Disney Princesses and Racism
At the first glance, it seems that racism has nothing to do with animated movies since the latter should demonstrate the victory of the good over the evil as well as focus on innocence, happiness, and other inherently positive aspects. Animated movies usually depict a villain who attempts to ruin the life of the protagonist or even win over the world. Nevertheless, the rogue is always defeated in the end thereby restoring viewers’ faith in the power of the good. However, a thorough analysis of animated movies in general and princess movies, in particular, shows that race is a topical issue since most of them tend to be racist in their representation of princesses and other heroes. While watching movies about princesses, children internalize social, cultural, ethnic, and racial stereotypes and conventional views depicted therein, which influence their subsequent perception of race and other important issues such as gender in life. Overall, it can be argued that Disney princess movies are racist by nature since classic princesses depicted in them are typically White. However, those few racially and ethnically diverse princesses fail to address concerns about racism in Disney movies, for example, in The Princess and the Frog, and frequently serve to reinforce negative racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Racism portrayed in Disney movies in general and conveyed by a representation of Disney princesses, in particular, has a highly negative impact on children and adolescents who view them. The main reason is the fact that children and young people are highly susceptible to stereotypes evoked by the Disney princess culture. A recent study that focuses mostly on gender stereotypes yet is applicable to racial stereotypes has proved it (Salyer, 2016). Children who watch animated movies with racist views and racial stereotypes tend to internalize them and start believing that these judgments are also true in the real life. Racism is not irrational by nature but rather based on economic, social and other factors as well as myths spread by the majority internalized since childhood. Therefore, Disney movies have the potential to shape opinions on race, gender, and other vital issues in generations to come. Escher (2014) argues that the fans of Disney movies internalize racial implications through the simple process of watching. For instance, when watching the animated movie about Aladdin in which the theme song states, “Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam/Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” “evil and violence” is associated with “people of color” (Escher, 2014). Thus, movies about Disney princesses reinforce and spread racial stereotypes. In addition, they contribute to the enhancement of racism in society through exposing children to prejudiced views and making them believe that it is the same in real life.
It should be noted that Disney is the largest animation company working with different types of animated movies such as princess movies. It has even created the entire Disney Princess Package aimed at creating, producing, and marketing such movies (Hill, 2013, p. 85). Disney has provided its definition of a princess that assumes princess movies to be the ones in which plots focus heavily on female characters in addition to or instead of key male characters (Hill, 2013). Apart from classic princesses such as Cinderella or Belle, there are ethnic Disney princesses depicted in such movies as Aladdin or Pocahontas (Hill, 2013). There are some similarities and differences between the two types of princesses. All of them are “portrayed as young, energetic, attractive, and relatable” personalities giving off “a certain amount of sex appeal that attracts her given love interest, and she is often admired or envied by her female counterparts” (Hill, 2013, p. 88). Regardless of whether this portrayal is beneficial or adverse for young viewers, girls of all races and ethnicities can relate to this image and internalize it. Conversely, obvious differences between classic and ethnic princesses are definitely negative concerning their impact on viewers. Analysis of the Disney movies corpus shows that “the white Disney princesses are always praised for their gifts and especially for their beauty” (Hill, 2013, p. 89). On the contrary, ethnic Disney princesses are praised for “being hardworking, dedicated, and courageous, attributes that are frowned upon by the rest of the characters in their narratives” (Hill, 2013, p. 89). Although these traits have no inherently negative connotation, they do not allow viewers who are representatives of ethnic and racial minorities to relate to the image of a classic Disney princess that most children consider ideal.
Moreover, even when Disney attempts to move away from racism and a stereotypical portrayal of princesses as members of the dominant White ethnic group, it does not completely succeed. Disney’s The Princess and the Frog is the first movie of the company which protagonist is an African-American princess that should have resolved claims about racism pertaining to Disney (Gehwalat, 2010). However, Tiana’s portrayal and reinforcement of wide-spread stereotypes about African Americans (for instance, its association with Voodoo) have resulted in mixed critical appraisals of the first seemingly non-racial Disney princess movie. Barnes (2009) concludes the overall impression from this movie, “We finally get a black princess and she spends the majority of her time on screen as a frog.” This fact does not contribute to the elimination of claims about Disney’s racism. Thus, even when Disney creates princesses who are representatives of racial minorities, it does not move away from their racist portrayal and reinforces racial stereotypes in such a way.
Furthermore, regardless Disney’s attempts to respond to criticism about racism in movies, it fails to do that effectively. Hence, the aforementioned princess, Tiana, is envisioned as a response to all Disney’s critics emphasizing an apparent absence of non-White princesses (Breaux, 2010). It should be noted that another non-white princess in the Disney princess discourse named Jasmine is featured in Aladdin. Yet, critics claim that she does not possess features common for the Middle Eastern princess (Breaux, 2010). Therefore, Tiana can be considered the first princess of color in the Disney universe; and through her story, the company tries to address critical claims about racism. For instance, Tiana is portrayed as a young independent woman with a dream that she pursues while disregarding love and focusing on her professional aspirations. However, Disney still fails to move “beyond the stereotypical image of black women as invisible or as solely attached to labor,” “thereby maintaining its investment in whiteness” (McCoy Gregory, 2010, p. 433). The cartoon ignores the racist past of New Orleans and does not include historical indicators such as discrimination and racism that are an integral part of people’s life in the city at the time Tiana’s story occurs (Breaux, 2010). The same critical comment applies to other Disney movies featuring ethnic princesses. For instance, the movie about Pocahontas is full of historical inaccuracies. This issue may have been forgivable for animated movies if it did not contribute to the creation of an impression among viewers that racism and discrimination do not pose any problem. Moreover, classic princess movies have unidentifiable locations while ethnic princess movies are always set in easily identifiable locations, thereby reinforcing related ethnic and racial stereotypes. Therefore, Disney’s attempts both to ignore race and to include it in its movies have the same outcome, namely racism.
It may be true that Disney princesses are not racist but rather merely represent fairy tales in which they are featured. Since most fairy tales, on which basis early Disney movies were created, feature White princesses from European-like kingdoms. A great amount of movies about ethnic princesses have been produced, including Mulan, Pocahontas, Aladdin, and The Princess and the Frog. However, ethnic princesses differ significantly from classic princesses, and many features in their movies allow labeling them as racist. In “The Making of a Disney Princess,” Hill (2013) claims that ethnic princesses and Tiana as the first African-American princess do not comply with the Disney’s traditional definition of princesses. In addition, they reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes instead of refuting them. In short, the differences between presentation of classic and ethnic princesses as well as abundance of historic inaccuracies and dissimilarities in settings witness the racism in Disney princess movies.
In conclusion, Disney princess movies represent a peculiar genre of animated movies that are especially popular with children in the entire world. That is the reason the presence of racism in these movies is likely to have a tremendous negative impact on the young viewers’ development. The members of ethnic and racial groups other than the whites cannot identify themselves with Disney princesses. This fact creates an impression that they do not deserve this status, thereby contributing to racial discrimination. Moreover, even when Disney attempts to create ethnic princesses and those of color, it places them in racialized settings ignoring historical accounts of racism in those locations. Therefore, this issue needs further consideration, and the company should analyze the existing problem of racism in its movies with a view to addressing it in the nearest future.