Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and The Little Mermaid. These are all classic stories that were brought to life by the Walt Disney Studios. For almost a century, they have dazzled audiences old and young with these tales of fantasy. But what do they all have in common? Their stories are centered on thin white beauties. This is not to claim there is an issue with that, but when you look at the expanseous vault of Disney movies, you can easily deduce that characters of color are painfully absent. There are millions of people of various races, ethnicities, sizes, and sexualities that fail to find any (or accurate) representation both on and off of the big screen. And although Walt Disney Studios has certainly made strides in diversifying their movie representation, they still have a long way to go. I know as a woman of color, specifically an Asian woman, there are very little depictions of characters similar to me, and the depictions that I do see are often stereotypical. A company as vast as Walt Disney Studios has the resources needed to initiate this change in diversity, but they choose not to enact it. We are in a time of progressive change, and it is time for Disney to own up to it and continue to increase its diversity in their characters, and actors. In this article, I will be discussing not only the failures the studio has had regarding diversity, but also their more successful moments, because it is vital to acknowledge both. I will also give my thoughts on what aspects they can improve their diverseness. For Walt Disney Studios, their story of diversity is a tale as old as time, and it is hoped that they will find their happily ever after soon.
Disney’s History of Racism
Looking at the history of Walt Disney Studios, it is clear that characters of color are not prevalent. In fact, until 1992 (over half a century after the studio was created), there was only one character of color present in their animated movies, Mowgli, from The Jungle Book. Not only is this a serious lack of diversity, but even with Mowgli as the face of the film, The Jungle Book also was heavily based on stereotypes. For example, one of the biggest songs of the film is “I Wanna Be Like You” where King Louie tells Mowgli of his wish to be like him. Louie gleefully sings “I wanna be a man, mancub, and stroll right into town, and be just like the other men I’m tired of monkeyin’ around.” Many viewers of the film took this as King Louie wanting to be more “civilized” like Mowgli was, playing into the generalization of white people being the most “civilized.” And although Mowgli is not a white character, his predominately American accent (which makes zero sense in context of The Jungle Book taking place near an Indian village) hints at this blatantly racist stereotype. There are plenty of other examples of this subtle (or not so subtle) racism in Disney films. Dumbo, which came out in 1941, is one of the most recognizable when it comes to its racist undertones. The biggest of these is the scene where you see a group of crows smoking cigars. While at first it might not be obvious, looking at the release date of this movie, it then becomes incredibly obvious what Disney was hinting at. These crows are supposed to represent Black people during this time. In Dumbo, the crows can be generally categorized as lazy, a characteristic that many whites were using to degrade the Black community during the mid 1900’s. The situation is not made any better when the leader of these crows is named Jim Crow, directly referring to the Jim Crow Laws which enforced segregation in the Southern United States during the time of this movie’s release. Other examples of this in Disney films are in Lady and the Tramp (1955) and the Aristocats (1970) that both feature Siamese cats displaying common Asian stereotypes like playing “Asian” music on the piano, using chopsticks, having exaggerated slanted eyes, and talking about fortune cookies.
Song of the South
But even all of the previous mentioned examples are not as widely known for their outright racism as Song of the South (1946) was. The movie follows a young boy named Johnny who moves with his mother to his grandmother’s plantation. There, he meets Uncle Remus, who teaches lessons in the form of stories centering around Br’er Rabbit. The issue in this animated and live action hybrid film is not what is mentioned, it is what is left out. The biggest of this issue is the fact that throughout the entire film, you are unsure of the relationship between Johnny’s family and Uncle Remus. It was never explicitly stated whether Uncle Remus is the family’s slave or servant (but at the end of the film, Uncle Remus leaves the plantation, a sort of implication that he was not their slave). Without this clear indication of the time period, setting, or character relationship, the film makes the plantation system out as a utopia where blacks and whites live together in peace and harmony. In fact, this movie was so infamous for its racist themes that the film has never been released publicly after its last release theaters in 1986. It is unfortunate that a movie with a Black person as a leading character also had to feature such racist messages. This brings up the question on why racism and diversity go hand in hand.
Racism and Its Relation to Diversity
So why do I bring these up? It is important to note throughout Disney’s history of diversity that even though they have consistently failed to provide people of color to their films, they have also simultaneously provided racist themes and stereotypes to these same films, and this is where they have truly failed. For almost all of the 20th century, the few movies they provided with some diversity also had to be filled with blatant racism. Why did it take them almost seven decades to have more than one person of color as the main character of their films? And why did they find it so vital to degrade so many people of various races and ethnicities? Disney has claimed that they were “outdated cultural depictions”, but what they really were were ways to profit off of a time of profound racism. Granted, most of these movies mentioned came out in the 1900’s, when segregation was evident across the country. Disney was clearly aware that the best way they could make money was to exploit people of color by engaging in the racism towards them while also leaving them out in their films. This is a sad truth, but not an uncommon one. Fortunately however, they finally started adding more diversity to their movies before the 2000’s hit.
The Era of Diversity for Disney
In November of 1992 Aladdin was released, which featured main characters of color (Aladdin and Jasmine). This was a huge start for the company in the sense of diversity because they were not novelty characters who were only there to depict common generalizations. On the contrary, they served as an integral part of the story of Aladdin. From then on, Disney movies began showing a more diverse range of characters, with each bringing their own unique story to the table. In the 2000’s, the studio finally began implementing color on ANd off the screen. Films like Moana (2016), Lilo and Stitch (2002), Big Hero 6 (2014), Coco (2017), and The Princess and the Frog (2009). Specifically looking at each one, in Moana, not only does the movie tell a beautiful story of a girl finding her culture, but it also includes actors of actual Polynesian descent (Auliʻi Cravalho and Dwanye Johnson). In Lilo and Stitch, ohana is frequently used, which is incredibly important to those of Hawaian descent. And what makes this movie even more special is that both Nani and David are voiced by actors of Hawain descent (Tia Carrere and Jason Scott Lee). Big Hero 6 depicts the story of Hiro Hamada, a young boy with a passion for robotics. Not only is this movie monumental for it being the first Disney film with an explicitly biracial character (Hiro), but he is also played by a biracial actor (Ryan Potter). Coco is a beautiful film that shows a boy named Miguel embark on a journey in the land of the dead during Día de los Muertos. This movie is arguably one of Disney’s best films due to its beautiful music and also its tear jerking plot (for real I cried when I watched this in theaters!), but it is also “the first film with a nine-figure budget to feature an all-Latinx principal cast!” (Colorful Pages). And finally, The Princess and The Frog is globally known due to its first depiction of a Black Disney Princess, as it shows the tale of Tiana and her lifelong dream to open her own restaurant. Although The Princess and The Frog has been criticized for how it had their first Black princess depicted as a frog for the majority of the movie, it still was a stepping stone for the foundation of their diversity in their films. All of these films are great examples of how Disney has improved their diversity not only in the characters they create, but also in who plays and voices them. For many people, this era was the first time where they could finally see someone who looked like them on the big screen. However, Disney still has a long way ahead of them.
How Disney Can Improve Their Diversity
Even with all of Disney’s recent success in diversifying their films, they still have received some current criticisms. Looking at Disney’s live action versions of Aladdin and Mulan, there was a common issue of lack of representation in regards to their creative teams. For example, looking at Aladdin, there was not one person of Arab or Middle Eastern descent on the main creative team. And for Mulan, white people took the roles of director, writers, cinematographer, costume designer, and composer. For films as culturally based as Aladdin and Mulan, diversity behind the scenes is vital. Of course it is great that they had a diverse cast for both of these films, but in this day and age, that is the bare minimum. Disney needs to start expanding this same diversity to other aspects of their films, especially when it starts affecting the cultural accuracy of their films. However, this is not the only area where Disney can improve. Although Disney has been improving their depictions of race and ethnicity, they still seem to lack in their representation of body diversity, and variations in sexuality. Looking at body diversity, it seems to be almost non-existent. In fact, it can be found only when it is used to depict a comedic character (like the Sultan in Aladdin), or as a villain (like Ursula in The Little Mermaid). Disney needs to start including more characters of various body shapes and sizes as main characters, and more specifically, princesses. Not doing this is directly feeding into the ideal that “fat is ugly”, when it is not, because fat IS beautiful, as are bodies. And if Disney truly believed that, they would have had this body diversity already, but they do not, and that speaks volumes on its own. Sexuality is also a place of improvement for Disney. Although there have been some depictions of LGBTQ+ characters in their television shows and short films (including Luz Noceda, who is a bisexual character from The Owl House, Cyrus Goodman, a gay character from Andie Mack, and Greg and Manuel, a gay couple from the short film Out), this diversity should also be evident in their feature length films. Having a main character or princess who is in the LGBTQ+ community would be a monumental milestone for the studio, and would most definitely be well-received by audiences alike (unless they stereotype the characters as they have done in decades prior). It is clear that although Walt Disney Studios is not far from done with their diversity in their films, they have come a long way from their start in the early 1900’s.
Disney’s story of diversity is one of huge successes, and also blatant failures. The beginning of their story was filled with utter racism and a prevalent lack of representation, and now, it is filled with beautifully diverse characters and actors that have graced millions of televisions across the globe. But, this story has no ending, because Disney will always have room to improve with how they represent the various communities of different races, ethnicities, sizes, and sexualities. This is why it is so important that we as a generation must be vocal about this. We need to criticize their moments of failure, while also letting them know of their successes. Disney’s improvement of diversity should be a clear indicator that the studio hears our voices, and know that the tide is changing. We will no longer be complacent of lack of representation in the media. And as large of a studio as Disney is, they need to be held accountable. Let us use our voice to make sure that this tale gets a happily ever after, and that one day, every person will be able to find solace and representation in a film.
Evie Fitzpatrick is a 16-year-old sophomore from North Carolina. She is extremely passionate about politics and activism, and loves to share that with those around her. Evie also enjoys blogging, playing the violin, and volunteering at her local science museum. In the future, she hopes to become a biological anthropologist!