Days before its release, Nickelodeon has pulled the debut of a new preschool series, Made by Maddie, after a controversy erupted over visual similarities between the show’s characters and those in the Oscar-winning short Hair Love.
The controversy: Twitter users started criticizing Made by Maddie after a teaser was released promoting its Nick Jr. premiere on September 13. One of the initial tweets that attracted significant attention, including from the creator of Hair Love, was the following:
Nickelodeon’s position: The network acknowledged the controversy in a statement it made about the show’s delay and implied that it would investigate (or “garner further insight”) into how the designs of the lead characters in its series ended up similar to Hair Love. Here is their full statement:
“Made by Maddie is a show we acquired several years ago from Silvergate Media, a renowned production company we have previously worked with on other series. Since announcing the show’s premiere date this week, we have been listening closely to the commentary, criticism and concern coming from both viewers and members of the creative community. In response, and out of respect to all voices in the conversation, we are removing the show from our schedule as we garner further insight into the creative journey of the show. We are grateful to Silvergate Media for all of their work. And we hold Matthew A. Cherry and the wonderful and inspiring Hair Love in the highest regard.”
What do the people behind Hair Love think about the situation? Matthew A. Cherry, the creator and co-director of Hair Love, has not commented publicly on the matter, but he has retweeted and liked other people’s comments that have suggested similarities between the two projects.
Pearl Low, a storyboard artist on Hair Love, has been more vocal, writing on Twitter that she was offered an opportunity to work on Made by Maddie. Low also claimed that key creative figures on Made by Maddie were aware of Hair Love, saying, “The Director of Made By Maddie was fully aware of Hair Love’s existence. Him & I were at the same animation workshop led by @MatthewACherry talmbout [sic] the making of the movie (which included SHOWING designs). This is art theft & Disregard for Black creators & their art PERIOD.”
Is the show similar to Hair Love in other ways? Not really. Looking at the trailer (below), none of the characters besides Maddie (and to a lesser extent, her parents and a pet cat) resemble Hair Love. Concept-wise, Made by Maddie has little to do with Hair Love. Created by Silvergate’s executive vp of creative content Paula Rosenthal, the show was announced back in spring 2018 under the working title Fashion Ally. At the time, it was described as a show about a girl named Ally “with big ideas and a passion for fashion” who turns “every problem into a positive with the perfect fashion solution.”
What companies are behind Made by Maddie: Irony of ironies, Made by Maddie is produced by Silvergate Media, a division of Sony, the same corporation that produced and distributed Hair Love. Silvergate’s other shows include Hilda, Octonauts, and Peter Rabbit. The animation production was done by Vancouver, Canada-based Rainmaker Entertainment, a subsidiary of Wow! Unlimited Media. Nick Jr. commissioned the series in 2018.
Silvergate Media’s position: Silvergate CEO Waheed Alli has released the following statement:
“Silvergate Media has been working on the series for the last five years and throughout the production has taken steps to ensure a diverse production team and an appropriate voice cast lending their expertise and talent. As creators ourselves, we have the utmost respect and admiration for Matthew A. Cherry and Hair Love, and our hope is that when people watch our show, they will see it is its own story with its own adventures.”
Bottomline: It’s an indisputable truth that studios borrow from each other creatively all the time, sometimes a character design, but other times character personalities and relationships, stories, and themes. With hundreds of animated series and features in production around the globe each year, this kind of creative osmosis is unavoidable.
In this case, Maddie (and perhaps another character or two) bear some visual resemblance to the characters in Hair Love. While the resemblance is almost certainly intentional, it should also be noted that the designs in both Hair Love and Made by Maddie are sufficiently generic that they comfortably fit into the previously established mold of children’s animation. While they may appear similar to each other, both are also similar to other pre-existing projects in the children’s space:
Silvergate and Nickelodeon’s biggest faux pas in this instance was to use similar designs to Hair Love for more than one character. Typically, a network or studio will decide to make a new project a mix of Existing Show A, B, etc. and then they’ll scramble up the design traits from a variety of shows to concoct something “new.”
Here, Silvergate and Nick were lazy, even by the already low standards of preschool animation, and they got caught. It was an easily avoidable headache had they differentiated the characters slightly more: Maddie’s headband and cat didn’t need to be the same color as the characters in Hair Love; the father could have been less derivative of the Hair Love design.
But despite what the Twitter mob want to make this out to be, Made by Maddie doesn’t even come close to rising to the level of plagiarism. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s a completely different idea with an unfortunate design similarity to Hair Love; it’s the type of superficial similarity that is common in the tv animation industry and nearly always goes unnoticed. It’ll be interesting to watch how Nick navigates this situation.