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‘Maya and the Three’: The Power of Representation in Animation Character Design

For creators Jorge Gutiérrez and Sandra Equihua, today’s stories need to resonate with a modern audience, and reinterpreting mythology must include honest design of female characters.

A story of epic proportions, Maya and the Three is a limited Netflix series created by Emmy Award-winner Jorge Gutiérrez and Sandra Equihua. In a magical Mesoamerican-inspired world, a warrior princess embarks on a quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy and save humanity from the vengeful gods of the underworld. In the wake of the show’s Annie Awards wins in Best TV/Media for Children, and Best of Music for TV categories, we revisited our conversation with the husband-and-wife artist team to dive deeper into character design, authenticity, and the power of representation in animation.

Passive perfection on a pedestal

Maya and the Three tells the story of an epic quest with the highest stakes possible: saving the entire human race from certain doom. Its storyline is strongly rooted in mythology - a storyline that typically centers men as the heroes, explorers, and warriors who save the day. “When we started researching all the lore, we noticed that women were portrayed as sleeping beauties, as a prize to be won, or worse, as the victim,” remarked Gutiérrez.

Ancient myths are just as much a product of their times as stories created centuries later; they spoke to their own audiences and reflected the views of the time of their conception. Stories created today need to resonate with a modern audience, and myths should be reimagined to reflect who we are now. Gutiérrez and Equihua decided to reinvent the narrative and frame their story in a modern way, with a modern female lead.

For Maya and the Three, an integral part of reinterpretation was the honest design of each female character. Gutiérrez, as the director, was intent on building a female-centric narrative, but it was Equihua who led the charge in creating Maya’s visual identity, as well as all the supporting female characters on the show. 

The pair have been collaborating on creative projects for over 20 years, realizing early on that their designs work best when Equihua takes ownership of the female characters. “When Sandra designs female characters, there’s a truth and a humanity that’s very different,” adds Gutiérrez, when asked about their workflow. As the duo were writing and designing simultaneously, they made a conscious effort to avoid feeding into the beauty standards often depicted in animation which skew heavily toward Eurocentric ideals. Instead, Equihua was intent on breaking down barriers by retaining characteristics that stand out in Latin America.

“Let’s be proud of our height, let’s be proud of our shape, like having stout legs because there is strength in them. I wanted to portray in her stature that she is mighty and strong,” she expanded. “Maya has curves, but she is like a stout little pillar, and you can see that when she’s fighting. You don’t worry that she’s going to break.”

Connecting with characters

Character design is integral to storytelling; interesting characters who are imperfect and flawed, characters who sometimes fail, are always more compelling than perfect idealized versions. However, in animation, the visual identity of a character extends far beyond that when it comes to gripping their audience. As is the case with Maya and the Three, a big proportion of the animation industry produces content geared towards children and adolescents: age groups that desperately need role models that speak their language verbally, culturally, and visually.

According to Equihua, “I’m not throwing dirt on anyone, but I think we’re so used to seeing nowadays that typical mold with female characters, where they have a certain head shape with an elongated, perfect body. And I grew up with that, too. I grew up seeing a lot of characters on TV which were obviously designed by men. As a female and a Latina, when you’re a kid, you want to relate to someone who looks like you.”

Being able to relate to characters can be a transformative experience, and character design is a cornerstone of that. A strong warrior princess can become a touchstone for young girls everywhere who are figuring out who they want to be, and how they want to interact with the wider world. It is not enough to have these characters exist on the sidelines; putting female narratives front and center, making them the hero of the story is key to shaping the perception of future generations.

Authenticity in storytelling

The ways in which we consume media have undergone a drastic transformation in recent years, and trends have been changing alongside that. With the rise of streaming and subsequent content boom, today’s viewers have an infinite and increasingly varied number of options available on demand. “For the first time, the audience is being vocal about seeing themselves and wanting the people who tell their stories to be of their culture, to be of their gender, to be of that world,” Gutiérrez explained. “They want authenticity. At the same time, I feel like, in the history of our medium, a lot of the successful things didn’t come from those places, and Hollywood historically only looks at examples of success.”

Those examples, for the longest time, set the standard for what gets made and how it gets made at the big studios, extending this influence down the distribution line. However, recent years have shown that changing this status quo benefits everyone. Productions that share the life experience of creators embedded within the story’s DNA spark a deeper connection with audiences, and viewers get more out of those stories than a few hours of enjoyment. They get relatable characters they can see themselves in.

“I am eternally grateful to Netflix that they gave us this golden ticket and enabled us to portray that representation,” Equihua said in response to where she hopes the industry is headed, and how Maya and the Three fits into this journey. “So new generations can see themselves and say, ‘There I am.’”

About the Author

Kirsty Wilson is a Senior Content Producer at SyncSketch, a real-time visual communication platform, recently acquired by Unity. 

Starting her career in VFX Production at MPC Film in London, Kirsty managed post-production workflows for feature films such as the Harry Potter franchise and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Most recently she was drawn into the tech-sector where she led content initiatives for San Francisco-based Cleo, a B2B start-up that supports families, with a particular focus on enabling working parents to succeed at work. Kirsty has a drive to disrupt antiquated industries and products, and a passion for enabling creatives to uncover authentic storytelling. In 2021, she joined the SyncSketch team and their mission to reinvent how artists collaborate together - from anywhere.

Kirsty Wilson's picture

Kirsty Wilson is a a Senior Content Producer at SyncSketch, a real-time visual communication platform, recently acquired by Unity.