The Eyes Have It
When I first set out to learn figure drawing, like most novices, I picked up one of those handily remedial "How to Draw" books. (I love it when they put exactly what you're trying to do in the title.) This one was a guide on how to draw and design figures in what would probably be deemed the Marvel comic style. Basically realistic...but with bigger muscles and titties. One part that stuck out to me as jarring though, had nothing to do with how exaggerated the body was, but how to draw the eyes. It had one illustration of a round "western" eye and a narrower almond shaped eye. It had an arrow pointing to the narrow eye and a blurb that said "This eye shape is a good way to suggest that your character is a villain".
I was brought up a bit short. I know now they were meaning to suggest, sorta, that physical characteristics suggest a personality, so if a person has a "pointy" personality, their body should include pointy shapes. But that's not how that comes across. At all. I looked at that eye and thought "..but what if that's just how your face looks?"
Nobody can help what their face does, or what it looks like. I am generally described as a likeable, pleasant person, but I am also stricken with chronic resting bitch-face. It makes people avoid eye contact with me and makes them hesitant to volunteer for group projects with me, but at the end of the day, mine is a white, round eyed resting bitch face. My face, its expression, or genetic characteristics have never resulted in horrific threats or slurs spray painted in my driveway. Even the men I have seen with what I would totally describe as a "punchable face" have never been physically assaulted just because it looks like punching his face would be a satisfying experience. Absolutely nothing justifies deadly violence like that displayed in this past week's Atlanta shooting. It would be easy to pass the buck and point the finger at certain individuals who have gone out of their way to stoke fear, racism, and hatred against a particular group of people. But the blessing and directive of a few powerful racists doesn't just inspire murder off hand. It takes years of poisonous stories. As artists and storytellers, we have to ask ourselves what subtle cues are we perpetuating that might be contributing to negative biases or stereotypes?
It's a delicate tightrope to walk when designing a character. Whether designing a character of a particular ethnicity, character type, or both. Every line, every feature is a choice. You're not a casting director choosing a real, unique human who's basically what you want to portray a character. You are creating a character from scratch. Everything has to visually clue the audience into some detail about the individual -their past, their personality, their intentions. But none of us create in a vacuum. Every illustrator and animator brings their own biases into the creation process, just as every audience member is going to bring their own experience and identity to how they receive a character. Character designers have to design a character that will serve both story and audience, and to do so, they have to imagine who their audience is. What they look like, how they feel, what their life experience is. This is why it's important not just to have diverse characters on screen, but diverse designers and animators creating them.
Picking apart the social cues, symbolism, and general cultural baggage that crop up in the process of character creation can be a messy business. Western white biases have become so codified into the visual language of film and animation that it is difficult to parse what is truly universal human perception and what has become globally accepted symbolism or visual cues as a result either of colonialism or just the fact that white men have dominated the media for so long.
Still, why does the trope-y design of a narrow-eyed villain seem so ubiquitous? Why is a large round(ish) eye a measure of global beauty standards? Why are we inclined to think a certain thing about a face based on eye shape? As babies, we are wired to seek faces, starting with the eyes. Our understanding of how to read facial expressions begins there. According to one Cornell study, we narrow our eyes "to enhance our visual discrimination by blocking light and sharpening focus, leading this eye shape to be consistently associated with emotions related to discrimination, such as disgust or suspicion." Conversely, "we open our eyes to expand our broader field of vision in situations related to sensitivity, such as fear or awe." Perhaps since we are social creatures if we see a person who looks like they themselves are perceiving danger, we in turn are signaled that there must be some danger to look out for? Personally, I think it just seems like bad biology to assign your source of an unnamed fear to the person who just clued you in that there is danger about to happen.
Another contributing factor could be that babies have big eyes in ratio to the rest of their head and body, so there could be some of that feeding into the notion. Many of us are biologically inclined to want to nurture and care for things that remind us of babies, so it infuses into our subconscious that if you have big round eyes like a baby you must be sweet and innocent and someone I should want to do well in life. Nowhere is this more evident than the pie-eyed Disney animation aesthetic: Doe-eyed princesses twirling and singing about their true loves to any also-large-eyed woodland creature willing to lend an ear. (The large-eyed baby look is probably also something that contributes to our infantilization of princesses and women at large, but that's a whole 'nother blog post.) This aesthetic, along with the large-eyed Fleischer style, were metabolized by Asian creators of manga comics and animation throughout the later half of the 20th century. Even thought the original creators and audience of manga is an Asian one, the Western ideal of a large round eye equated with beauty and innocence seems to still be pervasive, while narrow eyed characters get relegated to the roles of antagonists and morally ambiguous characters, if not outright villains.
Which brings me to Raya and the Last Dragon, which could not have been released at a more fitting or needed time. In an era when Asian Americans are being subjected to a spike of rampant violence and racial discrimination, a movie is released that not only celebrates South Asian culture, but preaches active forgiveness of violence and a call for us to actively take the emotional risk to trust one another in order to bring peace back to the world, even after certain parties have betrayed and inflicted horrible pain on others.
One of the things I noticed and appreciated about the character designs was not only the beautiful spectrum of skin tones, but the diversity of eye shapes. Sure, the villain still had very angular eyes, but so did the main protagonist! Technically-secondary-but-still-titular protagonist. Sisudatsu, the dragon of Raya and the Last Dragon, is able to assume human form throughout the film as one of her acquired magical powers. Her human form is heavily inspired by the actress/rapper who voices her, Awkwafina. And I love every single thing about her. I love her small, almond, short-lashed eyes. I love that she and Mad Madam Mim seem to share the same hair dresser, with her purple, tousled, beach wavy hair. I don't know if Sisu's tunic design with it's long sleeves was specifically a style that references a specifically South Asian clothing design, or if her tunic is over-sized to make her seem child-like and innocent, or both. Either way, I LOVE that the animators found a way to convey child-like innocence in a way that had nothing to do with eye shape! In addition to being curious about humans, Sisu is the embodiment of human trust, and the catalyst for global change. She is constantly trying to get the warring humans to work together and trust each other, constantly spreading goodwill and insisting that they bring gifts whenever they meet the leader of a new tribe. Sisu constantly stops the action to recognize humanity: To mourn the lost, to oogle and google at an adorable baby, to look into the eyes of someone who actively has a weapon trained on her and say "I trust you". Even though it costs her dearly. This in turn inspires Raya, who also pays dearly. But then it inspires Kumari, who is able to bring healing, restore balance, and break the spell that turned humans everywhere to stone.
The main motif of the film is that is up to all of us to take steps to rewrite the paradigm. Up to all of us to trust, and in turn, show that we are trustworthy. And that we're willing to right a wrong, whether or not we are personally responsible for it, whether we brought it about by action or inaction.
We have to find a way to dissociate certain physical characteristics with particular moral virtues and vices. What are we telling Asian children if we imply that if you have slanty eyes, you're bad? For that matter, what is the lazy dichotomy of light=good, dark=bad telling dark skinned children about themselves? We owe humanity better symbolism, better stories than this. We have to be the ones to take the first steps in looking at our stories critically, and then finding a way to say what we really mean, not just using the limited palette of words, archetype, or symbolism we've been handed.