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Disney, Race and Gender

Updated on April 27, 2016
Walt Disney's early drawings consisted of Nazi propoganda
Walt Disney's early drawings consisted of Nazi propoganda

How Disney is Changing the way Race is Viewed in the Media

The Disney Perspective

Disney has become a globalized market by reaching out to an array of audiences world wide. One of the primary reasons Disney has reached globalization is due to the brands ability to relate to individuals through their film and marketing techniques. Consequently, former prejudice perceptions reveal Disney as a target of oppression toward race and gender. This is especially problematic since Disney often reflects American nationalism. While the traditional Disney embraced a fairytale founded on whiteness and sexism, the modern Disney is working to expand audiences by developing films that incorporate a transnational view of culture and a modern view of gender. As such an influential brand, it is imperative that Disney keeps up with changing perceptions of race, class, and gender in order to maintain it’s legacy as a globalized market.

There is no denying that Disney dehumanized people in the past. Racism reflected through facial and body stereotypes as well as the way people speak are incorporated into many of Walt Disney’s earliest creations. Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films by Mia Adessa Towbin explores patterns of racism and sexism across all Disney films. Towbin points out many racist stereotypes that reflect American historical racism. For instance, Disney referred to Native Americans as “Indians” in Peter Pan and depicted their skin as red. In the Jungle Book, nearly all of the voices for the monkeys were played by African American actors (Towbin, 28). Aladdin even revealed a very white washed protagonist against arabic antagonists.

Lady & The Tramps' Siamese cats depict asian stereotypes through picture and song
Lady & The Tramps' Siamese cats depict asian stereotypes through picture and song

One of the primary faces of Disney, the Princesses, are an excellent example of how Disney’s perceptions have changed overtime. Aladdin’s Jasmine was introduced as the first ethnic Disney princess in 1992 (Towbin, 24). The Arabian princess came sixty years after Snow White who was followed by Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel and Bell (Towbin, 24). Disney enthusiasts point out the common misconception that Pocahontas and Mulan are Disney heroines, not official Disney Princesses (Lester, 296). For decades, repetitive white princesses highlighted the ideology of white supremacy while re enforcing the privilege of whiteness through a representation of fairytales (Lester, 295).

Disney Waist Size

Drawings reveal princess waist size vs. realistic proportions.  Reflections of these images are compared to today's society with so many celebrities setting an example for young girls to "waist train" to achieve this look of perceived beauty.
Drawings reveal princess waist size vs. realistic proportions. Reflections of these images are compared to today's society with so many celebrities setting an example for young girls to "waist train" to achieve this look of perceived beauty.

While whiteness dominates the Disney screen, stereotypes are embedded beyond the marker felt tip color. Gender has also been classified through a narrow fairytale perception. According to Towbin, in the film Aladdin, Jasmine was constantly dependent on males (her father and Aladdin). Beauty and the Beast also romanticized abuse. Not only were these Disney Princesses displayed as dependent on males for approval, but their figures symbolized unrealistic physical proportions, thus contributing to inaccurate body images. These are often subliminal and embedded into young children’s minds creating the earliest forms of stereotypes and self-concept. The only realistic female character ever produced by Disney was Nani from Lilo and Stitch (2002), who looked like a real human being (Grammar).

“I felt it when I was a kid. Why could I look in these big, beautifully illustrated books and find no reflection of myself? . . . We want to show little kids of all colors and stripes that they can be kings, queens and other characters in wonderful fairytales that touch us all” (Knutzen, 19).

Despite early cartoons that revealed a visibly racist and false image of gender, Disney has worked to shed light on their past by shattering today’s stereotypes. In 2009, Disney released The Frog Prince and introduced the first African American princess, Tiana. Neal A. Lester revealed the revolution of multiculturalism in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog: The Pride, the Pressure, and the Politics of Being a First. Lester compared Princess Tiana to Michelle Obama as a representation of a powerful African American women. The Obamas were the first multicultural family to live in the White House, a once segregated space. Similarly, Tiana was the first African American Disney princess which was once a segregated industry. A black princess represented a transnational view of beauty. Finally, children with darker complexion or facial features could go to the store and buy merchandise that reflected themselves in a positive light.

Tiana & Naveen
Tiana & Naveen

The Frog Prince also experienced a lot of scrutiny concerning social class. Tiana and her mother represent a lower class family. Meanwhile her best friend was a typical rich white girl who dreamed of marrying prince charming. Lester compared the complexities of the girls friendship as reminiscent of a master and slave relationship; however, it also revealed the result of African American poverty today especially considering the movie was located in New Orleans, a city that continues to suffer after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. More so, it reflects the global poverty that many Africans face. Tiana’s female counterpart was mocked for her dependent attitude for men and money throughout the movie whereas Tiana was a wise princess with independent dreams to own a restaurant. This concept of ‘‘dreams come true when you work hard” (Lester, 302) strengthens the concept of the The Frog Prince representing American nationalism based on the American Dream. Therefore, it was not oppressive but rather uplifting toward perceptions of race and class. In addition to making progress toward a more diverse Princess with a strong attitude, Disney also represented Tiana with a more realistic body. “The Frog Princess, Tiana is not just another disproportioned ‘’Barbie doll dipped in chocolate’”, but rather a brown female with ‘‘skin of a ‘darker hue’ and slightly full lips’’ (Lester, 303).

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While being the first African American princess revealed progress through diversity of the multicultural Disney image, there was also a lot of skepticism surrounding race in the film. “Domestically and abroad, the remake of the familiar tale of The Frog Prince became the celebrated, appreciated, and controversial” (Lester, 306). Unlike Obama, Tiana was criticized for not having natural afrocentric hair and instead rocking a permed style. However, Tiana was based off the voice of her character who preferred straight hair. Furthermore, critics were upset that Tiana appeared as a frog for the majority of the movie and married a prince who was an ambiguous race (Lester, 300). ‘‘Disney predominantly ignores rather than addresses the racial elements of [this] story. This disregard is easy when your [central] black character spends 75 percent of the movie being green. While this narrative twist of having both the princess and the prince be frogs romping through the bayou swamp may add humor and intrigue, this animalization of Tiana’s black female body is mired in dehumanizing and even desexing in historical representations” (Lester, 300). These criticisms revealed that people wanted to see more African Americans displayed in Disney and translated the lack of color to not dealing with race (Lester, 302). Audiences were also upset that Disney chose not to display love between two African Americans. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the green frogs showed that exterior form doesn’t matter when it comes to love. Even Barak Obama is of similar complexion to the Disney prince. If Disney chose to display an African American couple, the movie may have been criticized for assuming that two black people should always be together, but mixing races represented a modern couple rather than adhering to cosmopolitanism. Besides, an interracial couple is diverse and unexpected from Disney. Perhaps, Disney is waiting to share a film about the next African American prince so they can market him as hard as Tiana.

Frozen "Let it go"

Disney’s progress toward creating a transnational view of race didn’t stop at the Frog Princess, the progressive brand worked to expand gender misconceptions in their newest film: Frozen. The article,“Frozen” Movie Breaks the Ice for Disney’s Gender Stereotypes by Sarah Grammar gives an analysis of how the film is relatable to this era’s perceptions of love. The main character, Elsa, represents a young girl who is more concerned with sisterhood than boys. Unlike Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, and Sleeping Beauty who experienced love at first sight, Frozen mocks the idea of getting married the moment one sees prince charming. The film played down the marriage scenario and embraced love for family and sisterly bonds instead: “In the end, there is no big kiss to save the day. Instead, sisterly love is what breaks the curse and sets everything right. This love as the happy ending sends a more powerful message than the typical Disney love story” (Grammar). Not only does Disney leave out the traditional male and female union, but they also incorporate their first homosexual character. Oaken from the sauna shop waves to his family while talking to Anna, and for a second the picture cuts to a man and four children waving back to Oaken from the sauna. “Not all people are white heterosexuals and now that Disney is beginning to acknowledge this, their movies can start to relate to the lives of more people and allow people to understand those that are different from themselves” (Grammar). In fact, Frozen has earned $1.2 billion worldwide, becoming the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time and by far the highest-grossing animation (Konnicova).

While Frozen received the most praise, this wasn’t the first time Disney questioned stereotypes. Mulan began by revealing her disinterest in the stereotype of femininity, and challenged the huns when she questioned: “what makes a man?” Recent movies, such as Enchanted, Brave, and Tangled also show a step toward the false idea of love. “Brave even suggests that women do not have to aspire to marriage, and others should not always expect them to marry as well” (Grammar).

By incorporating a transnational depiction of race and a progressive view of gender as well as a realistic view of class, Disney is distancing itself from it’s cosmopolitanism past and delving into the changing perceptions of the future. Unfortunately, Disney will always be vulnerable to scrutiny due to their image of the past. Nevertheless, today’s Disney fans no longer have to feel confined to a fairytale centered around whiteness and being heterosexual. Frozen and The Frog Prince prove that times are changing, and Disney will continue to maintain itself as a globalized market by embracing universal appeal.

The Disney Perspective

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Towbin Adessa, Haddock Shelley, and Zimmerman Schindler. “Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films” Haworth Press. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, Vol. 15(4) 2003. Peer Reviewed Journal. 13 March 2015.

Lester, Neal A. “Disney’s The Princess and the Frog : The Pride, the Pressure, and the Politics of Being a First” 8300 defect for UNSW The Journal of American Culture, 2010, Vol.33(4), pp.294-308. Peer Reviewed Journal. 13 March 2015.

Grammer, Sarah. “Frozen” Movie Breaks the Ice for Disney’s Gender Stereotypes” The Blue & Grey Press. The University of Mary Washington Newspaper. Peer Reviewed Article. 13 March 2015.

Konnikova, Maria. “How “Frozen” Took Over the World” The New Yorker. June 25, 2014.

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© 2015 Natalie Wheeler

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