“It’s time to dream it, draw it, make it,” the tiny heroine of Nickelodeon’s new animated preschool series “Made by Maddie” says in its trailer. But the program, scheduled to premiere later this month, is already attracting scrutiny online over its own creative process.
When Nickelodeon shared the series’ trailer and first-look images on Tuesday, social media users were quick to point out that the central character and her parents bear a striking resemblance to the main characters in “Hair Love,” Matthew A. Cherry’s Oscar-winning short about a Black millennial father attempting to style his young daughter’s hair.
The Sony Animation project, which debuted in 2017 as a Kickstarter campaign, has since led to a children’s book and an animated series, currently in development at HBO Max. It spoke both to the lack of inclusive representation in children’s programming and the fact that, in Hollywood and beyond, Black people have historically been pressured to alter their natural hair in order to align with Eurocentric beauty standards.
Among the similarities observers noted were, well, the hair: In both “Made by Maddie” and “Hair Love,” the fathers have shoulder-length locs, the mothers have natural curls, and the little girls wear bright pink bows atop their updos. One Twitter user noted that even the AI-powered image search tool Google Lens was baffled.
Cherry himself commented on another: the family cat. “It’s wild. Coulda been a dog, fish, anything,” he tweeted, while also correcting fans’ congratulations on the unrelated Nick project. (Cherry declined to comment on the matter to The Times.)
Silvergate Media, the production company behind “Made by Maddie,” asserts that its creation is its own. “Silvergate Media has been working on the series for the last five years,” Waheed Alli, CEO of Silvergate Media, said in a statement, “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.”
“Made by Maddie” was created by children’s programming veteran Paula Rosenthal and is the third Nickelodeon project from Silvergate, after “Sunny Day” and “Peter Rabbit.” A representative for the studio emphasized that Rosenthal, who is white, worked on the series alongside multiple Black creatives, including its story editor, fashion consultant, curriculum and educational consultant and songwriting supervisor, as well as a diversity consultant.
First announced at Nickelodeon’s 2018 Upfronts as “Fashion Ally,” work on “Made by Maddie” was already underway, with a Black family at its center, by September 2017, according to a script excerpt and a detailed description of additional characters that Silvergate provided to The Times. (In the latter, the look of the young girl’s father is modeled on the Black List founder Franklin Leonard, replete with a photo collage of Leonard in gray suits with his signature locs.)
The studio also provided sketches of the girl, her parents and the family cat, dated September, October and November 2018. (Silvergate shared another image of the girl from “Fashion Ally”/”Made by Maddie,” this one without a timestamp, which the studio’s representative claims is from 2015. The Times has been unable to verify the timing of the image’s creation.)
“Hair Love” did not begin production until January 2018, but the Kickstarter campaign to fund the endeavor was launched in July 2017, complete with character illustrations by Vashti Harrison. It went viral on social media and received support from the likes of “Proud Family” creator Bruce W. Smith, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” co-director Peter Ramsey, and then-Pixar animator Frank Abney, all of whom boarded the project. It was fully funded, at three times its original goal, by Aug. 9 — one month before the earliest dated material provided by the producers of “Made by Maddie.”
Nickelodeon, which declined to comment on the matter to The Times, described the premise of “Made by Maddie” as one that “follows 8-year-old Maddie in New York City, as she uses her imagination and design ingenuity to turn every problem into a positive with the perfect fashion fix.”
It shares fewer similarities with “Young Love,” the upcoming HBO Max series based on Cherry’s short. Upon its announcement, the platform described that project as “an honest look into the world of the Young family — including millennial parents Stephen and Angela, their daughter Zuri and her pet cat Rocky — as they juggle their careers, marriage, parenthood, social issues, and multi-generational dynamics all while striving to make a better life for themselves.”
The controversy over resemblances between “Made by Maddie” and “Hair Love” comes as the animation industry, like much of Hollywood, reckons with discrimination against Black creatives in the wake of the nationwide movement for Black lives. In June, a number of animated programs announced that their nonwhite characters would no longer be voiced by white actors, and an open letter asked that studios conduct investigations into internal incidents of racism and commit to the hiring, training and advancement of Black staff.
And as in many other industries, the public now regularly comments on Hollywood’s actions when it comes to the issue of diversity and representation, and is no longer afraid to levy criticism against the parties in question on social media.
“You didn’t dream this or draw it,” said one Twitter user in response to a Nick Jr. tweet about the series. “There’s nothing new [about] stealing Black labor to turn a profit.”