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It’s been a while since we discussed the Disney canon (and I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Thank goodness”), so to get back into it, I thought I’d dive right in with one of the most controversial topics I could possibly think of – Disney’s representation of race. Oh boy! This is a really loaded discussion and right off the bat I must acknowledge my own limitations; as a white British male, I understand that I lack any real contextual perspective to ground my thoughts in. Despite that, I think this is an important discussion for all of us to have regardless of colour, because it’s important to recognise why certain portrayals are better than others and to think about what Disney could do to improve in the future.
Founded in 1923 and releasing their first film in 1937, the first key thing to keep in mind is how old the Disney company really is; segregation was in full force in those early days with “separate but equal” facilities across much of America, and while this was not so bad in the more liberal state of California, there were still no long-term black animators at Disney until 1956. Chinese-American Tyrus Wong famously had a short stint at the studio between 1938-1941 and his race was a novelty at the time, but despite his initially low-ranking position at the studio he managed to dazzle Walt Disney with his artwork for Bambi and became its lead designer (even if he was then let go following the infamous strike of 1941). Even as far back as 1933 Disney employed the female, Japanese-American artist Gyo Fujikawa as a designer, so the studio was evidently not as backward in its racial policies as many other parts of the country at the time.
Of course, we’ve all heard the persistent claims that Walt Disney himself was a “racist,” a “sexist,” or an “Anti-Semite”, but despite what Meryl Streep might think, generations of historians have found almost no evidence to back any of that up. Walt Disney was an imperfect person just like all the rest of us and living in a much less politically-sensitive time besides, but aside from the plain fact that he was an ardent anti-Communist (as were most Hollywood execs at the time), most historical and personal records from those who knew him tell of a man whose main motivation was making people happy, even if he could sometimes be difficult to work for. Many of his statements will seem offensive from a modern perspective, it’s true, and as I’m about to get into below, there is genuine racism to be found in some of the older films, even if it wasn’t meant maliciously. Yet Walt was also willingly working closely with women, Jews, Asians and other discriminated-upon groups long before Civil Rights and Second-wave feminism brought more opportunities to them elsewhere in the workforce. It would be a stretch to call the studio “progressive,” but it was certainly fair for its day.
Discussions of race representation in Disney films are complicated by the fact that many Disney characters are animals, so it can become difficult to discern the exact intentions of the animators – were they trying to create a metaphorical representation of an ethnic minority via stereotypes, or are we simply reading too much into it? In some cases, such as the frequently-cited ones of the crows from Dumbo or King Louie from The Jungle Book, I believe the latter is true. After all, the crows are some of the cleverest and most benevolent characters in Dumbo besides Timothy, and it’s worth keeping in mind that four out of five of them were voiced by actual African-American actors at a time when casting opportunities for them were scarce. The only truly “racist” thing about them is the fact that the leader is named “Jim Crow” (a tasteless reference to the brutally oppressive Jim Crow laws) but even this is never actually said aloud (he’s called “Jim” only once). The crows are positive, enjoyable characters who are among the few to treat Dumbo kindly and help him to unlock his flying ability – at a time when most other black actors were relegated to demeaning roles as servants or comic relief, this ain’t half bad.
As for King Louie, all this talk about him supposedly being Walt’s “commentary” on Civil Rights-era black people trying to “step out of line” sounds like pure speculation; I’ve already pointed out that Disney had been employing black artists since the mid-1950s, with the first, Floyd Norman, even working on the story department for The Jungle Book. Louie was voiced by a white, Italian-American actor and is only portrayed in a negative light because of his actions, not his desires – he is deceitful, manipulative and threatening towards Mowgli, so naturally we see him as the antagonist. His wanting to be human is a goal shared by many other Disney characters (like Ariel, for instance), but nobody else goes about achieving it in the same ruthless manner. Also, it’s worth comparing his arc to Mowgli’s, an explicitly non-white character who has grown up believing himself to be an animal but is convinced to join the other humans by his friends. If you’re going to read a Civil Rights subtext into this, then Mowgli’s story could arguably be seen as support for it.
Of course, that’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist in Disney films. Unfortunately, it does, usually in the form of minor characters, but the scenes are no less cringe-worthy when we look back at them from the twenty-first century, however brief they might be. Among the earliest and most offensive was Sunflower, a black centaurette who appeared in the Pastoral Symphony section of Fantasia in 1940. Now this is racism – Sunflower, whose role is to serve the whiter, more Aryan centaurettes, was designed as a degrading “pickaninny” stereotype with large lips, buck teeth and pigtails, and is perhaps the most blatant example of a racial caricature in the entire Disney canon.
During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Disney recognised the insensitivity of this portrayal and awkwardly edited Sunflower out of re-releases of the film, but since this disrupted the flow of the music in her scenes, she was later edited back in, only with the picture blown up to exclude her from the frame. Given how awful and unnecessary this character was, I can see why Disney were so keen to hide her, but perhaps it would have been more beneficial to simply include a commentary with newer releases of the film to explain to viewers the problems with this type of “representation”. In the sixty-nine years between Sunflower and Tiana, Disney’s first black lead, the studio has certainly come a long way.
However, it’s not only black people who have been the target of racial caricaturing in Disney films over the years. Another infamous and deeply uncomfortable example were the “Indians” from Peter Pan, created over a decade before the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968. With a more central role to their story than Sunflower had, there was no escape in editing for Disney this time; these are perhaps the most offensive caricatures to remain in one of their films. The Chief speaks in an exaggeratedly deep, guttural growl using broken English, and his design is so outlandish that he scarcely seems human. Conversely, his daughter Tiger Lily is rather “exoticized” (despite her age), with lighter skin and gentler features, carrying the implication that Native American characters can only be used either as comic relief or objects of desire. Oh dear. The best that can be said is that they are on the good guys’ side and are portrayed as stealthy and competent hunters, but still, that does not make up for What Made the Red Man Red? Disney have had many other Native American characters since these, thank goodness, putting several of them in leading roles which we’ll explore in more detail below.
Outside of these two glaring examples, most other instances of racial caricaturing are quite brief, although that doesn’t make any of them any less offensive; there’s Stromboli, the fiery and temperamental Italian in Pinocchio, the Roustabouts, a group of dark-skinned labourers from Dumbo who sing about being illiterate and irresponsible (yeesh), Si and Am, the mischievous Engrish-speaking stereotypes who cause trouble for the debutante Lady, Shun Gon, a slant-eyed cat who plays the piano with chopsticks while chanting vaguely Chinese-related phrases in The Aristocats, and Oliver & Company’s sleazy, womanising Tito, who is still a Mexican stereotype even while being a more fleshed-out and likable character. Of course, exactly how offensive each of these will be taken as depends on the individual viewer – I’m sure there are plenty of Italians, Thais, Chinese and Mexicans who don’t mind these characters at all, while others will undoubtedly despise everything about them.
The main point of all of this is that while stereotypes themselves are not inherently bad, relying solely on them to portray other races or cultures can be damaging and offensive to those whose race or culture you are portraying. Stereotypes are simply a means of expressing something quickly and simply, and much like the oft-misused term “cultural appropriation,” it’s not their existence but how you use them that matters. After all, there are positive stereotypes of racial minorities as well; we’ve all heard the misconception that all Asian people are inherently better at maths, or that all black people are naturally gifted athletes. Those stereotypes are still unhelpful and are not grounded in any factual basis, but their existence just goes to show how easy it can be to fall into the trap, even with good intentions. Nobody can be fully understood as a set of fixed behaviours or abilities because we are all complex individuals, and the best non-white leads reflect this.
In the wake of such excellent contemporary films as Moana and Coco, it becomes easier than ever to see what was wrong with characters like those listed above; they were simplistic, one-dimensional and based solely on the white writers’ limited perceptions of people from those particular ethnic backgrounds, whereas characters like Moana or Miguel are fully-developed, well-written and engaging leads who just happen to be Polynesian or Mexican. Their personalities are the focus, highlighting the shift in audiences from the 1920s to now – no longer are ethnic minorities treated as “gags,” relegated to bit-parts intended to get a cheap laugh out of mostly-white audiences. Now, they are taking the helm of their own stories, revelling in their own cultures, and introducing them to increasingly-diverse audiences all around the world.
That brings me to the second half of my discussion. Having recently worked my way through the entire Disney canon, I realised that in all the eighty-one years that they’ve been producing films, only ten starred non-white people in the leading role. Then again, if we dismiss package films and films starring animals, the ratio becomes close to one third – ten non-white leads out of about thirty human leads in total. One third isn’t bad, but there’s always room for improvement. If we examine these ten characters more closely, we notice a few interesting things about the group; they are evenly split between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with five characters from each, as well as between genders, with five males and five females. Three of the characters also happen to spend the majority of their screen-time as animals (which does carry some unfortunate implications).
However, the one thing they all have in common is that they are not white, offering representative faces to the millions of Disney fans who look like them and long to see themselves depicted on screen. There’s no underestimating the importance of that, and it’s great to see Disney beginning to feature more and more non-white leads as the years go by.
The following ten are the only ones so far to have been the main characters in their films, so what I’d like to do is analyse the way they are portrayed and work out how balanced the representation of each one is (at least to my mind). At the end of each section, I’ll assign a “grade” to the character to indicate how successful I think they were as characters (I know that’s rather arbitrary, but it’s the simplest way I can think of expressing it). I’m basing these grades on the quality of the characters’ story arcs and the nuances of their personalities, as well as on smaller details like whether they actually remain human for most of their screen-time, or whether they’re played by an actor of similar heritage.
A few notes for clarification; I won’t be including any characters from Saludos Amigos or The Three Caballeros, since as package films they technically don’t have “leads” and even if they did, it would probably be Donald Duck. We are also sticking solely to the Disney canon, so as much as I love Miguel and Coco in general, as a Pixar boy, he isn’t being included here. Finally, popular characters like Jasmine, Esmeralda and Kida, while they are also representing different races, are not the main characters in their respective films, so they’re out too (also, Kida’s race isn’t real). In case you’re wondering about Quasimodo, I am of the belief that he is not ethnically a Romani; his “mother” is likely just a kind woman who rescued him after he was abandoned by his (presumably white) parents, which would sadly have been a likely scenario in those days. After all, we see Frollo attempt the same thing and baby-switching was even a plot point in the original novel, albeit with Esmeralda. With that out of the way, let’s get started! (And please don’t kill me, these are just my opinions; I’m always open to learning more).
Film: The Jungle Book (1967)
Actor(s): Bruce Reitherman (white)
Live-action adaptation? Yes, played by Indian-American Neel Sethi (2016)
Occupation: A feral child
Thirty years after Disney’s first film came out and right in the midst of the Civil Rights era, they finally debuted their first non-white main character. However, in these early days, the question of casting an actual Indian actor to voice him doesn’t seem to have come up – he was originally meant to be played by white actor David Alan Bailey, but when Bailey’s voice changed during the long production, director Wolfgang Reitherman recast the role with his son, Bruce (wow, nepotism much?).
As a character, there’s not a whole lot to Mowgli. I know, I know, I praised him in my original review for being an improvement over the much duller Arthur from The Sword in the Stone, but he’s still just a pawn in his own story, with his fate in the hands of the animals. His story is presented as a simple Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narrative, mixed with a bit of an identity crisis; there’s none of the subtext of the novel, where his awareness of his own power over the animals as a human serves as a warning of the inevitable danger we pose to nature. He’s brave and spirited (if a little stubborn), but that’s about it.
From a cultural angle there’s not much to discuss either, but admittedly this is due not to racism but to the plot. As a feral child, Mowgli is entirely cut off from human civilisation, so it makes sense that he wouldn’t display any knowledge of Indian culture. Only when he encounters Shanti, the little girl at the end, do we get a glimpse of it – she has a bindi decoration on her forehead, a traditional religious mark sometimes worn by Hindu women. Not until decades later would we get a better exploration of Indian culture from Disney in Pixar’s 2015 short Sanjay’s Super Team. Mowgli as presented here is basically just a brown-skinned version of Disney’s usual little-boy leads from that time; he’s not particularly offensive, but neither is he very interesting.
Film: Aladdin (1992)
Actor(s): Scott Weinger and Brad Kane (both white)
Live-action adaptation? Upcoming, will be played by Coptic-Canadian Mena Massoud (2019)
Occupation: Thief, then a prince
Not until a quarter century later in 1992 would we see Disney’s next non-white lead, in the form of Aladdin. Somewhat surprisingly, the directors once again opted to cast a pair of white men for Al’s speaking and singing voices, but then, the film is based largely on the 1924 and 1940 film versions of The Thief of the Baghdad, both of which also starred white leads. The story itself is believed to have been created by a Frenchman, so it’s all a bit murky from a cultural standpoint.
This is certainly an improvement over Mowgli; Aladdin is a fully-fleshed out character with a distinct personality and an arc, although once again he does seem very Americanised (his design was based on Tom Cruise) and so he doesn’t end up feeling very Arabic. There are a few scattered references to Allah and salaams, but overall the film is not a serious attempt to respectfully portray Arabic culture – it’s simply “Hollywood Arabia.” (Also, I discussed the setting in my review and timeline posts and concluded that it might actually be Iran, based on the elements we’re shown). While I do enjoy Jasmine, who is fiery and independent, it must be said that she’s a tad sexualised, a continuation of the depictions of Arabic women in western art as exoticized objects of men’s desires. Then again, considering the general ignorance surrounding “Muslims” in America nowadays (pretty much all Middle Eastern people tend to be labelled as such, regardless of faith), I suppose it could have been much, much worse. Even at the time, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee raised complaints about certain insensitive song lyrics, which, to the directors’ credit, were duly changed. At least the film isn’t mean-spirited, even if it is unrealistic, and it’s great that young Arabic kids in the audience got to see a prince and princess at the end who looked like them.
Films like The Breadwinner have offered up more grounded and realistic depictions of life in the Middle East since Aladdin, but despite its inaccuracies, it marked a turning point in Disney’s films – from then on, non-white leads would appear more regularly, instead of once every quarter century.
Film: Pocahontas (1995)
Actor(s): Irene Bedard and Judy Kuhn (Native American and white)
Live-action adaptation? No direct one, but Terrence Malick’s The New World cast Quechua-Huachipaeri actress Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas
Now we’re coming to a problematic one. This was an interesting film, because it marked the first time that the directors set out with the explicit intention of depicting a non-white culture correctly (how successful they were is debatable, to say the least). Thus, this was also the first time that an actor was cast whose ethnicity matched the character’s (although to be nit-picky, Pocahontas’s closest modern descendants are Algonquian, while Irene Bedard is of Iñupiat, Yupik, Inuit, Cree and Métis ancestry). Pocahontas is also the first non-white lead to speak a few words in her native language, Powhatan, but there’s not much, probably because the language is long-extinct.
The depiction of Pocahontas was fraught with controversy from the beginning, not least because she’s one of the few Disney characters of any colour to be based on a real historical figure. There was both excitement and trepidation among Native American communities in the build up to the film’s release, and in the wake of its release many felt let down by the film, although a few (like actor Russell Means) did consider any film starring a Native American woman as its lead to be a sign of progress.
I may be as white and British as John Smith is, but even I can see there are problems here. While Pocahontas is presented as a competent peacemaker, her personality feels rather flat and her design, like Jasmine’s, is exoticized to a ridiculous extent, bearing little resemblance to her historical counterpart. (This problem continued with characters like Esmeralda and Kida later; thank goodness Mulan, Tiana and Moana aren’t presented like this). It’s definitely a plus point that this was Disney’s first interracial romance, but on the other hand, we have the issue of “othering” – Pocahontas’s culture is made out to be vague and mysterious, operating on a kind of “magic” which captivates the white male lead. To quote the TV Tropes page on Magical Native American; “Often this involves stating that their power comes from innate spirituality or closeness to nature that ‘civilized’ races don’t have… Works often use this trope to promote a ‘positive’ image of Native Americans rather than accurately portraying their culture or developing them as characters.”
Ultimately, while this was never intended to be a documentary, the main problem with her portrayal here is that it is drastically at odds with the much harsher reality of the girl’s life, something which deeply offended many Native American viewers who understandably felt that their history was being “sanitized” to make it palatable for white audiences. This result can be partially attributed to executive meddling; the original plans were to make a more historically-accurate film, but when a certain somebody started to get hungry for an Oscar after tasting the possibility with Beauty and the Beast, this film was hijacked and twisted into a love story against all logic. The Oscar didn’t come, and Disney were left shamefaced.
Film: Mulan (1998)
Actor(s): Ming-Na Wen and Lea Salonga (Chinese-American and Filipina)
Live-action adaptation? Upcoming, will star Chinese-American Liu Yifei (2020)
Now we’re talking! In the role of Mulan, we nearly had native Hawaiian Tia Carrere (who does also claim some Chinese ancestry), but eventually the role went to Macanese-American Ming-Na Wen, with the Filipina Lea Salonga providing her singing voice as she had for Jasmine.
In earlier drafts of the story, Mulan was going to be whisked away to a life of happiness in the west by a British prince (yes, really!), but thank goodness they came to their senses and chose to stick more closely to the original ballad. The final version of Mulan presented is a fantastic character whose motivations are rooted firmly in her own cultural values. She chooses to step in for her father when he’s conscripted to the army and pushes herself to become a strong soldier, ultimately earning the respect of her commanding officer, her comrades and the Emperor himself. (Although I know him bowing to her was a point of issue with some Chinese viewers, as it was deemed unrealistic). The strength, wits and good judgement displayed by Mulan are truly admirable, making her an excellent role model not just for Chinese viewers but for all children – especially girls. She’s not exoticized or objectified (and when she tries to fit into this “traditional” mould, she’s terrible at it); instead, she shrugs off the restrictive gender roles of Confucianism in order to fight for the life of her father and, eventually, the freedom of China.
However, that’s not to say she is presented with western values; it’s a small detail, but the fact that she is genuinely ashamed of herself after the matchmaking disaster aligns her more firmly with the culture of the time. Unlike Jasmine, she is not rebelling against the idea of an arranged marriage but trying to embrace it, because she knows this will make her family proud. This is how a real Chinese girl of the time likely would have thought, so it’s good to see the writers portraying her authentically.
I can’t give her a full A+, however, because as I said in my original review, “Chinese audiences apparently couldn’t identify with Mulan because of her distinctly western, individualistic streak and her desire to break free of the restrictions of her society. The scene just after her ‘unmasking’ where she ponders her own motivations was said to be a particular sticking-point, as Chinese audiences didn’t feel that the real Mulan would have had any ulterior motives of personal fulfilment.”
It’s a shame that her reception in China was so lukewarm (Kung Fu Panda is the preferred western animation there), but she’s still easily one of the best non-white leads Disney have produced to date.
Film: The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Actor(s): David Spade (white)
Live-action adaptation? No
With Kuzco, we seem to be taking a bit of a step back. White comedian David Spade was cast as the lead from the beginning, even when the film was still in its Kingdom of the Sun phase, so this was clearly never intended to be an authentic depiction of Peruvian culture. Instead, it’s more of an irreverent comedy in the vein of Hercules (which scandalised many Greeks when it was released). The “Peruvian” setting of the Inca Empire is just a surface veneer and is rarely the focus of the story.
Kuzco himself, who feels like he’s stepped straight out of California, spends much of the film as an irritating and entitled jerk, but he does go through considerable development over the course of the story and learns to become a better person. He’s hardly the most enjoyable lead we’ve seen from Disney, although to be fair, his extreme diva attitude has led to him being reborn as a meme – as we all know, Kuzco is the best Disney princess!
The main issue I have from a representation standpoint is that Kuzco spends much of the film as a llama, and he’s the first of three non-white leads to be stuck as an animal for the bulk of the film. The whole point of representation is to give real people a character who looks like them to relate to, something that white children have never had any shortage of, so when this plot device is used it detracts from the impact of said representation, not to mention creating very unfortunate implications about the role of non-white characters.
That said, I’m probably being too harsh; I couldn’t find much evidence of this film having offended anybody and in fact, it’s widely regarded as one of Disney’s funniest comedies, so presumably when it opened across South America between late 2000 and early 2001, audiences there accepted it as it was. I do wonder whether the original Kingdom of the Sun version of the film would have had greater historical and cultural accuracy, but for what it is, the film doesn’t seem to have been badly received.
6. Lilo Pelekai
Film: Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Actor(s): Daveigh Chase (white)
Live-action adaptation? Announced, but not yet cast
I’ll get my one problem with Lilo out of the way first; once again, we have a non-white lead being played by a white actor. I do love Daveigh Chase’s performance, but were there really no young Hawaiian actresses out there in the early 2000s? Casting for talent rather than race is understandable and in voice-acting it’s less of an issue because the actor’s face will never be seen, but this still would have been a great opportunity for a young Hawaiian actress, one which Auli’i Cravalho was later able to enjoy when she was cast as Moana.
Aside from this minor quibble, Lilo is another major triumph of representation for Disney. Just like Mulan, she is a rich and multi-layered character whose culture plays a significant role in her life, and her complexity allows for a number of different readings of her ranging from a grief-stricken little girl to one who is possibly autistic. Her quirks and precociousness add to her charm and make her immediately endearing to the audience; it’s no surprise that she has been a firm fan favourite ever since her film’s release in 2002.
I especially like the way she embraces her Hawaiian culture so fully, wearing a traditional muumuu in lieu of her peers’ more contemporary get-ups and practicing enthusiastically for her hula classes, without it becoming the sole focus of her character. This was an element that was explored in greater depth in some of the deleted scenes, in which her fascination with tourists is revealed to be a sort of contempt for them due to the way they rob her of her agency in her own home by objectifying her into a commodity. Unfortunately, such insightful scenes were left out (perhaps such obvious social commentary was a bit too risky for a big company like Disney), but as she is, Lilo is still a smashing non-white lead. This is how it’s done!
Film: Brother Bear (2003)
Actor(s): Joaquin Phoenix (white)
Live-action adaptation? No
Occupation: Hunter-gatherer and caregiver
Kenai is perhaps the most obscure of Disney’s non-white leads (poor Brother Bear, it’s not as bad as some people think). The writers deliberately set their story in the distant past of prehistory to avoid offending any present-day Native American tribes, although the Alaskan setting has led to some claims that Kenai’s culture may be intended as an ancient form of Iñupiat. This is the most recent example of “whitewashing” the voice actor, with Joaquin Phoenix – a hot name in the early 2000s – clearly cast for star power rather than authenticity (although I do like his performance). Since then, Disney directors have striven to cast people of matching ethnicity for their non-white leads.
As with Pocahontas, I find Kenai a frustrating character in terms of representation. On the one hand, his personal journey is especially interesting because he must learn specifically to overcome prejudice, certainly a topical subject for real Native Americans. In Kenai’s case, he is biased against bears and believes them all to be evil, but by being forced to walk in their paws (so to speak), he recognises their complexity and learns to respect them as individuals, which is definitely a positive message. I also liked the way the film rejects toxic masculinity in the depiction of Kenai’s growth; he goes from scoffing at being given a “love” totem as his spiritual guide to embracing a caring, brotherly role towards Koda in the climax, deconstructing the idea that men can’t be loving caregivers.
On the downside, we have two of the same problems as I’ve pointed out with earlier films. First of all, there’s more of that “Magical Native American” stuff, with Kenai and his people being tied vaguely to the “spirits” and the shaman Tanana being invested with unearthly “powers”. I get that it’s a kid’s film and a fantasy, but it’s still a shame that the writers didn’t take this chance to explore Iñupiat culture more realistically (if it actually is Iñupiat, that is). The other problem is that this “magic” leads to Kenai becoming the second non-white lead to spend most of his screen-time as an animal, so any Native American boys watching out for a protagonist who looks like them don’t get much, although we do still have Denahi cropping up throughout the film. This could have been better, but it’s still leagues ahead of Peter Pan.
Film: The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Actor(s): Anika Noni Rose (African-American)
Live-action adaptation? No
Occupation: Waitress, then a princess
It took until 1997’s Hercules for a Disney film to contain named black characters in the form of the Muses. They would be followed by Duke in Fantasia 2000, Joshua Sweet in Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Cobra Bubbles in Lilo & Stitch and Mildred in Meet the Robinsons, before The Princess and the Frog finally delivered the first ever black lead in 2009.
As with Pocahontas, there was a lot of expectation riding on this one before its release, with critics’ complaints about Tiana’s original incarnation as a chambermaid named Maddy resulting in her transformation into the working girl we know today. The portrayal of Tiana is certainly positive; she’s shown to be an admirably driven young woman who goes through significant development, embodying all sorts of qualities that young children can aspire towards as they grow up such as self-respect, passion and ambition. Despite her humble beginnings, she is able to work her way up to the position of restaurant owner while at the same time learning to create a healthy work-life balance by enjoying herself.
I do like Tiana, but my problem here is with the context of the film. It was always going to be awkward given the setting the writers chose, but the fact is that Tiana’s situation isn’t portrayed anywhere near as harshly as it would have been in the real American south of the Jazz Age. The realities of Jim Crow would have been a bit heavy for a family film, admittedly, but the way Tiana is presented suggests that it is her financial background which holds her back, completely overlooking any question of racism. She has rich, white friends who invite her to masquerade balls and let her borrow their clothes when hers get dirty, and the white men from whom she must buy the sugar mill have only this to say: “A little woman of your… background… would’ve had her hands full trying to run a place like that. You’re better off where you’re at.” That’s as close to racism as the film dares to get. I appreciate the lengths the filmmakers went to trying to present Tiana respectfully, but their distortion of history isn’t helpful; we must learn from the mistakes of our past, and we can’t do that by pretending they never happened. My suggestion is that it would have made more sense to choose a different location or, perhaps, another time period, because the combo they chose was one of the most deeply racist settings they could have gone with and it’s almost entirely glossed over.
As great a role model as Tiana is, I must also call out the fact that she is the third non-white protagonist who spends more than half of her film as an animal! This did not go unnoticed by black critics upon the film’s release, many of whom complained about how little screen-time Tiana’s black human form got. Again, you have to question the wisdom of choosing this particular fairy tale to star Disney’s first black lead – why not choose one where the heroine is able to remain human for the duration?
There was also some further criticism regarding Prince Naveen’s ambiguous ethnicity; he’s from the fictional, vaguely European land of “Maldonia” and has a sort of Mediterranean look about him. While he’s clearly not white, many black viewers were upset at the implication that Disney apparently didn’t consider black men suitable as prince characters. Since Disney princes are not a franchise the way Disney princesses are, few others seem to have noticed that the line-up on the men’s side is still lacking any black faces.
Still, young viewers will likely not be worrying about any of this subtext when they watch The Princess and the Frog. Instead, they’ll simply see a hardworking and intelligent black woman achieving her dreams through her own actions, and hopefully that is what’s most important.
9. Hiro Hamada
Film: Big Hero 6 (2014)
Actor(s): Ryan Potter (Japanese-American)
Live-action adaptation? No
Occupation: Robotics student
In the role of Japanese-American Hiro Hamada, we have the equally Japanese-American Ryan Potter – I don’t know if his casting came first and influenced Hiro’s design or whether it was just a coincidence, but it’s great that Disney chose a non-white actor this time around.
I’d say that Hiro is the best non-white male lead to date, because he is the least stereotypical and definitely the most compelling. Perhaps most crucially, his ethnicity does not inform his character – he is a fully-developed personality who any child can relate to and goes through a great deal of development, becoming an excellent role model as he embodies the traits he so admired in his late brother and carrying on his mission to help people. Hiro is compassionate and fiercely intelligent, and even better, he is surrounded by friends from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, each of whom are just as sharp and skilled as he is (it’s rather telling that the one white friend becomes the token in this group and is the only one to lack scientific ability).
My only small criticism here is that Hiro could be said to fall into the “Asian Nerd” stereotype a bit, but that’s debatable as his intelligence is not his only personality trait. Most viewers loved him and his relationship with the robotic Baymax when Big Hero 6 came out, with only some minor criticism from some who wondered why he couldn’t be fully Japanese as he is in the original comics (where his name is Hiro Takachiho). Interestingly, there was some controversy regarding the film in South Korea precisely because of its part-Japanese lead; due to tensions between the two countries, Hiro was renamed “Hero Armada” for the Korean release (I’m sorry, I can’t help sniggering at that) and any signs or symbols that could be said to represent Japan’s Rising Sun flag were edited out. It just goes to show that racism can occur anywhere, not just between whites and non-whites.
10. Moana Waialiki
Film: Moana (2016)
Actor(s): Auli’i Cravalho (Native Hawaiian)
Live-action adaptation? No
For this film, the directors scoured the Pacific for an actress of the appropriate ethnicity to match their lead. Native Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho was one of the last girls to audition and was just fourteen at the time she was cast, turning sixteen (the same as Moana herself) on the day of the film’s premiere. The bulk of the cast had Polynesian heritage, too. Trying hard to ensure as much accuracy as possible, the directors worked with an “Oceanic Story Trust,” a collection of Polynesian scholars and authorities who advised and informed the filmmakers every step of the way to avoid falling into the trap of negative stereotyping. Their efforts were praised in many quarters, although some felt that the depiction of Pacific cultures was too “generalised” because they were trying to represent all of them at once. I see where they’re coming from, but that is perhaps the only real criticism Moana has suffered from – by all other accounts, she is one of Disney’s very best non-white leads.
Like Mulan and Lilo before her, Moana has a deep passion for her own culture which motivates and inspires her as she learns more about it, a marked improvement over Pocahontas, whose story is very similar to hers. Moana is more independent and has no love interest, far more concerned with her role in her society and proving herself to be a natural leader, brimming with warmth, empathy and confidence which inspire trust in her people. In my original review, I noted, “Moana isn’t just another rebellious teenager reflecting a western girl’s modern attitudes, she is a Polynesian chief’s daughter who greatly respects her father and her people and wants nothing more than to do right by them.” That was something I liked about Mulan, and it’s the same here. Moana draws strength from her love of her peoples’ culture and it gives her the boost she needs to fulfil her mission. She does this not with a violent fight, either, but with tender compassion, even using the traditional Māori greeting, the Hongi, to calm Te Kā.
After the film was released, Disney went on to create Māori and Hawaiian dubs of it, the first time that any of their animated classics had been dubbed into those languages, and the song We Know the Way became instantly popular for featuring several verses in untranslated Tokelauan. Moana is frequently compared to Pixar’s Miguel from Coco as an example of how far Disney have come in terms of non-white representation, leaving just one question: how much further do they have to go?
Over the years, Disney have alternated between the non-representation of characters like Kuzco and Mowgli, gone through the problematic portrayals of Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tiana and Kenai, and delivered some truly wonderful leads in the forms of Mulan, Lilo, Hiro and Moana, but one thing is undeniable – they have made tremendous progress. When you look back at the dreadful stereotypes of Sunflower and the Red Indians of Peter Pan, it can be hard to believe that the same company would be responsible for stories like Moana’s just decades later. And that’s not even getting started on the films like Zootopia or The Fox and the Hound, which use animal casts to metaphorically address issues of race relations in a family-friendly way.
Of course, progress is not linear; it is a never-ending process and there is always room for improvement. There is still much Disney could do to improve in the representation of non-white leads in the future – having more of them, for a start. Although the popular Disney Princess line-up has become increasingly diversified over the years, there is still a notable lack of Hispanic, Latino or truly African princesses (Tiana is an American, after all). South America and Africa alone are two enormous continents overflowing with stories ripe for the adapting (such as that of Kirikou); all Disney need to do are pick some. To be fair, perhaps they have – there are undoubtedly countless projects in the works there, even as I write this, which we know nothing about, but the 2020s and beyond are looking much more colourful if their recent track record is any indication. Above all, the one thing the company really needs to do is to begin hiring and/or promoting more people from different ethnic backgrounds so that they can tell their own stories – only by doing so can true authenticity be achieved. However good their intentions, there’s no escaping the fact that all of the ten films listed above were directed by white men, but with Jennifer Lee now at the helm as Disney Animation’s first female CCO, perhaps up-and-coming directors like Domee Shi will finally get their chance to shine. (Check out Shi’s short Bao if you haven’t, by the way, it’s excellent).
Thank you so much for joining me for this one, and if any of you identify with the cultures discussed in this article, please do join the discussion in the comments below! I’m always keen to hear what non-white viewers think of Disney’s attempts to represent their people, especially when they grew up with them. It can be a tangled and complicated issue, but communication is the key to understanding, so all opinions are encouraged.
I should be back again soon with a First Thoughts review, but I’ll apologise in advance for any delays that may come up. We’re not far now from Wreck-It Ralph 2, so that’ll be fun! Until next time, stay animated!
https://www.smore.com/gy1bm-gyo-fujikawa – a tribute to Gyo Fujikawa, an Asian artist hired by Disney in 1933
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/30/movies/tyrus-wong-dies-bambi-disney.html – obituary for Tyrus Wong, an early Asian animator at Disney
https://www.npr.org/2016/08/26/491370725/at-81-disneys-first-african-american-animator-is-still-in-the-studio – about Floyd Norman, Disney’s first black animator
https://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/fact-checking-meryl-streeps-disney-bashing-speech-94380.html – debunking Meryl Streep’s 2014 NBR speech about Walt Disney
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ARX0-AylFI – an excellent video by Lindsay Ellis discussing race in Disney films, with a focus on Moana and Pocahontas
https://www.india.com/entertainment/disneys-the-jungle-book-takes-india-out-of-the-big-picture-226394/ – On the depiction of India in The Jungle Book
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/apr/15/mowgli-the-heart-and-troubled-soul-of-the-jungle-book-film-kipling – a comparison of various versions of Mowgli over the years
http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170714-the-aladdin-controversy-disney-cant-escape – On the depiction of the Middle East in Aladdin
http://articles.latimes.com/1992-12-21/entertainment/ca-1707_1_walt-disney-s-aladdin – a 1992 article by Jack Shaheen criticising Aladdin’s cultural insensitivity
https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalNativeAmerican – TV Tropes page for Magical Native American
https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/pocahontas-feminism/397190/ – a discussion of the effect Pocahontas has had since its release
http://pocahontas.morenus.org/poca_main.html#.W_V4KvZ2uUk – a breakdown of the differences between Disney’s version of Pocahontas and her actual life
https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/in-the-summer-of-1995-pocahontas-became-disney-s-33rd-animated-feature-film-the-first-mainstream-IaqXDOuHKUG6zqy9b8GjgQ/ – a thorough criticism of Pocahontas’s inaccuracies and offensive content
https://lakotachildren.org/2015/09/reservations-about-films-disneys-pocahontas/ – a Lakota perspective on Pocahontas
http://asiainamerica.blogspot.com/2012/06/disneys-mulan-reflection-after-14-years.html – an American reflects on what Mulan got right and wrong about Chinese culture
https://www.patheos.com/library/confucianism/ethics-morality-community/gender-and-sexuality – on gender roles in Confucianism
http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1999-05-03/features/9905030250_1_disney-s-mulan-sui-dynasty-chinese – a 1999 article discussing reactions upon Mulan’s original release in China
https://bradkay60.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/disney-got-the-groove-right/ – a breakdown of the Peruvian cultural elements in The Emperor’s New Groove
http://www.btchflcks.com/2016/11/lilo-and-stitch-moana-and-disneys-representation-of-indigenous-peoples.html#.W-xOyfZ2uUk – comparing Moana to Lilo & Stitch
https://ravishly.com/2014/11/22/stich-my-side-renavigating-racial-identity-through-lilo-stitch – a Hawaiian perspective on Lilo & Stitch
https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865629533/What-is-the-most-Hawaiian-movie-set-in-Hawaii.html – praise for Lilo & Stitch
https://www.disboards.com/threads/brother-bear-lets-discuss-some-details.462627/ – a discussion about representation in Brother Bear, referencing a review by Linda Billington which I could not access
https://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/movies/2003/12/shamans-at-the-cineplex.aspx – on Shamanism in Brother Bear
https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/fashion/31disney.html – a summary of early criticism for The Princess and the Frog prior to its wide release
https://brightlightsfilm.com/wp-content/cache/all/yeah-but-look-how-far-weve-come-disney-and-the-depiction-of-blackness-in-the-princess-and-the-frog/#.W-xTD_Z2uUk – another thorough (and more recent) examination of race in The Princess and the Frog
https://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/sample-page/contemporary-film-and-black-atlantic/history/disneyfied-histories-disneys-intentional-inaccuracy-historical-films-and-the-black-atlantic/the-princess-and-the-frog-and-rewriting-jazz-age-history-and-culture/ – a discussion of The Princess and the Frog’s distortion of its historical setting
https://www.indiewire.com/2018/09/disney-reanimates-princess-princess-tiana-wreck-it-ralph-2-lightening-skin-color-1202006386/ – response to claims that Tiana was whitewashed in trailers for the new Wreck-It Ralph sequel
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/12/17/films/disneys-big-hero-6-reassembles-japan-without-cultural-cringe/#.W-xUNfZ2uUk – praise for the portrayal of San Fransokyo in Big Hero 6
https://kotaku.com/why-big-hero-6-is-upsetting-some-people-in-south-korea-1680370861 – the South Korea controversy caused by Big Hero 6 before release
http://multiasianfamilies.blogspot.com/2015/01/how-big-hero-6-was-great-and-i-got-mad.html – a personal celebration of Hiro’s mixed-race heritage in Big Hero 6
https://themagicalworldof.com/2014/11/the-problem-with-honey-lemon-in-big-hero-6/ – and some criticism of Honey Lemon being labelled “Hispanic” after the fact
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/27/disney-depiction-of-obese-polynesian-god-in-film-moana-sparks-anger?CMP=twt_gu – critiques of Maui’s character design in Moana
https://www.buzzfeed.com/willvarner/we-asked-polynesian-people-what-they-thought-of-disneys-moan – a collection of Polynesian perspectives on Moana
https://pacificans.com/what-a-tahitian-really-thinks-about-moana/ – and another, specifically on the Tahitian dub
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-story-moana-and-maui-holds-against-cultural-truths-180961258/ – a breakdown of the way Moana represents Polynesian cultures
https://dirtyfloordiaries.com/polynesian-people-really-feel-moana-interview-opetaia-foai/ – an interview with Opetaia Foa’i on his work in the film
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-21/disney-maui-accused-of-brown-face-over-movie-costume/7863702 – the “brownface” Maui costume that was pulled from stores