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Kipo: Biraciality and Blackness

by | Sep 11, 2023 | Essay, Film Review, Op Ed, Uncategorized

During the height of the Covid-19 Pandemic, I started watching Kipo and the Age of WonderBeasts on Netflix. One of the first things that I noticed was the range of representation in the animated cast.

In the animated Netflix original Kipo, the titular character, Kipo is biracial Black and Korean. The two supporting human characters, Wolf and Benson are Black. Benson openly announces he is gay and Kipo and Wolf are debated amongst fans to be queer-coded. The rest of human society is filled with multiracial characters and peaceful racial coexistence is the norm, at least among humans. 

As a biracial Asian American growing up, it was rare for me to see this level of racial representation in film or animated children’s media. Nowadays, it’s apparent that representation of all kinds is becoming more important especially with younger audiences seeking out more content that reflects their demographic.

Kipo Fandom Wiki: Kipo And the Age of Wonderbeasts poster

To speak a little about the plot: 

Kipo has been living in the Burrow her whole life in an underground, suburban coded utopia (and quite literally sub-urban, as she lives below a city) for humans where they can protect themselves from the surface world, where mutated animals known as “mutes” dominate. When she is accidentally separated from her family in a mega-monkey mute attack, Kipo goes on a mission to get back home, meeting friends and making allies along the way. Kipo’s world is set 200 years in a post-apocalyptic future, and the range of race and sexuality are easily accepted, addressed, and normalized. The main issue of discrimination and specifically racial tension focuses on the animosity between humans and mutes. 

Racial Redesigns

Kipo and the Age of WondersBeasts was first created in 2015 by Radford Sechrist as a webcomic. It was eventually turned into an animated series by Dreamworks and Netflix, and all three seasons were released in rapid succession in 2020. 

While the TV series starts off fairly similar to the original webcomic in plot and character roles, many racial aspects of the main characters were changed. Benson was changed from a middle aged white man into a young Black teen. Wolf is redesigned from a racially ambiguous, potentially Asian character to match voice actress Syndney Mikayla ‘s Black American ethnicity. And while Kipo looks the same as she does in the webcomic, she was not originally created to be the bispecies, biracial (Blasian) character that she is in the show (Kipo was originally intended to be Korean, but her character was not redesigned to reflect changes in the show). 

Images from Kipo Fandom Wiki, From Left to Right: Benson, Wolf, Kipo

Radford Sechrist has offered up some reasons through interviews and comments on Reddit, one of them being that the producers wanted the characters all to be kids and for Kipo to be “special” somehow.

What does it mean to be special? The transformation of Kipo’s character from a mono-racial, human character to a biracial, bi-species character has done two things. Her biraciality on her human side can be read as a symbol for her dual species. Furthermore, the purple skin offers viewers a foreshadowing indication of her mute DNA. It can also be read as a way the show codes Kipo’s Blackness and status as POC.

In the history of animated film, there has been a pattern of portraying POC, particularly Black people as animals or in colors that deviate from skin tone to indicate a non-humanness to them. Tiana, the Black main character in The Princess and the Frog spends most of the movie as a green frog. Similarly, the Black main character, Lance Sterling, in Spies in Disguise turns into a pigeon.  In Soul, Joe Gardener is immediately turned into an amorphous blue blob and literally disembodied. At one point in the film, a white woman’s soul even inhabits his Black body – animating a black man’s body through the desires and thoughts of a white woman.

People of Color have historically been depicted in animation as non-human characters that appear to exist outside racial constructs. By portraying POC as whimsical colored or as creatures, the animation industry can attempt to circumvent accusations of racism while still appealing to white audiences with the humiliation and exploitation of non-white characters. These character designs of POC skirt realistic depictions and stories as a way to appeal to that demographic that historically only mattered (with their buying power): white audiences.

Despite Kipo’s mostly successful attempts to provide representation that doesn’t rely on negative stereotypes surrounding race, it does still end up using established racial tropes in animation that viewers are already familiar with in their visual vocabulary. 

Multiracial Asians in Film and Animation

The show actively plays on Kipo’s racial ambiguity to build up the postmodern, suburban utopia that Kipo grows up in: “The Burrow.” The show introduces Kipo’s father as her primary caretaker, making it immediately clear that despite Kipo’s appearances, she is indeed Black. And because Kipo’s mother’s Korean ethnicity and Part-Mute nature are not revealed until later on in the series, Kipo’s character design and story arc become heavily tied into her own racial ambiguity. Both Kipo and the audience learn more about her heritage the further we watch the series. 

In addition to Kipo, the Burrow has quite a few racially ambiguous and multi-racial characters in the background and ensemble cast including Troy Sandoval, who is also a multiracial person, this time of Asian and Latino descent. Troy too, joins Kipo on her mission of resolving tensions between the mutes and humans and ends up befriending a giant frog named Jamack.

Kipo Fandom Wiki: Troy Sandoval

The coding of ‘white’ and ‘black’ can change between the mute world and the human world.  In season 2, “The Ballad of Brunchington Beach” a mute restaurant refuses to serve humans, mirroring twentieth century American racial segregation. In the same episode, the TheaOtters put on a show stereotyping and dramatizing Team Kipo and other humans, which seems to allude to minstrel shows in which white people would put on blackface to entertain white audiences. It’s interesting to note that as these acts of racism take place against humans on the mute dominated surface world, the three main human characters in which these acts of racial violence occur are all black.

Troy and Kipo both share a multi-racial Asian identity. As multiracial people, they serve as an example of a film trope where multiracial characters act as a bridge between cultures.  Through these characters, the animation is able to represent racial differences between humans without actually addressing racial issues during the script. Furthermore, because of their status as Asian Americans, they are members of “both the targeted, racialized, group in US immigration policy and yet [part of] the least ‘colored’ group in racial debate. Asian Americans offer a charged site where American nationhood invests much of its contradictory desires and anxieties.’ The prominence of peaceful racial coexistence amongst humans as evidenced by multiracial people indicates that this is a postmodern society where humans live in a race free utopia.

The idea that multiracial people are symbols of the declining significance of race also lends itself to the future that Kipo is working towards: a world where humans and mutes thrive and live together peacefully without adversity. The explicit identification of multiracial characters in Kipo can be read as a symbol for hope, for a future where ‘color-blindness’ is the norm and racial categories are continuously blurred.

This comes with its own set of qualms, as it can ignore much of the context of racial upbringing and cultural heritage that comes with being a Person of Color, let alone one with a mixed background.        

Multiracial Ambassadors

Kipo is what we call a multiracial ambassador in Hollywood, a persona well established in film history. The multiracial ambassador is a main character who often appears in action films that is supposed to reflect the diversity of younger generations and their interests in seeing people who represent them. Instead of relying on brute strength, the contemporary action hero is distinguished by, in the words of Mary Beltran, “their natural ability to navigate in, command respect and when necessary, kick ass in a variety of ethnic communities.”

The multiracial ambassador normally operates within a multiethnic cityscape, a setting that appears frequently in Hollywood action films. It is appropriate then, that Kipo’s world is set in a reimagined Los Angeles called “Las Vistas.”

Las Vistas, Kipo Fandom Wiki

One of the key features of the Hollywood multiethnic cityscape are turf wars based on racial tensions. We see this in the gangster films in the 20s and 30s, social problem films from the 40s, and movies concerning white flight in the 50s and 60s. Non-white people were seen as violent criminals in urban centers, prompting white people to flee to the suburbs.

For those who have seen Kipo, this may ring some bells. Humans retreat to the safe societies they built below the surface, far away from the upper world where dangerous mutes live on the surface. Despite the racial diversity of the human characters in Kipo, the humans can be read as symbols for white society in relation to the mutes. The predominant narrative surrounding mutes in the Burrow is that they are uncivilized and dangerous.

But with the appearance of the multiracial ambassador, such as Kipo, characters are able to navigate complicated and nuanced racial tensions  Kipo is able to navigate relationships between humans and mutes not purely because of her biraciality, but because she is willing to listen to others and develop connections with people. However, her biracial-ness mirrors this cultural savviness.

Political Blackness

Kipo’s portrayal as both a black and Korean character also allows the world’s environment and music- a core theme in the show- to be built around her: Black and Korean musical themes and cultural references are woven through the fabric of the show. However, while this ‘cultural Blackness’ is celebrated, ‘political Blackness’ (including the persistence of racism) is disguised more as a class struggle, similar to the conflict between Mutes and humans. Kipo’s biraciality and Black identity is diluted as an appeal to mainstream pop culture, and a more fantastical interspecies conflict of humans vs. animal Mutants.

While the plot of Kipo heavily relies on considering racial tensions and discrimination, the show avoids directly acknowledging the way that Blackness affects and shapes the characters’ lives. In terms of the postmodern future, animation and science fiction tends to see human society as color-blind, yet at the same time uses racial allegory to create the ‘other’ the same way POC have been ‘othered’ and dehumanized in film history. The tensions between the Mutes and the humans can be read as an allegory for racial tensions we have had in human history and are having currently.  However, the post-racial lenses that show views of the human world in Kipo don’t acknowledge racism in human history or how it may affect this fictional future, instead focusing it on the adversity between humans and mutes.

Final Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for an animated series with beautiful world-building and well-developed characters. I think the steps it takes towards building well developed and diverse characters are highly notable and to be commended. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge the circumstances in which Kipo was created to be a multiracial character.

 Kipo builds on a legacy of multi-racial tropes in Hollywood and takes advantage of popular trending ideas of our time such as Black hip hop, anime, and LGTBQ representation to create an action TV series that is neatly packaged for younger and older audiences alike. The show skirts over the political context and histories for its human characters in favor of more light-hearted and marketable content. At the same time, it attempts to touch on complicated issues regarding racial discrimination and prejudice through Mute-human interaction.

 This post-apocalyptic, post-modern future of humans aspires to be a post-racial utopia where a multiethnic population can thrive, first in terms of multi-ethnic humans and by the end of the series, for both humans and mutes, now deemed ‘Wonderbeasts.’ 

There is further work to be done in animation yet in creating multi-ethnic characters without their identity ‘becoming’ the plot, and in acknowledging the political and cultural heritage of People of Color, but I am optimistic and look forward to the progress being made by creators in the industry.