Disney is something that people either love or hate. I’ve been pretty nauseated with them as of lately. Like, patience? Down to nothing.
Admit it, Disney’s been doing some questionable things (more so than usual). Not knowing what’s been going on? Let’s break everything down:
I. Acquisitions, Property neglect, Copyright and Cultural Appropriation
While its something I particularly don’t care much about, Disney’s consumption of entertainment entities (Marvel, Lucasfilm) as if they were Cronos cannibalizing his children has brought lots of concern and criticism. The dismantling of LucasArts in particular after the acquisition was a sour move. The prompt success and then absolute neglect once again of The Muppets franchise (seriously the Muppet area and Muppets 3D attraction and their overall presence in Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World? Needs a big revamp and revitalization, come on guys you know you want Miss Piggy walking around there dressed like a 40s movie star) has been rather disappointing. They should have an active presence if you want to keep them an ongoing and profitable franchise, which going by the film, they are.
The biggest part of this? Earlier this week Disney found itself standing overtly in the wrong ( well they sort of already do perpetually) when it comes to being culturally sensitive, with the recently revealed future Pixar Dia de Muertos copyright application debacle. While the problem has since been rectified after criticism and an uproar of disapproval there is still the looming problem or concern of the film’s impending merchandise and marketing entirely commercializing (even more than it has already been) a very exclusive and passionate holiday to an extent where non-Mexican or those of Mexican descent (ie white suburbia) decide to celebrate it too (for all the wrong reasons, for example like the already appropriated and abused Cinco de Mayo). Merchandise most likely will be showing images formerly only meaningful for those who celebrate and most likely wouldn’t like it being shared. So there is certainly a weary cloud over the movie despite it not being due for a while so let’s hope Pixar inverts expectations in what it is actually about or what it teaches viewers. The moral of Nightmare Before Christmas was all about avoiding appropriation of other people’s cultures, Disney may want to look back at the properties they distribute and get a good lesson from them.
Additionally the reveal or rather the (rumored) incomplete leak of Princess Anna’s rendering for Frozen looking for all the world like like a Rapunzel clone with a dash of Kirsten Bell DNA and being yet another Caucasian, blue-eyed blonde (a problem I will later return to and discuss) was met with mixed reaction and a lot of disappointment (mostly for her generic design). Additionally the continuation of Euro-centric locations and the perpetuation of Caucasian leads is frustrating or at the least boring while the overall questionable overhaul (as in complete disregard and gutting) of the original plot of The Snow Queen has many including myself rather miffed. The original story is very feminist; a young girl Gerta actively goes on a quest to rescue her best friend, a boy Kay, after he was kidnapped by The Snow Queen following a shard of an evil mirror getting stuck in his heart. Along the way she is only helped by other female characters; the Princess, the Robber Girl, etc. Disney at one point was to follow this plot-line as they had many concept artworks for Gerta and Kay. It is also rumored the first 9-15 minutes of the film were actually animated (traditionally) and it was touted by those who saw it as some of the most beautiful work they’ve ever done, but it was ultimately all scrapped during the give or take ten years the project has been in development.
In the new story that they developed to replace the scrapped straight adaptation, Gerta and Kay are gone. Instead of a heroine that could easily have been placed in the Princess line for her bravery and courage despite not being royal, like Mulan, we now have the lead of Princess Anna from the getgo. The plot they’ve settled on is that Princess Anna is on a quest to confront her obviously estranged sister, the Snow Queen and break a curse and save her kingdom from presumably, well freezing. On the way she is now joined by a male character companion or escort, Kristoff, along the way (hopefully they will pull an inversion and not have him as the love interest). While it is too early to completely disregard the film, its changes have brought a lot of ire.
I personally feel the changes are petty and the original storyline is fine and perfect for today’s audiences with some tweaks. You also could have applied the original storyline to anywhere in the world where snow (and thus by proximity, mountains) are featured or rather contrasts with another section of that land. You could have had an Ainu, Mongolian, Tibetan or Peruvian Snow Queen story. It’s like with the floating lanterns from Tangled, the lanterns being a tradition in Southeast Asia. Instead of appropriating the lanterns because they looked cool, that film could have easily just been set in Southeast Asia to begin with. Disney did Hamlet as lions you can put a Scandinavian fairytale elsewhere. I mean I can’t even figure out where the hell The Little Mermaid is supposed to be; it had no particular location (that was NOT Denmark) but it looked vaguely Mediterranean on the Turkish side of things to me. Anyway, Disney has kept it safe by keeping the Scandanavian location and look and ethnicity of the characters for Frozen but got rid of everything else bar the titular Snow Queen. Absolutely groundbreaking.
Concern has also been additionally brought up with the appropriation of traditional Sami clothing in Anna’s design and its impracticality for actually keeping her warm. The Sami is a specific indigenous Scandinavian people who have long been discriminated against, abused and actively persecuted for their dress and religious practices and artifacts. So far Anna or rather her people have not been shown to be Sami. So there are a lot of things people are worried about.
III. Their Princess Problem & Blonde Ambitions
So not only is Disney already walking on eggshells(and glass, and rusty nails), but they additionally have gotten a lot of flack for the recent Princess “redesigns” with the girls of the Princess line given new tousled and restyled hair, tweaked costumes, and then dipped in makeup and glitter. The continued historical and cultural inaccuracies of Jasmine and Pocahontas’s costumes were made worse in their new bedazzled looks.
The redesign of Mulan was particularly awful for being whitewashed, being off model and putting her in makeup she would not want to wear, not to mention wearing golden colored robes (forbidden since that was the Emperor’s color I do believe).
The outrage was actually so vocal that Disney actually went and edited it to be less severe and closer to her movie look.
Only Tiana exited the redesign unscathed and relatively unchanged except for being attacked with purple eyeshadow. Things quieted down but now with the reveal of the redesign of Merida, who was just “coronated” into the Princess line today, people’s ire have returned and with good reason.
They made her “prettier” which yes, they need to convert her to a flat style to properly include her in merchandise, but it is overt in how they slimmed her down and made her cuter in the face, as well as bustier. This is not very different from some of her dolls, which are generally more stylized and “pretty”. People also dislike that they are neglecting to include her bow and arrow, which could be easily and unobstructively included like the first picture, a move that overall neglect’s her personality. They also put Merida in an amalgamation of her dress on the left, and the tight dress she was forced to wear at her suitor’s trials that she disliked and ultimately ripped in a deemed symbolic moment. This is the same problem as the perpetuation of (if you can even find it) Mulan merchandise and her theme park face characters who walk around in the pink hanfu which she also disliked and then sang a really famous song about how she felt uncomfortable.
The change in Merida has been so disliked that a Change.org petition, “Keep Our Hero Brave!” has at the time of writing this article went viral and has amassed 96,248 signatures and climbing.
Disney has a Princess problem and a serious disconnect.
This is really something Disney needs to mend and overhaul. Be it hire a new artistic director to be in charge of the line. Anything. I know many adore the Princesses. And you’re allowed to. You’re allowed to like pink if you like it. You’re allowed to like glitter and rainbows. And hyper-femininity and romanticism. You’re allowed to be inspired by them and find comfort in them. But you need to realize the line has and perpetuates a lot of problems. Pink can be a problem. This new girly-girl culture perpetuates problems. For example why this is a problem look no further than the progression of LEGO’s, originally marketed as unisex and touting creativity for all now gives a clear divide between “girly” sets meant for girls and sets meant for boys (not that you need to buy into either, but people do and that is the problem). This “girlification” is what they are doing to characters like Mulan and Merida and even Pocahontas, who generally are apathetic or actively uncomfortable with such trappings or completely removed from them culturally. If they have a Disney princess who enjoys being pretty and dressed up but also kicks butt while dressed like that? Or is comfortable either dressed up, made up or dressed down? That’s fine. That’s part of her character. But they don’t have that kind of girl in the line; everyone is made beautiful and glittery because they simply are, even those who don’t wish to be put in that box in their respective films.
Now when growing up I loved and continue to love Snow White and Cinderella whom today are pegged by many as some as the most problematic Princesses in terms of agency (though I’d put that on Aurora who literally had such a small presence or role in the film aside from singing and twirling, crying then pricking her finger and falling asleep it might as well been titled Prince Philip and the Three Fairies). While they are a bit more sarcastic and have more personality than people give them credit for (check out the unused scene of Snow White actively swaying the dwarves to let her stay with a haughty cold shoulder and some sly thinking here, it also explains why she runs down the stairs to tend to the kettle so abruptly in the film) I do realize my two favorites have problems despite my love for the films. That doesn’t mean I can’t still appreciate the skill that went into them from an animating perspective. Quite frankly I enjoy my Disney films dark, painterly with jewel-tones, black, brown and a degree of the Gothic (Snow White, Pinnoccio, Fantasia, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad) anyway so the new plethora of pink, purple and other candy colored but sterile world the Princesses now inhabit forever smiling is rather scary to me.
Furthermore, diversity is an issue. With Merida’s crowning today we have just added a second Caucasian, blue eyed princess to the line in under three years. And now with the upcoming Anna from Frozen later this year which means three Caucasian, fair eyed girls are to be added to the line in pretty rapid succession since they introduced Tiana in 2009. It feels as if “Yeah we just had the first black Princess for the line, quick introduce THREE MORE WHITE ONES”. Granted Merida was always on the fence if she was to join them, but she has, so you have to look at what is now going on here when it comes to the diversity in the Princess line since she is now included. Official PRINCESS franchise stats:
future (pending): Anna.
Princess of Color:
Thus 1/3 of them are poc.
2/3 are white.
Of the white characters:
Aurora (from ash-blonde to golden blonde in merchandise)
Cinderella (in merchandise only)
Rapunzel (large preference for pre-haircut and pre-princess identity in merchandise)
and now Anna are blonde or blondish.
1/2 of the white princesses are blonde in their merchandise.
SO overall in the official Princess line:
1/3 are Caucasian blonde or marketed as blonde/shades of blonde.
1/3 are Caucasian of various other haircolors.
1/3 POC characters each with only 1 representative of their respective races and only from one section of the world. No Latin Americans. No other South American, Asian, Indian or Southeast Asians Princesses.
That is not right. Not when white people are not the majority on this planet.
1/3 of all the princesses are blonde.
What is with the blonde?
Disney’s obsession and perpetuation of blondeness or reinforcment that “Blonde is better” can be best seen in Cinderella, the often poised “leader” of the group in all her platinum blonde glory. That is ironic since she is not actually blonde in her film, they just keep making her blonder to match merchandise with each “restoration” and release. Her original haircolor, while perhaps could be seen as strawberry-blonde at the lightest, would in my opinion look more like Judy Garland’s tawny hair in Meet Me In St. Louis. That shade was particularly popular in the late 40’s and 50’s of course when the film came out.
And then compare
It’s gotten so bad and engrained that Cinderella is platinum Barbie blonde via her merchandise that people last Thanksgiving were actively tweeting confusion and were mad that the Cinderella from the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s revival show performing a segment during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was GASP, a brunette! That is the extent of the Disney merchandising machine. It’s brutal.
I know they’ve been doing this forever, Mary Blair’s concept art did have her with straw-blonde hair, but that wasn’t what they went with for the film. They are aryanizing an already white-bread character. Like why? Not all her merchandise gets it wrong, but how would things be if they actually marketed Cinderella with her original hair color in all her merchandise? Such a discrepancy doesn’t make much sense to me.
Really, when it comes to the princesses, white girls and boys, if they wish, can pick and choose who they like best or who resembles themselves or relate to the most from the list of white princesses since there is such a wide gamut of looks and personalities. It’s easier to find yourself represented to a degree at least physically with how many looks they have. Meanwhile girls and boys who are Asian can only look to Mulan if they want someone who looks anything like them which is problematic since not every Asian girl or boy is Chinese. The same issue comes up with every single Princess who is a poc. I know it’s not exclusive, any person can look to any other Princess of any race and consider them their hero or role model and relate to them even if they don’t look like them, you may not even relate to any of the Princesses and relate to another character and that’s okay too. The fact is there are only four Princesses of color and each are incredibly specific and have to carry a lot of weight in terms of representation for their entire enthnicities when nationality that is impossible. To be that tokenized and used as a blanket, all encompassing character, is inherently racist. I mean Tiana spent 2/3rds if not more of her film transformed into a frog thus eliminating her African American presence on screen anyway. This is about proper representation in popular media. With an already crowded group pushing the POC Princesses usually to the back of the group and them having infrequently available merchandise, what is going to happen once Anna, yet another blonde who will no doubt be Disney’s ticket to sell winter gear, is inducted?
Granted, Disney has tried to do diversity before, Lilo & Stitch stands as one of the most sensitive and accurate portrayals of family life Disney has ever done. It features a positive portrayal of native Hawaiian young women as leads and explores important social issues and struggles. Through Lilo they explore the struggle many kids have being deemed different or odd and having a hard time fitting in. Not to mention Nani’s appearance has always been praised for her (for a cartoon) realistic proportions and believability. Basically most of everything about that movie was amazing.
Sadly, another diverse film, the gorgeously animated but overall ignored Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the very much blatant movie adaptation of the anime Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, had it been successful would have no doubt added Kida, the actual in-story Princess of Atlantis and woman of color, to the Princess line as well.
In fact the movie had some of the most diverse of casts Disney has ever had, and perhaps the most active female characters in one film. Aside from Kida you also had Lieutenant Helga Katrina Sinclair, the elderly Wilhelmina Bertha Packard and above all the Puerto Rican mechanic Audrey Rocio Ramirez filling a good portion of the cast. The mixed Black and Native American Doctor Joshua Strongbear Sweet added even further diversity to the film’s leads. It is sad because fundamentally, Atlantis is exactly what a lot of people I’ve seen on social media are wanting from Disney both as a film and the Princesses that people actually want to see. I hypothesize had Atlantis come out later, maybe around now, it would have been a smash hit: It was too early. And that makes me sad.
What Disney needs to do with the Princesses, is instead of making them more glitzy, is to portray them as the heroes they actually were and are. If it means making up more skills and interests for Aurora, Cinderella to do so then so be it. Another thing is that their interactions are often so sterile if interacting at all. It is easier to copy and paste group shots for merchandise but if you made things that depicted them doing what they like to do and interacting with each other instead of just sitting and standing looking sexualized with coy Stepford smiles in staggered group shots would really make all the difference.
Portray Tiana and Snow White cooking together smiling and laughing. Have Rapunzel painting Cinderella and Pocahontas as they weed a garden and pick vegetables, Merida showing Belle how to shoot an arrow, or riding horses together. Mulan teaches Aurora how to fight, or Aurora teaches Ariel to dance. Active characters with personality. Draw them in all sorts of clothes. Work clothes. Casual dresses. Yes I know the allure of royalty and the frou-frou dream of dresses and riches are everything the Disney Princesses are about; but they would have so much more magic if they had kind of life brought to them in merchandise and showed them as relatively real girls with likes, dislikes and show their actual personalities.
Hell, branch out even more and create a “Disney Heroines” line where all the Disney heroines could be used and marketed. They need to slowly stop marketing Cinderella as a platinum blonde, they need to not “prettify” Merida Pocahontas and Mulan, the latter of which they need to stop marketing her in her pink hanfu, and instead be featured in the dress she wore when defeating Shan Yu. They need more merchandise of post-haircut brunette Rapunzel. They need to actually have merchandise that features Pocahontas, Mulan, Jasmine and Tiana on it and features them more towards the front when with other princesses like Belle, Snow White, and Cinderella. More accurate or respectable costumes for Jasmine (her usual costume is actually pretty much underwear for an ancient Arab culture) and Pocahontas. They need to stop with the Euro-centric settings and learn how to be respectful to other cultures.
And above all, parents need to educate themselves; don’t just offer your child one thing. Do not just offer them the pink Princess world, if they want it, they will ask for it. But it shouldn’t be the only option, just like for Merida in the end marrying right then wasn’t the only option she could take and the movie was all about making her mother understand that – that’s what it’s all about. We can’t keep doing this to ourselves.
So yes, Disney is magical for those that want to believe in it. It can be entertaining and inspiring. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows (it’s a corporation after all) and we really need to learn to look at it with a critical eye and keep that gaze on it. Because if we do then things may actually change and for the better. Let’s get people’s opinions heard.
Staff Writer/The Doctor