Jennifer Bloomquist, Gettysburg College – Linguistic Minstrelsy in Children’s Animated Film

On Gettysburg College Week: Animated movies play an important role in the lives of children.

Jennifer Bloomquist, professor of linguistics and Africana studies, determines explains why the representation of the characters on the screen matters.

Jennifer Bloomquist is Associate Provost for Faculty Development & Dean of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Programs.  Prior to her appointment to the Office of the Provost in June, 2017, Jen chaired the Africana Studies Program for 9 years starting in 2007, excluding a couple semesters while she was on sabbatical leave.  A Washington, D.C. native, Jen attended Clarion University in Pennsylvania where in 1995 she earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature. She received both her master’s and doctoral degrees in linguistics from the University at Buffalo in 1998 and 2003 respectively. Jen began teaching at Gettysburg College in January 2002, first in the English department, and then on the faculty of the Africana Studies Program as the college’s first Derrick K. Gondwe Fellow from 2003-2005.  Additionally, she has served as the co-chair of the Linguistic Society of America’s Committee on Ethnic Diversity in Linguistics. Her work has been published in First Language, Journal of Pragmatics, Multilingua, the Southern Journal of Linguistics, American Speech, and the Journal of African American Studies. Jen’s research focuses on African American Englishes in the regional context; she is currently at work on a project with Oxford University Press, From Dumbo to Donkey: Linguistic Minstrelsy in Children’s Animated Films. (due out in 2023) that focuses on the representation of African American English and its role in the construction of ethnicity in children’s animated films.

Linguistic Minstrelsy in Children’s Animated Film

Media scholars have demonstrated that film serves as a cultural mirror for society at large. Even more often than live action films, animated movies serve the dual purpose of reflecting and teaching value systems, given they are largely directed toward an audience of children. We often look to animated films to introduce children to social or developmental situations and to teach moral and ethical lessons. This reliance on animated films uniquely positions the genre in contemporary society as a barometer of our cultural ethos.  

Children are shown a variety of relationships, gender roles, and conflicts between good and evil through animated characters; it is upon these characters and situations that they begin to build their own belief systems. Their expectations for a range of behaviors and social roles are formed (in part) by watching animated films.  

The purpose of my research is to provide a history of African American characters and characterizations in children’s feature-length animated films to examine the ways in which Blackness has been constructed in children’s media over the past sixty years. I focus particularly on the ways in which Blackness has been represented via the voicing of characters that either are African American, (portrayed as humans) or are suggested to be African American (non-human characters who are voiced by African American actors).  These films have included the social and political sentiments of their time periods. The representations of Black people have been framed by the mainstream ideologies of the eras in which the films were created. 

My research aims to analyze the impact of animated representations of Blackness on children’s understanding of ethnicity. Today, parents embrace animated films as a safe alternative to other media streams; however, even contemporary representations of ethnicity in animation mischaracterize Blackness in ways that are often unconsciously affirmed and validated by parents.

  1. Steven Smith