable television at that time were typically white households. But that’s not such a good excuse anymore for a rapidly growing network (not that it was a good excuse in the first place).
So what was Nickelodeon’s programming in the early ’90s? I was too young to remember everything they aired at that time, so let’s stick with the original programs everyone remembers. Double Dare, You Can’t Do That on Television, Salute Your Shorts, Hey Dude, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Clarissa Explains It All, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Legends of the Hidden Temple, Global GUTS, and Wild & Crazy Kids (as far as I can remember anyway). The Nicktoons at the time were Rugrats, Doug, Ren & Stimpy, and Rocko’s Modern Life in development. The live-action shows represent quite a dearth in ethnicity (except Omar Gooding in Wild & Crazy Kids, I suppose). As for the Nicktoons, a very interesting standout here is Doug. The world of Doug is one in which people’s skin colors are literally diverse as the colors of the rainbow. Bluffington and its surrounding areas are melting pots of green people, blue people, pink people, purple people, orange people, etc. Considering that our protagonist Doug Funnie himself is Caucasian skin-toned and the first episode opens with him moving into Bluffington, Doug can be read as a surrogate for the audience being introduced to this strange, new ethnically integrated world. It’s particularly interesting to note that this extremely diverse town that Doug sets itself in is a mostly idyllic, almost Mayberry-esque community. This culturally diverse community is nothing to be afraid of; in fact, some of its inhabitants are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people you’ll ever meet. This point is hammered home even further when Doug meets Skeeter Valentine. Skeeter is not only blue-skinned, the show’s creator Jim Jinkins has admitted that Skeeter was supposed to be African-American.
The diversity-in-concept of Doug would serve as a precursor for Nickelodeon’s trajectory in the next couple of years. The network would go on to make pretty large efforts in diversifying their programs from the mid ’90s to the early 2000s. All That was Nickelodeon’s biggest push in that regard, which half of its cast being people of color, having a theme song performed by TLC (contrast that with Rachel Sweet and Polaris performing the themes to Clarissa Explains It All and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, respectively), an emphasis on R&B musical guests, and spinning off two of their black cast members to their own sitcom. Throughout this time, Nickelodeon would air culturally diverse shows like the aforementioned sketch comedy show and its spin-off (Kenan & Kel), My Brother and Me, Cousin Skeeter, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, Space Cases, The Journey of Allen Strange, The Brothers Garcia, Taina, and Nick Cannon’s short-lived sketch comedy show (before Wild n’ Out on MTV). As for the Nicktoons, Rugrats would follow Doug’s example by introducing Susie Carmichael to the cast and future Nicktoons (that weren’t about anthropomorphic animals) would make more efforts of being culturally diverse from the beginning. Most of them followed the Skeeter Valentine model; the minority best friend (usually black) of the white protagonist or within otherwise white (or mostly white) ensembles. Skeeter begat Gerald Johanssen in Hey Arnold!, Twister Rodriguez (and Tito) in Rocket Power, Darren Patterson in As Told By Ginger, (a slightly stereotypical) Ace Nakamura in Pelswick, AJ in The Fairly OddParents, Tucker Foley in Danny Phantom, and eventually making their characters all people of color in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Nickelodeon had its cake and ate it too with this model. It had shows and characters of different ethnic groups without ever taking the focus completely off of the Caucasian perspective of things in order to keep that part of its audience. Is it a perfect model? No, because this is a model that integrates through assimilation, which often dilutes the unique experiences of the particular ethnic group in question. But, there is a place for that type of diversity model sometimes and it’s a hell of a lot better than not representing them at all (or being racist in their representation). I think this push for diversity was a big factor in Nickelodeon becoming such a major cultural institution in the 1990s. Sure they never lost their white fans, but at this point they really became much closer to speaking for all kids like they purported to. Personally, it was just one of the many things that made the network so special to me as a kid (even moreso than the Disney Channel, Fox Kids, WB, ABC One Saturday Morning, or Cartoon Network). I hope Marvel thinks that over if any of their executives are wondering if all the hate mail they’re getting for Michael B. Jordan is worth it.
Today at the summer school program that I work with, one of my students, a young black girl, was flipping through various magazines expressing frustration that she can’t find any black girls in it. Through four magazines, she only found one makeup ad with Janelle Monae, which was Photoshopped and lightened so much that she initially mistook her for white. Just think of what it would have meant to her to see her reflection shown with the same beauty as all the blond-haired blue-eyed women that filled the pages of the magazines she was looking at.