Self portrait of Jen Cram

How has representation evolved or shifted during your own career in the fields of animation or game design, with regards to gender, race, class, neuro diversity, et cetera?

I started in the industry in 2013; that's when I finished my coursework for my graduate degree. I worked in adult TV animation in Atlanta, GA. I can't necessarily speak to an increase in representation in adult animation. But I get excited when I see shows for young people like Craig of the Creek and Steven Universe, which was an incredible win for self-exploration and coming to know oneself. I think about those shows as really exciting examples of where the industry can be going, in terms of helping the world become more empathetic and understanding. 

People from younger demographics, who are still forming their worldview, are a great audience to start having these conversations, in an age-appropriate way. It’s especially useful if they are not already exposed to a variety of people in their day-to-day lives. This is where representation in media can really fill in the gaps, not just in animation, but also children's books and the shows that children watch their parents watching: seeing people represented as real humans with real feelings, emotions and struggles. When you're growing, your brain is full of those open neural connections, just waiting to accept information so it can organize it. And then in puberty, those neural connections get streamlined a little bit—if we haven't used a part, we're going to cut it off. So it’s an incredibly powerful thing to do, especially for demographics who are going through that crucial developmental period, where they learn: Who are the people I care about and want to take care of? It’s important to expand that as much as we possibly can to grow empathy. The strength of animation is that it’s inherently captivating to children, to see that they can draw something and then that drawing can come to life; that it can move and talk and sing and show emotion. And so, to combine that strength of animation with the power of positive or accurate representation…that’s exciting. 

Video games are also an incredible tool and fertile ground for expanding representation. We are seeing more and more video games that take on challenging, representational themes. Tell Me Why is a recent game that discusses the experience of a trans man coming home and making peace with his past and his twin sister. It’s a narrative-based story with a supernatural element that’s used as a metaphor to explore the territory of what life is like for other people. That’s a delicate thing for a studio to do with sensitivity, and it has been a challenge that studios have shied away from in the past. There’s a desire but also a fear of doing it wrong. But we live in an age now where it's fully possible to fix a game after its release. It's almost expected in the gaming industry that there are going to be patches for mistakes, and those topics may feel less “risky.” Tell Me Why is released episodically, so the makers have an opportunity to garner feedback while they’re still developing the future of the series. If they do make an error, there are ways to correct it. Thanks to social media, studios and creators now have access to feedback from the people that their work impacts. That was not necessarily the case when I first entered the industry. 

Based on these trajectories of change that you've observed, what do you think is the future of representation in these fields—not only with regards to the content that's being produced, but the career opportunities?

It’s important to understand the history of animation, specifically in the United States, and to understand that the people who have historically had a voice are those that the system wanted to hear from at the time. But the system is evolving. The internet has democratized creativity, giving independent creatives a much greater ability to self-publish and find their audience. We’re now seeing outstanding feedback for shows that are led by women and nonbinary folks. Steven Universe is an excellent example of a successful show that got five seasons and movie. Rebecca Sugar, a nonbinary creator, got the opportunity to tell a story using these characters, and to build a team around her that had their own experiences and abilities to contribute to these stories. Seeing more and more properties like that, and the positive response they receive, gives me hope that studios will continue to invest in the stories of creators who have a different worldview and a different lived experience than the one that has historically dominated our media and culture since the dawn of television. 

In order to continue to push forward, we not only need to represent the lived experiences of underrepresented people, but also build our ability to do it authentically, through the employment of people who have lived those experiences. Thinking back to The Princess and the Frog, which came out in 2009, there was some really cool artwork and music that went into that film, but also some unfortunate stereotyping. It was a lesson on what happens when we try to make movies that help people feel included without representing those people in the creative team. It's possible that there may have been BIPOC people on the team who did not feel safe enough to say, ‘actually, this might be problematic,’ or ‘we could do that this way instead.’ When you hire people, helping them feel included requires a litmus test of whether or not they feel safe enough to speak freely about the direction that the production is going in. That is something that studios are continuing to learn. As the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access conversation continues to gain momentum in corporate environments, I’m hopeful that the majority of studios will catch up and not tokenize people. 

How are Moore Animation & Game Arts faculty preparing students to work and succeed in this evolving industry? 

Well, that’s why I'm here at Moore. It’s a golden opportunity to prepare the next generation of creators whose voices our industry desperately needs. A huge part of that, from my perspective—and something that our department chair Stephen Wood prioritizes—is to empower students to feel confident raising their voice. This includes helping them what to expect of professional working conditions and to understand their rights, their responsibilities and their power, and to confidently advocate for themselves. If you look at the past and you see an absence of voices that look or sound like you, that doesn't mean that there weren't talented, dedicated creative people at the time doing exactly what you want to do. They just weren't given the megaphone. That’s our mission: to hand you the megaphone, and to raise up the voices of those who came before and remember and find their stories. This was a gap in my education when I entered the industry. Some studios have the best intentions, but new people are naive and naiveté often gets taken advantage of, even if unintentionally. My goal is to reduce that naiveté among our students and help them navigate a course of action, if something doesn't feel like a great fit. 

So how do we prepare students for that? We work with the Locks Career Center, whose staff are incredibly dedicated to putting students in touch with alumni who have experience in the field and engaging employers who are supportive of our mission and dedicated to fostering this community of creatives on their way into the industry. We also provide role models for our students by bringing in people who work in the field, who are not afraid to talk about these issues and their experiences. They can candidly discuss: What is it like to work in this industry, as a woman, as a nonbinary person, as a trans person, as a person of color, as a person who is disabled, as a neuro-divergent person? What are the struggles I may have, and what are the tools at my disposal to manage those struggles? Our department produces an annual event called Game Changers and last year, we focused on women and nonbinary folks who created their own studios. One of the speakers said, “I was really tired of feeling like I couldn't get a seat at the table. So I built my own table.” At other schools, you may not have this conversation. It’s an incredible strength of our community that we prepare our students to say, “Here's how I expect to be treated and appreciated in this industry.”