11. The Multicolored Mouse: The Necessity of Disney Diversity

Author: Gabriela Alvarez, First Year

The Walt Disney Company is well-known the world over for its magical “once upon a times” and wholesome “happily ever afters.” Stories like Cinderella, Snow White, and The Little Mermaid all feature captivating tales of beautiful young women who are pure of heart seeking adventure and true love. Disney paints the picture of a strong sense of faith and love, which act as guiding forces that provide access to a lifetime of happiness.

Unfortunately, these stories all lack a crucial sense of diversity in today’s emerging and multicultural world. In the realm of the Disney Princesses franchise specifically, seven of the eleven women are Caucasian. Of these princesses, Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, and Aurora all exhibit similar aspects of female subordination and second-class citizenry. These women, so idolized around the world for their beauty and enchanting fairytales, are also remarkably indicative of a time where civil rights for women were not prevalent, and furthermore illustrate a sense of complacency with this environment. In the current media-centered learning structure, adolescent girls look up to the princesses’ example, and are thereby taught that it is both normal and acceptable to be subjugated to men and dependent on them.

However, the four multicultural princesses share a much different story. Mulan, a Chinese warrior, though also raised in an extremely patriarchal household like Ariel, demonstrates an independent style of living that can inspire personal responsibility in young children. Tiana, Disney’s first African American princess, stays true to her incredible work ethic, sense of faith, and responsibility through all the trials of her life—another powerful message for the audience. Jasmine, Disney’s Middle-Eastern princess, denies her father’s attempts at an arranged marriage for herself and instead looks for adventure and true love on her own, forming freedoms previously not available to her. Similarly, Pocahontas deviates from her father’s intended plan for her and instead finds true love for herself and serves as an ambassador to new, unknown lands and their civilians.

In today’s twenty-first century world, Disney has fallen behind in illustrating modern characters that can emulate the company’s goal of positively impacting the various global cultures. Traits like divorce, homosexuality, illegitimate children, unemployed parents, and other similar issues affecting contemporary families are purposefully ignored in Disney films. For a company that has been ranked 39th in the top 50 companies engaged in diverse employment benefits, the Walt Disney Company’s films are ironically non-reflective of this statistic.

It is time that Disney addressed this lack of diversity in their animated films. To do this, it is necessary that every aspect of the filmmaking process be inclusive to different identities. For the well-being of the company’s image and a more positive impact on popular culture and human development, Disney must incorporate the endless possibilities of realistic family values and individual issues into three introductory films that will open the door for more expressive, inclusive films and a more accepting environment worldwide.

Although to many the Walt Disney Company may just be a fond childhood memory, Disney’s media and consumer initiatives transcend national boundaries. The Disney corporation owns or exerts influence in six movie studios (three of which are animation studios), the ABC network (which has 226 affiliated stations), ESPN, and seven other TV channels. They control 227 radio stations, as well as multiple vacation resorts, theme parks, cruise lines, and Broadway production companies. They publish books and magazines, and even maintain a secure browser via the Walt Disney Internet Group. All of this is done while holding 10 franchises that produce consumer products within the Disney Stores and elsewhere to provide families everywhere with the Disney brand in their daily lives (Giroux). The sun truly never sets on the Disney empire.

Through its wide-branching influence, the Walt Disney Company thoroughly impacts most aspects of modern day life. In today’s rapidly industrializing, technological world, the idea that Disney can simultaneously manipulate vacations, television, film, music, print, merchandise, and the Internet is indeed overwhelming. But is their influence such a bad thing? The films Disney produces provide quality and wholesome family entertainment that preach the importance of hard work, perseverance, and faith as the keys to a successful life. At least in the United States of America, these values are the epitome of the “American dream”—if you work hard enough and believe, you can accomplish anything—almost the verbatim lyrics of the popular song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” from Cinderella. Although in some tragic instances this is not exactly realistic, most parents teach this same warming message. The presence of Disney in childhood then reinforces this motivation to excel, and could quite potentially drive the leaders of tomorrow’s world towards bigger and better goals.

So what then is the issue? The answer lies not in the message Disney is crafting itself, but the process. The Walt Disney Company has the right idea with faith, trust, and pixie dust, but the sparkle isn’t shared so equally with all walks of life. Racism, sexism, and cultural stereotypes are perpetuated in their films, whether as a simple background theme or a means of the plot mechanics themselves. Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, women, and characters of LGBTQUIA status are regularly created in Disney films with exaggerations of their different cultural appearances, accents, and traditions. Because of Disney’s wide reach of communications, these depictions not only continue to expand stereotypes, but also teach that it is socially acceptable to slur these traits to raise another culture’s ideals and identities (Cheu).

One instance of this slurring-and-raising cause and effect in the United States occurred during World War II. To encourage and educate the public about war efforts at home, the enemy’s strategies, and why America joined the war in the first place, the military overtook the Disney Studio in 1941. Leonard Maltin, a film historian who analyzed these merged works, describes “demonizing the enemy” as necessary to mobilize support at home and provide incentive to buy war bonds and aid as support for the war (Walt Disney on the Front Lines). Depicting Hitler and other Communist leaders as inhuman and non-responsive to the pleas of their people allowed the American government, and more importantly the military, to be adored as domestic heroes fighting a great war. By using pathos, or emotional appeal, the Disney-military alliance’s message helped propaganda read as truth.

Short films during the time of World War II like “Der Fuehrer’s Face” and “Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi” utilize animation and production techniques specifically designed to ignite the patriotism, or alternatively, the outrage of the American citizen. European Nazis are depicted as strict and cruel of character, while Asian Nazis are illustrated with stereotypical slanted eyes and heavy accents.  Both animations involve the heavy use of dark shadows, and the characters even sometimes appear with yellow demonic eyes staring out of the darkness. In addition, animated Hitler has a moment where he is shown with red devil horns. This satanic image closely accompanies the transformation of a crucifix into a sword with a swastika on the hilt, a direct shot towards the strong Christian foundation of American hearts. Perhaps hitting closest to home, “Education for Death” follows the corruption of a baby German boy, Hans, in his dynamic progression from innocent and kindhearted schoolboy to muscled, coldhearted Nazi soldier, which ultimately leads him to his grave with many other fighting German men (Walt Disney on the Front Lines).

However, the blame for ethnic stereotypes does not entirely rest on Disney’s shoulders. They are primarily a company concerned with storytelling. A corporation with such interests must of course restore the classics of the Grimm brothers and other legends that were written during a time when racial and cultural insults were socially acceptable. It is in the nature of any company, large or small, to protect its own interests. Disney did and continues to do so by crafting characters that, while sometimes offensive, appeal to the public eye and make light of the once dark tales told by the Grimm brothers. Hence, the reaction to these films shares an equal reprimand. Disney will continue to create such movies until the public stops taking interest in them, and thereby builds the company’s economic reserves. For instance, the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp are drawn in such a fashion that exaggerates their Asian background. In reality, Siamese cat eyes are much less exaggerated. Depictions of these cats are a direct metaphor to how the audience would stereotype Asian ethnicity. Lady and the Tramp was one of Disney’s best-selling movies—so Disney’s racially insulting habits were merely reinforced when the company incurred such a huge profit (Cheu).

Disney does not claim to endorse the ideas of racial, female, or sexual orientation subordination. The fact of the matter is equally about what their films contain than what they do not. Half the battle is taking charge of each individual’s own education, making choices about how the person will interact with the films and how they interpret the themes in their own life. Today, the Walt Disney Company’s role should be to encourage broad perspectives by bringing diverse players into the arena. Disney is on the brink of genius with new ethnic characters like Merida of Brave and Tiana of The Princess and the Frog, who concern themselves with their own values, work, and ideas. Disney must continue this trend by developing more racially and sexually diverse characters.

Because Disney primarily affects children through pop-culture, media in films, and television, the best plan to develop a more culturally accepting audience starts by changing their viewing material; this is where Disney comes in. The Walt Disney Company needs to focus on animating real-life issues in the hopes of improving society. With an estimated 200 million people watching Disney films each year, evolving the concepts presented in a Disney film is a guaranteed way to at least promote acceptance of any issue in a society (Cheu). This is a multi-step procedure, with three specific ideas (and hopefully more to follow in this trend), with each film being more inventive and groundbreaking than the last. Although it would be ideal for Disney to immediately produce films accepting such current cultural taboos like divorce and homosexuality, the present nature of society, especially in conservative countries, requires a “baby step” approach.

The first film should prominently feature an ethnic mosaic of different cultures. Conservative perspectives will certainly not be aghast at a display of diversity as the rising ethnic climate of every country and each group’s desire to be heard grows by the day. Disney took a giant leap forward with their first African American princess, Tiana. The next largest minority group is Hispanics. The new film, “Sofia the First” controversially features Disney’s first Hispanic princess, as confirmed by the movie’s executive producer. However, Disney later released a statement saying, "Some of you may have seen the recent news stories on whether Sofia is or isn't a 'Latina princess.' What's important to know is that Sofia is a fairytale girl who lives in a fairytale world" (Navarrette, Jr.). While the public questions why Disney is withholding this information about a Hispanic princess, a huge opportunity comes to light. Disney could correct the situation by generating large amounts of publicity to advocate their increasing involvement in ethnic diversity. All it takes is Disney’s accepting Sofia as the first step—a princess who is clearly Hispanic as confirmed by both the choice and spelling of her name and Disney’s claim of her mother’s supposed heritage in a fictional country based off of Spain. Celebrating Sofia opens the door for an influx of ethnic diversity in all of Disney’s productions to come.

Next comes domestic acceptance. Divorce has become less of a taboo subject over the years as the rate of its occurrence has risen. The President and CEO of the Walt Disney Company Robert Iger—the official who bought Pixar and brought it into the Walt Disney Company because of his strong belief in the power of animation—is a divorced and remarried man, with children from both marriages (“Bob Iger”). Yet the topic has still remained quietly hidden in Disney movies. Several Disney princesses are without one or either parent as a result of tragedy, and the recent character Russell from Up has hints of a background with divorced parents. However, the idea of divorce is still “hush-hush,” and it’s time for Disney to bring it to light.  As a business that caters to family values, it may be difficult to take that first step in depicting divorce, but it will also be acclaimed in taking a progressive stand. Divorce is never a positive outcome of marriage, but by allowing its entry into Disney films, it can positively contribute to the mental health of children from divorced families. As stated earlier, one of the main “gospel” tenets of Disney is faith—faith in the inner goodness of everyone, and faith that things will get better (Pinsky). What an incredible reminder for an audience who may struggle with their own family life.

The third culturally oppressed category in Disney movies is the LGBTQUIA community. A gay Disney prince or lesbian princess is absolutely sure to cause an uproar among socially conservative perspectives worldwide. There would be mass disapproval from homophobic attitudes, and Disney could be outrageously accused of being overtaken by a liberal viewpoint investment. The first film will most likely not do well with the general public. However, it will positively impact those it depicts and global views on the subject. Disney is such a trusted, safe arena that while initially this trust may seem violated by allowing a homosexual influence in a character, it has the potential to provide the quickest vein to society’s heart. While this may take a few years, and heterosexual observers may be uncomfortable with the idea, a Disney film could take the first step in swaying their fears. Moreover, children, teens, and adults struggling with their sexuality will not only feel greater inclusion in today’s society, but it can also provide them with a role model, a character to look up to when times are hard. A gay prince who still leads his kingdom with a noble heart can inspire a young boy with a similar sexual orientation to be more comfortable in his own skin. Everyone deserves a hero.

These steps are just the first in a series of integrating a more modern-focused society. Adding these progressive visions into the Walt Disney Company’s repertoire would improve their image and many cultures around the world that Disney influences. Hopefully with these first three film premises Disney can break the “glass ceiling” that encloses their animation in a strictly traditional bubble and incorporate Disney’s magic into the relevant cultural context of today.

Works Cited:

Cheu, Johnson. Diversity in Disney films : critical essays on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013. Print.

Faherty, Vincent. "Is the mouse sensitive? A study of race, gender, and social vulnerability in Disney animated films.." Simile 1.3 (2001): n.pag.EBSCOhost. Web. 29 Sep 2013. <http://ehis.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=6134eec1-c8cd-47b7-be42-069bed44382e@sessionmgr104&vid=1&hid=116&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ==

Giroux, Henry. The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2010. Print.

Ingraham, Chris. Thinking Straight: The Power, Promise, and Paradox of Heterosexuality. Routledge, 2004. Print.

Navarrette Jr., Ruben. "Why Isn't Disney’s Princess Sofia Latino?." CNN. CNN, 26 10 2012. Web. 30 Oct 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/25/opinion/navarrette-disney-hispanics/>.

Pinsky, Mark. The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. Print.

Strochlic, Nina. "Disney’s New Princess." Newsweek160.19 (2012): n.pag. EBSCOhost. Web. 29 Sep 2013. <http://ehis.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=885b4511-9d1d-40dd-ac04-f9e620ba0cb2@sessionmgr115&vid=1&hid=116&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ==

"The Walt Disney Company: No. 39 in the DiversityInc Top 50." DiversityInc. DiversityInc. Web. 29 Sep 2013. <http://citationmachine.net/index2.php?reqstyleid=1&reqsrcid=MLAWebDocument&srcCode=11&more=no&mode=form>.

Walt Disney on the Front Lines. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2003. Film. 29 Sep 2013.

Make an Appointment