by Haley Wade and Sean Clark
Pro: by Haley Wade
When I was little, Pocahontas was my favorite Disney Princess. She was a proud Native American chief’s daughter with long flowing ebony hair, high cheekbones, and a towering presence of at least five-foot-eleven. I was a little blonde girl with a squishy round face who measured in at four-foot-four. But when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see Belle or Cinderella or Aurora or Snow White. I saw Pocahontas.
Some of the more recent complaints over the Disney Princess industry come from critics who approach the situation from the perspective of little girls. Every little girl apparently needs to find themselves when they look at the lineup of Disney Princesses. Most arguments conclude that because a girl can’t find physical similarities between herself and a princess, she is unable to see any of them as role models. I find this perspective horribly limiting. Every Disney Princess since the 1980’s has been a courageous, motivated, and intelligent female character (I’m discounting Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora). They manage to be strong while also displaying kindness, generosity, and selflessness. I think that these are the qualities girls should be looking to recognize in themselves rather than hair, skin, or eye color.
Disney Princess films for the most part have originated from fairy tales in the Grimm Fairy Tales. These stories take place in Germany, France, and England, and as a result many of the early princesses are German, French, or English. The Disney Corporation has expanded to a worldwide audience and this kind of popularity comes with the responsibility to make sure they are representing more than medieval Europe. In the past two decades, they’ve looked elsewhere to find inspiration for their princesses.
In fact, of the eight most recent Disney Princess movies, four of the leading ladies have been women of color. Aladdin originated from a middle eastern fairy tale in Arabian Nights, Mulan was based on a legendary figure from ancient China, and Pocahontas was adapted from United States history. When Disney returned to the Grimm brothers’ stories, as they did in The Princess and the Frog, they transposed it into New Orleans in the 1920’s, which resulted in a princess of color who is, in my opinion, one of the best female characters in Disney history. Contrary to many opinions, her character does not “revolve only around the fact that she is black.” She is a young, lower-class woman who has lost her father to the war in Vietnam. She is irrefutably hard-working and every bit of her success is self-earned.
Unfortunately, Walt Disney was pretty definitively a racist and misogynist (for example, check out the link at the bottom of this article). I do not think it is a coincidence that since his death in 1966, the Disney Princesses have become stronger and more diverse. Disney as a company has taken steps forward and I strongly believe it will continue to do so.
After Frozen released two more white princesses into the throng, the negative reactions were intense. When I saw the movie, I saw a girl caught between pleasing others and being true to herself, character development from fear to confidence, the power of optimism and loyalty, and the importance of realizing that the love you can give is stronger than the love you depend on from someone else. Despite the fact that the film confronts major issues girls today are facing, the lack of people of color left some audience members seething.
As a member of the majority, I can look at the Disney Princesses and see many faces that are equally as pale as mine. But I believe, or at least I hope, that I have more in common with Tiana or Pocahontas than I do with my supposed “Disney doppelganger,” Belle (who although intelligent, I consider a little whiny). My current favorite princess, Anna from Frozen, personifies understanding and forgiveness, which I value infinitely more than the fact that she might resemble one of my Norwegian ancestors.
Hopefully one day many, more races will be represented through the Disney Princesses. But until then, it does not do any good to resent every white princess who comes out between now and then. It belittles their positive qualities and places their race above their character. Little girls should not feel the strongest connection to the princess they look the most like. They should feel just as free as I did to run around in their backyards singing Colors of the Wind despite having no Native American heritage whatsoever.
Con: by Sean Clark
Like many other kids, most of my favorite childhood movies were Disney movies. However, I have come to realize and resent the sexist and racist undertones shown to impressionable kids in the form of musicals and anecdotes. The overarching theme of many Disney movies is that the attractive muscular white man always saves the attractive skinny white woman. Let’s go over some of the horrendously bigoted morals taught through Disney movies.
The Little Mermaid is a seemingly cute and innocent story about a mermaid falling in love with a human, but it teaches young girls a detrimental message. Ariel, the protagonist, basically sells her voice to the devil in order to change her body for the man she is in love with. It’s also problematic because he falls in love with her despite the fact that she can’t even talk. By selling her voice, she’s trading her personality for a more favorable appearance. This film shows little girls that they should change for men and succumb to society’s image of beauty.
Pocahontas, a story about a Native American woman’s forbidden love, is quite racist. Disney takes a tumultuous and brutal genocide and turns it into a cute romance. The way Disney portrays the oppression of the Native American people is extremely insensitive, racist, and historically inaccurate. By romanticizing this era, Disney belittles the hardships of the Native American people.
Many other Disney movies are quite racist and sexist as well. The Lady and the Tramp features two Siamese cats. These two cats have exaggerated stereotypical Asian features. Some of them include their slanted eyes and ridiculous accents. These two obviously Asian cats are portrayed as sneaky and evil. Jasmine’s outfit in Aladin is historically inaccurate. Her revealing outfit is an example of white people undermining Middle Eastern culture and religion and is also an example of the oversexualization of women, even in children’s movies. In addition, Jasmine’s tiger is named Rag, which is in fact Indian and not Arabic. The fact that they didn’t even bother to find a historically accurate name shows how blatantly ignorant Disney is because they do not care about Indian culture or Middle Eastern culture enough to differentiate between the two.
The Disney movies I have grown up set a racist and sexist example for young children. Because of these movies, young girls and boys grow up with a sexist and racist mindset. The reasons why sexism and racism still exist are because children are taught to be racist and/or sexist; Disney is just another negative influence on our generation’s youth.