I am not unique when I say I am a huge Disney fan. Walt Disney Studios is responsible for most of the movies we loved and adored as children, with content varying from daring sword fights, to playful animals, to intense romances, all while intermingling them with stunning animation, interesting plot lines and iconic characters. Disney has the power to bring animals and furniture to life, to create musical numbers out of thin air, and kill off every main character’s parents. Even now as an adult looking back at these classic movies, I love analyzing them through different lenses, especially feminism. Disney princesses can either be the embodiment of female empowerment…or perfect examples of the damaging stereotype of the “damsel in distress”. Disney has created some of the most controversial and iconic movies in the past several decades, earning them a special place in my heart for their contributions to positive role models and characters.
However, I do not agree with Disney’s methods of representing their iconic characters, specifically those of color. In fact, Disney has several large gaps in their representation. I have always been aware of them, but this past week, I took a trip to the happiest place on Earth–Disney World–where I finally saw the gaps myself.
My first day in Disney World, I went to see Fantasmic!, a beautiful show set on a lake, taking advantage of waterworks, projections and fireworks to bring clips of Disney movies to life in front of us. It was gorgeous and larger than life, until the final scene where real actors played Disney characters from throughout the studio’s history, riding through an open lake on a large yacht. It was truly a beautiful sight, with my entire childhood driving pact me on the waves. I immediately started searching for my favorites among the faces–Belle stretched one arm to wave, the other wrapped tightly around her Beast. Snow White and her prince flashed toothy, white smiles. Even Ariel, complete with her fins, sang out to the crowd with Prince Eric. Then, I found Tiana, one of my favorite Disney characters, waving alone. This seemed strange to me. Every other featured princess stood beside their prince, even the obscure ones. In addition, the show even featured side characters and animals from other movies. Most of the cast of The Jungle Book stood in a crowd, hollering at the audience; Sebastian and Flounder from The Little Mermaid were snapping and flapping for everyone; even Niko from Pocahontas was waving his small arms at me. Where was Naveen? Why was Tiana standing alone, while every other princess and character was given almost the full cast of their movies?
Then it struck me. Most of the other princesses were Caucasian, while Tiana was forced to stand alone and represent an entire race. This is not fair on multiple levels. It forces Tiana to be the sole role model for millions of African American women. It minimizes Disney’s contribution to the world of animation with a film that predominately features black characters and culture. Most importantly, it allows Disney World attractions to promote Caucasian and European princesses and ignore their characters of color.
This trend in erasing Disney’s characters of color has happened before. I witnessed it firsthand during my time in Disney World. I searched for a week for souvenirs for my sisters from their favorite Disney movies. However, I came home without any merchandise from Aladdin, The Lion King or Mulan, not because I did not want any, but because I could not find any. A week’s worth of searching through all four Disney World parks, every attraction and a reserved Downtown Disney marketplace left me with merchandise promoting The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Frozen instead. This is not meant to tear down those more-represented films. I also love those films and their positive representations of strong female protagonists and feminist ideas. I am angry that Disney is not representing its characters equally; that I went in search of other characters, and was left otherwise empty-handed; that my favorite characters are being ignored, largely due to their skin colors.
This is not only my opinion. While at Disney World, I asked multiple patrons how successful they were in finding merchandise for certain characters, because that is what I do on vacation. The responses I found were staggering. Multiple young women told me that this was the sixth or seventh shop they had visited, looking for Pocahontas or Mulan. One young woman in Magic Kingdom overheard me discussing the topic with my friends, and immediately told me about her failed attempts to find Jasmine anywhere in Disney World. The only piece of merchandise she could buy, she recalled, was a pin with Jasmine and Aladdin on it. “They couldn’t even give Jasmine her own pin?” She asked me in horror. “I don’t want to see her in the context of a man. I just want to see her.”
American audiences are hungry for movies promoting more modern beliefs on a woman’s role in society and on feminist ideals. Furthermore, they crave more diverse characters, something that Disney gives in small amounts. The recent hit Frozen was one of the first animated movies to represent mental disorders. The Little Mermaid portrays a handicapped, nonverbal protagonist for most of the movie. Big Hero 6 depicts grief and crying over death as natural reactions, especially for young men, instead of feminine signs of weakness like most forms of media paint them as. We are moving into a more progressive age in the worlds of entertainment and animation, and I have one large request to ask of Walt Disney Studios. Get ahead of the times and give us our progressive story lines that represent the ideals of your audience. In a world where we constantly ask if art imitates life, let life take the lead. Please, give us better representation of our beautiful, well-rounded characters of color. We are waiting.