At the end of 2021, Disney released its latest blockbuster Encanto that brought, and still does, enchantment to the young and less young all over. As I scrolled through social media pages online, I noticed parents posting videos of their children pointing to a screen at Mirabel, the lead character, and then pointing at themselves. This was so so compelling and showed the power of seeing and recognising yourself, physically, in a story and work of mainstream pop culture. It then took me back to my own childhood.
Claudia Grant (also called LaSalle) was one of the rare 1980s black anime characters, that featured in French children’s mainstream pop culture, when I was growing up. What made her special was that she was, actually, not. Her character was no different to the others nor did her being black define her in the world she evolved in.
Grant was a black heroin in the first TV series, of Japanese anime, Robotech also called Super Dimension Fortress (SDF) Macross, in the mid 1980s. She was an officer on board the bridge of the SDF-1 Macross, with best friend Misa Hayase and others. As the second in command to the captain, her duties included keeping order among the crew on the bridge. She also had a hot and cheeky boyfriend, Roy Fokker, who was a fighter pilot.
From the late 1970s, Japanese anime brought iconic characters to the screen and into pop culture […]This made them universally appealing to the western European audiences.
Japanese anime in France in the 1980s
Grant appeared in France, where I was born and grew up, in the mid 1980s. At the time, French kids TV was flooded with animated cartoon series some from Western Europe (France, Italy and Portugal), others from the US; but the bulk came primarily from Japan. Japanese animation dominated kids’ TV programmes taking a whole generation by storm – myself included.
From the late 1970s, Japanese anime brought iconic characters to the screen and into pop culture with their compelling life stories that wove together classic western and eastern mythology, tales and culture. This made them universally appealing to the western European audiences. Or did it?
Many of the most iconic characters were, still are today, depicted with porcelain white skin, Western facial features and hair colours that resonated strongly with the French audience. Candy (1978), Lady Oscar (1979) or later Sailor Moon (1992) first spring to mind. However, others, such as successful franchises such as mythology and martial arts series Dragon Ball (1984) and Saint Seiya (1986), sports ones football Captain Tsubasa (1981) or volleyball Attacker You! (1984) are primarily set in Japan or an imaginary world inspired heavily by Eastern Asian influences, but feature characters that looked like and appealed to the Western eye.
Whether it’s your gender, cultural heritage, racial group or whether you have physical or mental health condition or an impairment that means there are differences in your life experience to the rest of most people living around you, seeing yourself portrayed in stories is important.
Seeing yourself and identifying with the characters in TV anime characters
Like any other French child at the time, I watched, absorbed and relished losing myself in these characters’ stories. I would imagine myself as a … well, friend of the lead that I would weave into the story. Since I hadn’t been portrayed in them, a young black heroin, I had to invent one for myself. Even in my fantasies, I was always watching someone else’s story unravel from the side lines.
Naysayers will say, “Oh puhlease! The character could be anybody!” Well, actually, that’s not true. As a child, you’re seeing someone that looks anything like yourself onscreen. Think about it…
Regardless of your gender, cultural heritage, racial group or whether you have physical or mental health condition or an impairment that means there are differences in your life experience to the rest of most people living around you, seeing yourself portrayed in stories is important. This is even more important when you are a child AND from a minority group. It feeds into your imaginary world and the possibilities of how you identify yourself or who you believe could become in the world around you. Seeing yourself portrayed on screen, a video game, a play or a book where you can be seen by others, plays a great part in your self-development. A character from a story can often impact and resonate more, than an athlete or a musician. Although, these two do have positive impacts, in a different way.
I remember how I felt the first time she appeared on the TV screen of our home in Paris. A sense of relief and tension released from my shoulder blades and an imperceptible inner spark manifested. I saw myself, finally, knowing that I was seen, as a human in this world and not as the existing stereotyped depictions I too often saw. I envisaged the person I could see myself becoming or aspire to be in my fantasies.
When you are not from a ‘minority group’[…], you don’t have to think about your colour (in my case) or any other feature that makes you stand out […] No external gaze will mark you, because there is nothing to think about when you are looked at or heard. There probably never will.
Claudia Grant knocked down stereotypes of black people depicted in animation at the time
Her character was none of the following: a side character that belonged to another part of the world that the main characters visited when on an exotic adventure, a hyper sexualised female, an entertainer, a singer, a buffoon, a villain, a drug addict, a slave, a servant, an emissary from a ridiculously rich country (near or far away), nor a sidekick existing (and not evolving) in the shadows of the main characters.
© Courtesy of Toei Animation and FUNimation
Most black characters in 1980/90/00s pop culture, were very stereotypical in design – looks, personality and storyline. Famous French speaking comic titles like Tintin, Bibi Fricotin, or Spirou and Fantasio as well as characters from iconic anime series, like Mr Popo in Dragon Ball and Mammy Two Shoes in Tom and Jerry cartoon series featured were ‘memorable’ black characters for all the wrong reasons. Most characters had extra big lips contrasting with their faces, over exaggerated idiosyncrasies such as heavily accented speech, voice patterns and facial features, that were designed to make their blackness a thing.
When you are not from a ‘minority group’ (racial, gender, cultural, physical or mental), you don’t have to think about your colour (in my case) or any other feature that makes you stand out, especially if like me, this happens before you even speak. No external gaze will mark you, because there is nothing to think about when you are looked at or heard. There probably never will.
This external gaze that is found in pop culture often depicts one as different and ‘abnormal’, if the stereotypes are anything to go by. It is this gaze that reinforces the feeling of difference and inadequacy. It marks you as one that doesn’t belong when you thought you did.
Considering how you see yourself portrayed, particularly in your formative years, it can affect your mental health in different ways: how you perceive your body, what you look like and your place in society. These early impressions of yourself, or what you could be in the future, are usually the most memorable. Most children, and adults, just want to be seen and treated equally. As a child, you don’t want your differences to be called out in overly stereotyped was, nor do you want to be defined by your difference.
In both the manga and the anime, Grant, is portrayed ‘normally’ with no extra ‘special’ feature. She sported a natural cropped afro, she had dark coconut skin, a slim figure and delicate features. Although, she did look different and pretty in her own way, her appearance blended with that of her fellow white characters. The Macross series also seemed to have a thing for good looking people all round, both men and women.
What set Grant apart from other black anime characters of the time was that she didn’t have to deal with the fact that she was black, because being black was neither a defining attribute of her character nor role in the overall story. She was another integral part of it and that’s what mattered. She’s as confident, thoughtful and professional as the other characters with an equally solid and multidimensional storyline.
Grant’s character showed that a black person could have an active part in the unfolding of the narrative of a city or country where she was not part of the dominant group. She had a job, not in the shadows, friends and a love interest. Watching her evolve allowed me to dream that I could also experience an extraordinary or ordinary story that was worth reading, watching or even fantasising about.
For my part, I must admit, Claudia Grant made me feel it was ok being black in my world, because she was portrayed as ‘normal’ and therefore I didn’t see myself as an anomaly in society. In fact, I was part of it, I belonged and I was seen.