Content warning: mentions of sexual abuse and rape.
While much of the entertainment industry seems to be at a pause, animators everywhere continue to work behind their screens and working stations without interruption. Live-action productions — endeavors that require physical contact and varying degrees of intimacy — are mostly at a standstill due to an ongoing pandemic. But the sudden realization that cartoons cannot get sick seems to have encouraged studios’ newfound interest in more animated properties. Animation has completely saved projects, and the pandemic may have encouraged unexpected companies to open their doors to the medium.
Independent film darling A24 recently announced that they picked up Hazbin Hotel, an musical-comedy animated web series that features adult and horror themes. A24’s sudden interest in animation should be exciting news, but instead, it’s sparking some exhausting but necessary conversations about transparency, lack of accountability, and accessibility for marginalized creators in the industry.
Created by Vivienne Medrano, Hazbin Hotel focuses on the princess of Hell, Charlie, who’s determined to run a hotel for rehabilitating and comforting the realm’s inhabitants.
This announcement faced backlash from critics of the series, which of course, was soon followed by confrontation from Hazbin Hotel’s passionate fans. Much of the aversion for the show stems from criticism towards the series’ creator, as Medrano has a strange history of controversies associated with her. Although she has implied she no longer condones what she has done in the past, this messy history continues to loom over her. Other critiques stem from the problematic aspects of the show itself. For example, Angel Dust is a character with a rather detailed biography that reveals a history of partaking in sex work and constant drug abuse, all the while bearing the very name of the drug that caused his death. Critics see Angel Dust as a character created in poor taste, while Medrano stresses that the character is more nuanced beyond what has been shown of him so far.
Ultimately though, the drama surrounding A24’s nabbing of Hazbin Hotel does not entirely lie on the series, its fandom, or even on the shoulders of the skeletons in the creator’s closet. Instead, A24’s decision lands in the midst of an ongoing discussion about how certain groups of marginalized creatives keep getting thrown under the bus.
To be frank, it’s not always clear what ultimately greenlights a show. Did Hazbin Hotel have to go through the traditional pitching process, or was it favored by someone at A24 who took interest in it? It is quite clear that Hazbin Hotel is very different from the rest of the company’s portfolio, so perhaps A24 is seeking to build a new audience. These are reasonable questions, but they can feel frustrating to ask when smaller creators are usually advised to undergo tons of work and tests of patience to get discovered. And all the while, it’s never really clear what lands and what doesn’t.
For instance, Nickelodeon’s cartoon pitching program has had mixed results, with some projects never seeing the light of day, while others are revisited or picked up by other companies years later. (For instance, the network allegedly mishandled Glitch Techs, and still branded Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling as their own. Both of which eventually found homes at Netflix.) But this also begs another question: if Medrano is able to succeed even without a squeaky clean past, what does that mean for others?
Glitch Techs Season 2 now on Netflix. #glitchtechs @netflix @netflixfamily @nickanimation @nickelodeon #animation #videogames @DanMilano @xXIbgrahamXx @rickyjhurtado @montiray @crayonmonsters @bradbreeck #RenewGlitchTechs pic.twitter.com/syxmjVaJKy
— LegitEricRobles (@LegitEricRobles) August 25, 2020
In July, the very confusing “cannibal discourse” became a trending topic on Twitter. No, it wasn’t a decently philosophical conversation about Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, starring Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen. Instead, it was begun by very public observations from a former Cartoon Network illustrator, who made some concerning remarks in endorsement of cannibalism. The virality of this hit so far and wide beyond the art community, that it prompted commentary from the likes of someone like Youtube personality Jenny Nicholson.
Meanwhile, a revival of The Ren & Stimpy Show will be heading to Comedy Central. The original animated series holds nostalgic value to a number of members of the animation community, infamously remembered for its dark and gross humor. But John Kricfalusi, the series’ original creator, has been accused of predatory behavior and sexual abuse of minors, further cemented and validated by an extremely disturbing exposé featured on Buzzfeed News. Although Comedy Central swears Kricfalusi will have no involvement with this anticipated revival, it is hard to remove any association that he conceived with Ren & Stimpy to begin with.
And on top of all that, lest we not forget that John Lasseter’s fall from Pixar was quickly cushioned by opportunities elsewhere.
All these instances bring up the issue of how some creators can fumble and yet continue to thrive in their career, and others simply can’t. There is an undeniable double standard that exists in the industry, one that puts particular pressure on many marginalized creators and Black creators in particular. Meanwhile, non-Black creatives often have the privilege of not having to even think about such hurdles. How many times are non-Black creatives allowed to fail upwards?
A means of supporting Black Lives Matter that has been popularly spread online is to channel energy into boosting Black businesses and creators. Black creatives continue to face disadvantages and are not finding visibility as they should be in the media and entertainment industry. At first, highly visible artists and producers in the field tweeted out opportunities to Black creatives in the form of free portfolio reviews, pitch sessions, and other opportunities catered to raising the visibility of Black artists. But in time, those creatives who did inquire, pitched ideas, and applied to these numerous channels now dishearteningly feel like they have been ghosted, and have not heard back from places that very vocally proclaimed they cared about uplifting Black voices.
So disappointed to hear so many black artists were hit up for opportunities post-May and then ghosted by all of them. Not only were many blk artists forced to work hard on portfolio during a very traumatizing time, but a lot of them also ended up with nothing to show for it.
— ☀🦁 BlackLory @ burnout dogs time (@blackloryy) August 4, 2020
Black Lives Matter is not a trend, but some brands, corporations, and even individuals have outed themselves as treating the movement as a way to just capitalize on and advertise themselves. It is hard not to suggest that the recent attempts to diversify the field have simply been performative. And their attempts were made worse by the fact that many Black creatives simply felt unprepared to suddenly pitch their work in the midst of the collective trauma brought about by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. And since the height of the protests, those same recruiters, artists, and companies have not consistently continued to put out calls to increase Black visibility. They simply hopped on the trend of the moment, and then quietly moved on.
With all that said and done, it feels like it’s particularly ill-timed that Hazbin Hotel was pushed into the limelight now, especially after a huge call for specifically Black-lead work didn’t seem to materialize in many new projects. There remains a huge disconnect between the decision makers of the industry and what is best for the consumers and the creatives that work in it. More Hazbin Hotel may be what its fans want, but is it something that the industry needs right now? And why?
Legitimate criticism deserves a place in every conversation, especially given that Hazbin Hotel should rightfully be held to a higher standard now that it has been greenlit to be a potentially much bigger production. Hazbin Hotel might have been unfortunately caught in the crossfire of some greater conversations that beg for change in the animation industry. But at the end of the day, the crux of the problem lies with the gatekeepers who decide which ideas pass or not. Numerous factors may influence these decisions, but it is baffling to keep witnessing the consistent failures that go against the initial promises of opening the door for more marginalized creatives. How can the industry open up its doors if it cannot even read the room?