This morning, I learned about Moana, a Disney animated film in development for 2018, when I saw a friend’s tweet, which began ‘what is Disney culturally appropriating now?’
I may have made some grumpy noises and gone into the kitchen to get more coffee.
The problem is, recently many were complaining about Frozen: ‘oh, another white Disney princess.’
It’s oh so easy to fall into those extreme camps, particularly when Disney is the topic. I’ve seen quite a few people commenting of Frozen and Tangled, too, that Disney marketing doesn’t trust that films about girls will be successful, hence Tangled rather than Rapunzel and trailers for Frozen that toot the comical snowman. Yet Disney seems almost single-minded about continuing to produce films about female heroes/princesses.
I think part of the problem is that Disney is often viewed in a vacuum. As I look at all the ‘blockbuster’ films, Disney’s engagement with gender and ethnicity is looking quite a bit better. It’s not perfect, but go take a look at Lilo & Stitch, which I think is under-rated, yet a great celebration of how well non-white, female characters can be portrayed. Again, it’s not absolutely perfect, but it’s good.
That Lilo & Stitch is so under-rated may have a lot to do with audiences and the film industry in general. A good friend, Michelle Smith, recently wrote about politics in children’s television for The Conversation. She notes: “Writers for children do not generally sit down with a devious plan to embed left or right-wing views in their children’s works. Yet they largely cannot help but reflect the cultural norms of the period in which they are writing.” Perhaps part of our problem with Disney is that we don’t always like what it reflects back? Often I note critics overlook the positives and I think part of the problem is they want to blame Disney for the sexism and racism they see. Is Disney to blame? In part, yes. Yet, it needs to be understood in context. There are problems in society that Disney reflects and that Disney alone can’t put to rights. We can expect it to get better at portraying more positive messages – and I actually think it is getting better at that, for all its missteps – but it isn’t the whole solution. Then again, perhaps in the incessant critiquing of Disney princesses, such critics are also helping to affect change?
Incidentally, as I was doing some research, I was quite surprised by how little was written on race in fairy tale in general. There’s a great deal about depictions of race in Disney, but what of the wider fairy tale genre? Particularly older, literary tales? Race isn’t absent from these tales. Basile and d’Aulnoy, for example, include black princesses in their tales.
I’m interested to explore how fairy tale’s engagement with race might better help contextualise Disney’s engagements with the issues today.