Even though many of us think of Disney films fondly and nostalgically, it’s hard to deny that Disney has a lack of diversity. Historically, Disney has showcased racial caricatures in its films and perpetuated negative stereotypes. Although some movies feature prominent characters of color, people of color are still severely underrepresented. As one of the biggest producers of children’s films in the US to be marketed to the rest of the world, Disney should be accurately and authentically portraying diversity in its films.
When asked to list Disney princesses, chances are that princesses of color would only make up a small part of the list. Disney currently produces one-third of the children film’s market. The majority of children turn to Disney as a source of entertainment, and even adults enjoy Disney movies once in a while. Children look up to Disney characters as inspirational figures, but a lack of diversity means that they are not getting the full picture as they only see one prominent skin tone being represented. Being left out in media portrayals could make children feel lonely and isolated. Considering that people of color make up a substantial portion of the population in the US, they are currently not being accurately represented in films.
Disney has a history of portraying racial caricatures in their films. ‘Dumbo’ (1941) is a prime example of how the company can portray racism, although this may not come as a surprise given the year and era it was made. The 1940s witnessed large-scale segregation across the country. In “Song of the Roustabouts”, African-Americans are labeled as irresponsible and compared to animals, dehumanizing them based on their race. This is evident in the lyric “Grab that rope, you hairy ape!” Furthermore, the crows in ‘Dumbo’ are an obvious reference to the racist Jim Crow laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that enforced racial segregation. The head crow was called Jim Crow and the crows themselves are portrayed to be negative stereotypes of African-Americans being rowdy and ill-mannered.
‘The Jungle Book,’ ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Mulan’ are also criticized because of racist caricatures. The portrayal of Louie and his monkeys in ‘The Jungle Book’ is similar to the crows from ‘Dumbo’ in the way that they make a racist caricature out of African-Americans. The villains in ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Mulan’ (Jafar and the Huns, respectively) are depicted with darker skin than the main characters and look more ethnic-looking. This perpetuates the problematic message that good people have fairer skin and darker-skinned people have villainous characteristics and are essentially a menace to society.
Tiana from ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (2009) is the only African-American princess in Disney history. She only spends one-quarter of the movie as a human being and three-quarters as a frog, which tones down the importance of Tiana as the only African-American princess. Furthermore, she is one of the only Disney princesses that struggles with work and money. Set in New Orleans, Louisiana, Tiana works two jobs to save money to start her own business. This is a stark difference from the background stories of other princesses that are not of color, who are usually born into royalty. The fact that Tiana had to struggle reflects how African-Americans in the US have been struggling for centuries and it conveys the message that African-Americans have limited means and must work and struggle extra hard to achieve their dreams, compared to their white counterparts. However, the way Tiana eventually overcomes her struggle symbolizes the hard work and dedication of African-Americans.
Disney attempted to be genuine with ‘Moana’ in 2016. This film stood out for not following a typical Eurocentric plot that the majority of Disney films follow. ‘Moana’ is set in Polynesia. Given Disney’s track record with Indigenous people, like in ‘Pocahontas’, there was a lot of pressure placed on the company to do a better job this time – ‘Pocahontas’ clearly exhibited the white savior narrative. With ‘Moana’, Disney decided to send cultural scholars to the Pacific Islands so they would be familiarized with the culture and could more accurately portray it in the film. Although they arguably did do a good job in the final product, they failed to deliver. For Halloween that year, Disney released a costume of Maui, but it came across as offensive and as a racial caricature as it was a brown bodysuit with tattoos. People and islanders responded angrily, accusing them of the brown face.
Outside of its animations, Disney still has a problem with diversity. John Boyega from the ‘Star Wars’ franchise stated that his character was used to push for representation only in name – it was not genuine. The character of Finn was a symbol of racial inclusiveness, but this was certainly not the case when Finn was knocked unconscious in a climactic battle in ‘The Force Awakens’ and remained in that state until the end of the film. This reduces his role in the film and tokenizes him. The big screen is not the only place where Disney struggles with diversity; even the theme parks lack diversity. Disney World still makes references to racially insensitive scenes from ‘Dumbo’ in its merchandising, although the display was removed in recent years. However, Disney is making an effort to reimagine the experiences of many attractions, such as Jungle Cruise and Splash Mountain, both of which referenced racially insensitive scenes from ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Dumbo’ respectively. At theme parks, attractions are meant to tell a story, and these stories must be genuine in authentic without resorting to cultural appropriation.
Solving the diversity problem involves massive changes at all levels in the Disney corporation. People of color should be present in all aspects of filmmaking, from writing to marketing. Characters of color should have value and not simply be tokenized; they should make valuable contributions to the narrative, whether it’s animation or live-action. Disney should also feature more diversity through the narrative they are presenting and the characters in their films. Making their famed theme parks more inclusive will also help to solve the diversity problem. A more diverse landscape will convey a more positive message and more authentic representation to children.