Snapchat’s “Anime” Filter Belies its Commitment to Diversity

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Snapchat’s new “anime” filter, released Tuesday, has many users outraged with some even calling for a boycott of the social media platform. The issue is that its new filter, which morphs user’s faces, bears less resemblance to actual anime characters than it does characters from racist cartoons. It elongates teeth, giving users a slim-lipped, bucktooth smile, rounds cheeks, and makes their eyes, well, squinty.

Twitter user @tequilafunrise was one of the first to publicly point out the problem:

Comparisons to Mickey Rooney’s famous role as I. Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s came quickly, and are, I think, obvious. This side-by-side shows the actor (right) as he looked during the film’s production and (left) as he looked while in full makeup for the film. Rooney’s performance and the design of his character are now infamous examples of “yellow face,” dressing up in stereotypes of Asian culture and appearance, in Hollywood.

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Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s via NY Daily News

Asian-American cartoonist Gene Luen Yang addressed these cartoons in his recent book American Born Chinese. Again, the stereotypical buckteeth, squinting eyes and, in an echo of Rooney’s performance, broad, exaggerated accent. Yang’s book, a graphic novel that deals with issues of immigration, racism and assimilation, uses the character Chin-Kee (pictured below) to shows the kind of insidious staying power these cartoons and yellow face performances have had — and continue to have in Hollywood and in contemporary popular culture.

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Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, page 48.

Snapchat’s new “anime” filter bears a strong resemblance to Rooney’s character and to other anti-Asian cartoons. On the other hand, what it doesn’t look much like is anime. If you don’t watch a lot of Japanese cartoons, take a look at some of these collages fans have made of their favourite characters to a get a sense of the variety of character types and drawing styles common to the medium. But even without clicking those links, it should be obvious that anime — Japanese hand-drawn or computer animation — has nothing to do with what Snapchat release Tuesday. Rather, the filter is, as @tequilafunrise pointed out, clearly based on Western racist cartoons and caricatures.

“Anime” Is Not the Only Problematic Filter On Snapchat

This is not the first time that Snapchat has been under fire for racist caricature in its filters. Four months ago it released a “Bob Marley” filter for April 4th (aka 420), which darkened users’ skin, changed the shape of their nose and eyes, and gave them dreadlocks. Snapchat told CNN then that “Millions of Snapchatters have enjoyed Bob Marley’s music, and we respect his life and achievements.[The lens] gives people a new way to share their appreciation for Bob Marley and his music.”

As with the “Bob Marley” filter controversy, the company has again declined to comment in detail, saying only that the “anime” filter was meant to be fun.

Katie Zhu, writing on Medium, says that the new filter is just another incident in Snapchat’s history of poor decision making and racial insensitivity. She plans to delete the app and implores others to do the same. It’s not just the “anime” and “Bob Marley” filters, she says, many of their most popular filters engage in whitewashing. “Even for those filters that aren’t as overtly offensive, they subtly reinforce white superiority and reveal the lack of diversity in the product’s creators. Many of the lenses (flower crown, butterfly crown) whitewash users’ skin and lighten their eye color.” She goes on to say that

I’ve deleted Snapchat. I’d urge you to do the same. They’ve repeatedly demonstrated their blasé attitude towards issues of diversity, inclusion and representation. I don’t know what their diversity numbers look like, but even if there are people of color working there, they’re clearly not (a) in positions where they feel comfortable speaking up or (b) their input isn’t valued at the same level as some white male exec.”

Who Makes the Product and Who Approves It Matters

So why has Snapchat twice released filters that should have been flagged for violating the platform’s own terms of service? And why has it continued to seemingly misunderstand user complaints? Zhu’s pointed question about the composite of Snapchat’s staff is key here: it is in fact overwhelmingly white and male. Last year co-founder Evan Spiegel told Recode that

“This is sort of the challenge, and I should have exact percentages for you but we just don’t think about diversity in terms of numbers that way. And I think that one of the perks of being a really small company is, from the beginning, we got to think about diversity, so we didn’t end up with a situation where, 10 years down the line, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to fix my numbers.'”

Spiegel’s comment that he “just [doesn’t] think about diversity in terms of numbers” is revealing. The notion that there’s something wrong with thinking about diversity “in terms of numbers” is one of the challenges that HR practitioners face in setting up diversity hiring and training initiatives. Simply reminding managers that unconscious biases play a role in their decision-making can’t remove those biases wholesale, and it doesn’t do much in terms of decisively changing company culture. Diversity programs require concrete data, planning and commitment.

Only last month Facebook, a company which has previously committed to diversifying its workforce, blamed the educational pipeline for its failure to meet hiring goals. In particular, technical roles — among the highest paying and most fundamentally influential — are the hardest for women and racial minorities to break into at Facebook and many other firms. It’s these sorts of roles that determine how the product works and what it looks like. It’s these workers who build filters at Snapchat or support features at Twitter and build the algorithms that make the apps we use work. When these roles are overwhelmingly filled by white men, we get products that work for a narrow segment of the population and in some cases — like that of Snapchat’s filter problem — that actively alienate or hurt people.

The “anime” filter is another public relations disaster that the company seems determined to brush off, but beyond that, it’s an incident that has hurt and in some cases permanently alienated users. Although its user base continues to grow at an astonishing rate, Snapchat can ill afford to continue this pattern when more established competitors like Instagram have begun to imitate its core product and when Snapchat itself is trying hard to lure advertisers, recruiters and brands. It’s hard to do business on a platform that keeps offending the very user base that people with money to spend want to target.

What Snapchat’s “anime” filter does though, above all, is cast doubt on the company’s claims to respect its users and to want a more diverse workforce. It’s hard to rebuild trust and credibility after incidents like this. Snapchat execs and spokespeople can expect to be questioned about their filters and their workforce diversity numbers for months to come.

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