Measuring the Diversity of Indonesian Webtoons

As one of the biggest, if not the biggest, webtoon platform in Indonesia, LINE Webtoon has paved the way in showcasing local talent while providing quality content translated from Korean. Through the platform, we now have access to diverse and fresh stories that we otherwise may not have had through traditional forms of media. With discussions about representation growing more frequent in recent years, we would like to turn our attention towards the domestic webtoon industry. While it is nothing short of amazing to see so many homegrown stories on the platform, a quick glance at LINE Webtoon’s curation suggests that there is more that could be done to increase representation of the platform’s Indonesian audience. Therefore, we decided to do a quick study of the Indonesian webtoon landscape. The results? Spoiler alert: it sounds about white.

Methodology

Credit on the methodology goes to the team behind this visualisation on colourism in high fashion (highly recommended read!).

The first task was to identify all webtoons made by Indonesian authors on the platform. We chose to select webtoons from LINE Originals, which are webtoons that LINE has officially licensed to be part of its platform. The data collection was done on 1 October, 2021, and there may have been new webtoons released since then.

Listing of webtoons on LINE

Out of the 565 ongoing and completed webtoons on the platform, we identified 172 that were made by Indonesian authors — about 30%. However, we still need to refine the dataset to avoid distorting the visualisation. We proceeded to exclude webtoons that are stylistically black and white or do not depict human characters with standard skintones.

These 16 webtoons include 10 PM, Bahagia Itu, Be a Poem, BLUE, Cinema of Darkness, Ghosty’s Comic, Journal of Terror, Kecoa dan Dendam, Kelas Neraka, Kemala, Masdimboy, Mantradeva, Riot_404, Super Santai, Super Santai: Operasi Ramadhan and The Normies.

In total, the visualisation uses a sample of 155 webtoons from Webtoon Originals consisting of romance (37), drama (33), slice of life (31), comedy (26), fantasy (17), horror (7), royalty (2), thriller (1) and action (1). We then extracted the skin tones of the characters from these webtoons’ thumbnails. In the process of taking the samples, we made sure not to select colors that were used for shading. If a webtoon’s thumbnail has more than one character, we would use the character with the darker skin tone.

Results

After taking a quick glance at the results, one thing is evident. The skin tones of the protagonists in Indonesian webtoons on LINE are skewed to the right, showing lighter shades.

A closer look at the data shows even more interesting information. The webtoon with the darkest shade depicted is Creep, a horror webtoon. It makes a lot of sense that Creep would do so, as having a gloomy colour palette would help the author set the tone of the story. This finding reveals a limitation that this visualisation has — unlike real life, the shades of skin depicted in these comics are influenced by the authors’ art styles and intentions. As a result, it may be difficult to compare the skin tones of these characters the same way you would models or actors. In spite of that, this does not entirely render the graph useless. In fact, this idea works the other way around. Since authors have complete control over how their characters look, the graph can offer some insight into how we may associate certain skin tones with particular genres.

This brings us to the next point. Interestingly, the comedy and slice of life genres make up the most diverse representation of Indonesian webtoons on LINE. Yet, the same cannot be said for romance and drama. While there are some outliers, a large concentration of webtoons about these two genres tend to be on the lighter side. These include webtoons that are set in Indonesia, such as Just Friends and JOYful Delight. You can see this more clearly in the visualisation below:

The above graph shows the outcome when we filter for romance and drama webtoons. Here, the two genres are represented as red, and the correlation between lighter skin tones and the romance and drama genres becomes more visible. It should be reiterated that this does not necessarily have an impact on the quality of the art and plot of the stories (although one could argue that it affects the reader’s immersion, considering the extent it may differ to real life in Indonesia). There may be more works of art that are more inclusive towards darker skin tones that are not hosted on LINE Webtoon.

LINE, as the manager of the platform, likely licenses the webtoons on the platform based on what would sell, reflecting the attitudes of readers themselves to an extent. Nevertheless, in that case, the onus would still be on LINE to review its criteria of the webtoons they license, as they are the ones with the authority to bring more inclusive webtoons to the platform.

Webtoons with the darkest skin tones

Webtoons with the lightest skin tones

Brief history of Indonesian comics

The trend of lighter skin tones in the Indonesian comic industry is technically not something that is new. Indonesian youth growing up in the 1990s-2000s may have largely grown up with Japanese manga, but the history of comic books in Indonesia goes back to as early as the 1930s. As the market began translating Western comics during that period, the local comic industry Indonesian comics became influenced by their distinct style.

These comics themselves were mostly printed in black and white aside from their covers. It is from some of these covers that we can still some degree of preference towards lighter skin tones. Even then, it seems this did not reach the levels seen today, potentially because today’s comics are very much inspired by the lighter colours typically used in Japanese anime.

Whether or not the findings regarding protagonists’ skin tones on LINE Webtoon reflects a deeper problem, we will leave that for you to answer. It is not a simple question to answer, as unlike in real life, in the world of comics, we need to consider how we can tread the balance between respecting artists’ creative freedom and ensuring inclusivity in storytelling. Though in the context of LINE Webtoon, one thing is for certain: whether from the company’s side or the authors’ side, there is still opportunity to make the platform even more inclusive, especially when it comes to romance and drama.

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Categorized as Culture

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