When you hear the word ‘Disney,’ what comes to mind? Is it Mickey Mouse, a character more recognizable worldwide than Santa Claus? Maybe it’s Cinderella’s castle. Or maybe it’s your favorite character from when you were a child. There are plenty of options, and there’s a simple reason for something popping into your head.
The Walt Disney Company has been around for 93 years.
Over those 93 years, the company has touched the lives of many. However, in recent years they have faced a mountain of criticism from vocal citizens who don’t think the company represents minority audiences across the globe, especially within their animated films geared towards children. Much of this criticism comes from the overwhelming amount of white characters in their premiere films.
If you look up a list of Disney princesses, you would see just four non-white characters: Mulan, Tianna, Jasmine and Pocahontas. However, this problem has roots that go beyond the company’s famous arsenal of princesses; criticism of Disney dates back to the origins of the company. Animations of Mickey wearing blackface, the three crows in Dumbo, and many other examples have drawn criticisms and caused the ethics and morality of the company to be questioned.
But let’s make one thing clear: The representation of certain groups and races from 60 years ago was not a Disney problem; it was a cultural problem. Disney is not the only animation studio to have created videos that would never dare be produced in the current state of the world. A quick google search of “censored eleven” will lead you to a series of Looney Tunes (owned by Warner Brothers) clips riddled with ethnic stereotypes. You can’t fault a company for creating content that was consistent with the time period. You can, however, fault a company for failing to change its ways as the world changed its views, however this is not the case with Disney.
What many people don’t know is that many of Disney’s classic animated films are derived from fairy tales written by the Grimm Brothers (both of whom were dead before Abraham Lincoln). They could pick different source material, but you’d be hard pressed to find diverse characters in any kind of fiction that pre-dates the abolishment of slavery.
There’s also very good reason for a majority of the Disney princesses being white. Many of their stories take place in early Europe, and some can be dated earlier than the 15th Century.
So why, in that time and place, is it wrong for many of the characters to be white? Disney isn’t misrepresenting minorities; they’re accurately representing a time period. Mulan, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Princess and the Frog are all placed in a time and place where it makes sense for the main characters to be a different ethnicity. And it’s not as if those movies were created as a cultural filler; they’re all pretty well received. (Pocahontas has the lowest review scores, but that didn’t stop it from making $350 million at the box office back in 1995.)
However, the most recent call to arms via social media keyboard warriors has to do with a different kind of minority group. Many have been asking Disney to name Queen Elsa, from Frozen, as an LGBTQ character. My question to those people is, why?
Frozen is popular for a reason, Elsa and Anna are strong role models for young kids everywhere. But why should she be officially named LGBTQ? It doesn’t contribute to the story in any way. There are undertones that explore Elsa’s hiding her powers out of fear of persecution, so the comparison to the struggles of the LGBTQ community is fairly obvious. But she was hiding her powers not her sexuality. Making her an LGBTQ character, when her sexuality has nothing to do with the plot of the movie, makes her little more than a token character. Wouldn’t you rather see Disney create a proper story for an LGBTQ character rather than throw a label on a character just for the novelty of it?
This is a trend that I’ve always questioned. Why do groups of people wanting to be accurately represented in pop-culture (as they should be) always fight to be depicted through a token character whose sole purpose is to mask the lack of cultural diversity?
Is it any better to make a random character gay, just for the hell of it, than to just not include sexuality if it isn’t relevant to the overall story? No.
Is it necessary to shoe-horn different groups into roles that they don’t fit just so they have some false sense of representation? No.
Disney has taken steps in the right direction to be more diverse and to appeal to wider audiences. A non-animated example of this is in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, whose main protagonists are a black man and a woman. Also Disney’s recent box office hit Zootopia, has its entire plot focused around acceptance and social justice, including positive nods towards the LGBTQ community. Although Zootopia features animated animals, not humans, the overall message of the film is clearly in support of these groups of people who often feel misrepresented or left out all together.
Disney isn’t racist, or intentionally ignoring minorities for its own gain. They’re trying to be culturally accurate to the settings of their films, while remaining true to the source material. They aren’t ignoring the LGBTQ community because they don’t have an LBGTQ princess. Not every story is about sexuality, and not every story is a love story. Not every issue is a race issue, and it is time for people to realize that.