As Indiewire‘s Inkoo Kang noted, Tip is “DreamWorks’ first human protagonist of color since 1998’s The Prince of Egypt and only the studio’s second female protagonist after Monsters vs. Aliens (its third if we’re counting The Croods).”
In the film, adapted from the Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday, Tip befriends Oh, voiced by Jim Parsons, a wayward member of the Boov race who arrives on a spaceship seeking interstellar refuge from an enemy. Tip, who is on a quest to find her mother (voiced by Jennifer Lopez) and Oh, who is trying to help his race avoid destruction, form the unlikeliest of friendships.
Tip is a significant character not just because she is voiced by Rihanna, but because she is a young, non-white heroine — a rarity in the film world, animated or not. A 2013 study from the University of Southern California foundthat “across 100 top-grossing films of 2012, only 10.8% of speaking characters are black.” It also found that “the percentage of underrepresented characters in animated movies remained below 13%.”
A turning point in animated features for people of color: Apart from Disney’s Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, black people have also often been given roles as stereotyped characters — or non-human ones — in animated films. Chris Rock, who has voiced a zebra (Madagascar) and a donkey (Shrek), joked at the 2012 Academy Awards:
“I love animation because in the world of animation, you can be anything you wanna be. If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a short, wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra. You can’t play white? My God!”
Black and brown girls need heroes. Representation in media is critical for minority communities looking to see themselves and their lives reflected in culture, and the issue extends beyond animated films. A 2014 review of the top 100 domestic grossing sci-fi and fantasy films (as reported by Box Office Mojo) reported that only “8% of films [starred] a protagonist of color,” and that zero were women of color. The University of Wisconsin reported that a pithy 93 of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 had plots about black people. Children of color are even underrepresented in the toy aisle.