Smirking under the brim of her scarlet hat, she turns her heel and disappears into the night.
This is the image I carry in my mind’s eye of Carmen Sandiego. Carmen Sandiego carries a certain near-unplaceable quality. She embodies a cool girl’s sensibility (not just anyone can make a red fedora and trenchcoat their signature look) while still startling her viewers in other ways. Playing the computer game, Sandiego would always be one step ahead of you. About to nab her on the Great Wall of China? Sandiego would outstrip you in your pursuits and catch a hang glider to a distant land. She was just that good at being elusive.
Sandiego’s slipperiness is inseparable from her allure. I’d submit that her flinty intelligence and her other impossibilities—being impossibly beautiful, impossibly cultured, impossibly likeable (even as a villain!), and impossible to catch—makes her catnip to audiences. But when faced with the realities of Sandiego the character, something darker snaps into view: she’s a thief. And her very nature of being an animated character, distantly removed from real human physicality, made her powers that more awe-inspiring. While villainous, Sandiego’s character inches closer to an approximation of omnipotence I’ve rarely encountered. With her type of extreme capabilities, squint and you can sense a goddess winking between the pixels.
With Netflix now in control of her story, Carmen Sandiego returns to relevance. The show remains in an animated format, demystifying her origin story, while haphazardly committed to Carmen Sandiego games’ true intention: geography lessons. If anything, Carmen Sandiego, as a character, serves as a map to moments in time. And for the COVID pandemic, Sandiego charts a way to understand the current animation explosion and its consequences.
For practical purposes, shows with live acting cannot proceed during the pandemic—the virus looms too large. Because of this, animation presents itself as the attractive alternative: only voice actors involved, work-from-home friendly, and fairly affordable. Even before COVID pressured studios to redirect projects to animation (see also the recent black-ish voter episode and the season finale of One Day at a Time), cartooning was alreadyon the rise. Younger generations no longer equate animation as a lesser than art form, reducing the stigma of cartooning as a childish creative genre. Holding the entertainment world’s ear and Millennial and Gen Z’s hunger for fantasy content, animators have carte blanche to steer entertainment for nearly the next year.
The relationship between escapist nature of animation and the ability of an escapist show to evade scrutiny are bound together. While many of us turn to animated series for a release from the physical world, the animators who create that escape for the audience become near god-forms—in creating the world, they set the parameters for what the audience visually perceives. In this way, animated shows can take on what I call the “Carmen Sandiego effect,” an absurd sense of omnipotence that should provoke incredulity and suspicion, but often just receives our awe. Especially in the cases of labor issues on shows, animated projects conveniently hustle their employees out of sight—necessary by necessary design.
The Netflix show for Carmen Sandiego replicates this effect. In one breath, the series has made strides to show representation often marginalized within cartooning. Gina Rodriguez, who voices Sandiego, speaks passionately about being able to see herself in Carmen: “As a Latina, seeing that brown skin on animation is revolutionary.” As an animated show, encouraging this type of character diversity can be easier than a live actors-led cast; animators simply need to draw Carmen Sandiego as she is, without succumbing to the powers of whitewashing. This can be worldbuilding at its best, incorporating a better reflection of the real world as it climbs.
On the flip side of the coin, a worldbuilding animated project can hide elements of production as well as it can create fantastic new worlds. While the show deserves praise for its strong Latina lead, the animators themselves—disguised behind their art—can get lost, or worse, exploited. Netflix already heavily dabbles in contracted labor relations; most Netflix “Originals” are truly not original to the Netflix platform, but instead signal exclusivity to the platform. Similar to Uber and Lyft’s dubious “independent contractor” labor schemes for its drivers, big platforms also send offshore work to outside firms to cut costs and curb regulation. In creating Carmen Sandiego for Netflix, some of the animation work was sent over to Top Draw, a Filipino animation company that specifically worked on the series. A whistleblower, Raf Dla, from Top Draw revealed that he was fired from the project after demanding proper compensation—previously, Dla allegedly received less than minimum wage for labor.
In this saga, there’s the uncomfortable tension between visual representation gains with the fantasy realm—still a valid win!—and the material reality of very plausible worker exploitation. As late capitalism rages onward and our world globalizes even more, the richness of the stories we want to see increases at the same rate someone globally likely suffers for that story’s production. Watching the new Carmen Sandiego series, I initially resented the mystery it stripped away from the character. Sandiego was my superhero for her trifecta of wits, athleticism, and a near fatal level of coolness. But as I sunk into her story deeper, I understood the unfairness of enshrining any character or woman with that level of power without context. Carmen Sandiego is just a woman—no built-in “deus ex machina” function needed. In the new story, she’s a thief that steals only from thieves now. I thought to myself, where in the world have they taken Carmen Sandiego from her original story? In this version, maybe where there’s no escaping the truth.
Katherine Smith is an editorial intern and writer at Paste Magazine, and recent graduate of the University of Virginia. For a deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea
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