Racial Biases in Tim Burton movies


Public Domain

This a Halloween costume that was made by Burton’s mother, which has inspired his animation aesthetic.

What color do you dream in? Do your dreams reflect the reality of your world? What does your dream world look like? Award-winning director Tim Burton describes the world he dreams of as “white.”

Burton is known for his eccentric, gothic fantasy films such as “Beetlejuice,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Yet, as the conversation of racial representation in film has started to gain traction, it becomes increasingly obvious to viewers that Burton’s movies greatly lack diversity.

When asked about his casting choices, Burton said that casting people of color just for the sake of diversity is even more offensive than his choices of all-white casts.

“Things either call for [diverse characters] or they don’t,” Burton said in an interview with Bustle News

Burton’s casting decisions are currently facing scrutiny because of a previous TikTok trend, where creators would use the “Time Warp” filter in order to give themselves a signature “Tim Burton character” look. This usually includes having hollow cheekbones, pale skin, eye bags, and other “sickly” features.

As a person of color who grew up looking for Jack Skellington in the Christmas night sky instead of Santa Claus, I was excited to see that my favorite director was getting recognition on the app. However, that was when I read the comments exposing Burton’s views regarding diversity among his characters.

This is a feeling that almost every person of color knows well: wanting to be a part of whatever is trending––only to find out that people would rather you not take part because of the color of your skin. This is only one example. This routine tells young brown girls that they don’t belong on television, in Halloweentown or anywhere.

Burton also claims that his films draw heavy influence from his dreams, which feature all-white people. Film teacher Thato Mwosa said that her peers tend to create what they know, and as Burton lives in a white world, this limits his horizon as a director.

“He gets uncomfortable when he’s asked to do something he is not familiar with. I don’t even think that’s a superior way of thinking; it’s actually really inferior because getting out of your own comfort zone is expanding your world in a way,” Mwosa said.

Many people have taken to the internet with their theory that the real reason that Tim Burton did not include people of color in his films was that they didn’t match the dead, gray and cold aesthetic, which has been prevalent in the horror movie industry since its beginning.

Mwosa said that, in film, there is a possible relationship between aesthetics and race.

“I think it’s hard to relate the two things because really, the likeness of the characters comes from the writer,” Mwosa said. “But it’s almost like Hollywood has already said that cold places belong to white people. Maybe that’s the statement they’ve made in a way.”

With the look of Tim Burton’s characters being so sickly and pale, it might seem natural to gravitate towards a white cast. However, in reality, everyone dies. Anyone can look homely and ill, or have bony faces and dead eyes. Burton’s casting decisions are just a reflection of the Eurocentrism he experiences in his own mind.

I never understood the argument behind certain subcultures or aesthetics belonging only to specific races. This is just a new way of telling Black and brown kids that they can’t be punk or emo because the style doesn’t work on them.

Since Burton usually directs fantasy films, he is given the opportunity to imagine a new world with different circumstances regarding race. Playwright and Associate Dean Summer Williams said it was insensitive of Burton to refuse to include people of color under these conditions.

“The world that he imagines, being so devoid of people of color feels like it’s speaking either to a future time where somehow the majority of people on the planet won’t exist or is looking at a past in which it’s not really acknowledging history, place, and culture,” Williams said.

Yet even with all of the creative freedoms, Burton portrays his only Black-voiced character as a villain named “The Boogie Man,” which was a slur used against Black people, akin to the J-slur. This character also eats a gumbo made of bugs.

This is relevant because it plays on the exoticism of Black people and the foods that are popular within black culture. Gumbo, a staple amongst soul food, popular in Louisiana is only represented in an unappetizing and harmful way.

While it is important for filmmakers to include different kinds of characters, it is just as important to be aware of type-casting and stereotyping when doing so.

“Start thinking outside the box, because what you’re doing is recycling. And yet you’re referencing it in the media, and the media has gotten it wrong for over 400 years. It’s time to move on,” Mwosa said.

Furthermore, we as the viewers should not romanticize or over-congratulate directors who include diverse characters. This should be the standard, not a special treat. And I can speak for many people of color when I say no one wants to be “the Black girl” in a movie.

I agree with Burton that we should not only include Black and brown people in our movies just for diversity’s sake. But do I think that’s an excuse to avoid including them at all? Not a chance.