While there have been an increasing number of Disney movies featuring characters of color and ethnicity, it is only recently that some of these women of color are portrayed as Princesses. In the rare instances where a women of ethnicity is depicted as a princess, such as Jasmine from Aladdin or Pocahontas from Pocahontas the characters are portrayed to be extremely sexualized compared to the white princesses such as Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
It is interesting to see that when Disney does depict a leading character that is not blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and fair skin she is provocatively dressed with emphasis on the exotic. Jasmine is depicted as a stereotypical Arabian princess with a belly-bearing attire and long flowing dark hair. Pocahontas is similarly portrayed with bronze skin, scantily dressed, and modelesque stature. Both these characters are vastly different than the white princesses that were portrayed before them.
Both these princesses are also depicted as more defiant and out-spoken than their Caucasian counterparts. Jasmine refuses to listen to her father and chooses to marry for love rather than for political purposes and Pocahontas goes against her father and her tribe and chooses to save John Smith. Princesses such as Belle and Cinderella are portrayed as wholesome and demure in the way they dress and act, they are always fully dressed and obedient. Belle is always with a book in hand and Cinderella does everything her stepmother tells her to do.
So, why is it that these Princesses of color are depicted as over-sexualized? I believe that it is in order to give off that “exotic” effect. Ultimately, Jasmine and Pocahontas have Caucasian features. What sets them apart as being foreign are their darker complexion and their sexualized personas. Disney has built its empire on “Fantasy” and the sexualized exotic characters are an extension of that fantasy.
Disney’s most recent animated princess movie, The Princess and the Frog, is achieving a lot of firsts, it is the first traditionally animated film Disney has made since 2004’s Home on the Range, it features the companies first African American princess, and features one of the first interracial couples for Disney animated films.
Prince Naveen has a French accent and a tan complexion while Tiana is African-American. The race issue is not mentioned in the movie, which is a good thing because by drawing more attention to it makes it seem as though there is something wrong or different with an interracial relationship.
In a Newsweek article, A Frog of a Different Color, it addresses the issue about how race is still somewhat of an issue to African-American women, who still prefer to have relationships within their race.
“Since the 1960s, marriages between black men and white women have been steadily increasing–14 percent of all black men are now married outside the race. Yet only 4 percent of black women do the same. Why? Black women, for better or worse, have always seemed to maintain a loyalty to the ideal of the black family unit.”
While it is easy to say, “Let’s do what the fictional Disney princess does” the portrayal of an interracial couple will allow little girls to be open-minded when it comes to love. It sends the message that race is not an issue and not something to be inhibited by. Disney is sending a positive message to not think about color when they are looking for their Prince Charming.
Samuels, A. (2009). A Frog of a Different Color. Newsweek, 154(22), 56. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.
Like many other projects that Disney has put forth to expand its racial barriers, Wizards of Waverly Place seems to be making strides as far as racial diversity goes. It follows the story of three wizards in training who live in New York City with their family. Seems like most other sitcoms on the Disney Channel? The Difference with Wizards of Waverly Place is that the family the show revolves around is biracial, composed of a Hispanic mother and Italian-American father.
In a scholarly article, Ideologies of Racial and Ethnic Identity in Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place, the author, Holmes expresses discontent with the approach the show has taken to ethnicity and embracing diverse backgrounds. She states:
“It normalizes certain attitudes and beliefs about ways of being in the world and ways of evaluating racial or ethnic identity through the use of stereotyping. These aspects of identity emerge in a few episodes of the series, but primarily are absent throughout the entire series.”
While the show briefly addresses the two different cultures, it is rarely a priority of the show. The children in the show demonstrate little knowledge of their heritage or express little connection or desire to learn more about it. There is a scene when Alex, the main character shows no interest and very little knowledge about her family’s background saying “I love being half Mexican and half-whatever he is”, referring to her father.
The show could be a platform for Disney to embrace biracial families and incorporate different cultures into regular programming. Disney has stopped short of progress in expanding its racial barriers. While no one is asking for the show to mock or stereotype Hispanic or Italian races, their heritage show be integrated into the show subtlety, either by the food they eat, the clothes they wear or other subtle references that set the cultures apart and embrace the differences. Instead, the show is just another Disney sitcom.
Holmes, S. (2009). Everything is Not What it Seems: Ideologies of Racial and Ethnic Identity in Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place. Conference Papers — National Communication Association, 1. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.
Disney movies are perceived as wholesome entertainment that is a part of every person’s childhood. The racist undertones in many of the Disney movies such as Aladdin, Dumbo, and Pocahontas go unnoticed by children but are extremely offensive to the ethnic groups they address. Older Disney movies are more blatant with racists images. In Peter Pan, the Indians are addressed in a racist manner, calling them “red-face”. In Dumbo, there are faceless black men setting up the circus. The movie was made in 1941 so that may account for the boldness of what is being shown and sung but in more recent Disney movies racism is evident as well.
In today’s Disney market, they are trying to be more diverse. The release of The Princess and the Frog has Disney’s first African-American Princess. While the Prince in the movie is not African-American, it is a small stride for a more diverse Disney. The brand is trying to mend the racist undertones of past Disney movies such as Aladdin and Fantasia. The song “Arabian Nights” from the movie Aladdin offended many people with the lyrics to the song. The offensive lyrics were dubbed over in the newly released DVDs. A scene from Fantasia was deleted from the newly released version where a half African-American girl, half horse is portrayed as a servant to a white girl. While there has been progression in the Disney franchise, Disney is anything but wholesome.