Disney as a Socialization Agent

After examining a great number of Disney films, it has become readily apparent that Disney is a vastly powerful socialization agent, not only in how negative and persistent its messages are, but also in how it operates within society.  Out of the movies that I analyzed, only five featured characters of color, but each of them were problematic in its own way. The representations of race within these Disney films are worth discussing because they shape how children view their world.   Disney plays such a huge role in the lives of children (especially in the lives of girls), that constant exposure to some of these racist and sexist sentiments socialize them to internalize some of these ideas.

The prevalence of Disney in children’s media is outstanding. Just in the few times that I’ve visited my parents, my baby siblings have been consuming either the Disney channel, a Disney movie, playing with Disney toys, or reading a Disney book.  Educating children about these racist and sexist ideas would be a logical way to counteract these messages, but children are exposed to these messages at such a young age that this socialization is almost an inevitability if exposure goes unmediated.

However, that doesn’t mean that education isn’t an answer for children that grow old enough to comprehend concepts like racism and sexism.  Considering how much television children consume on a daily basis, viewing media through an analytical lens, as well as through social justice lenses with respect to racism and sexism, is an absolute necessity and something that parents need to consider when exposing their children to any film or television show.

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Brave

Yet another Disney film that features a total of zero people of color.

The really awesome thing about Brave is that it is a movie that is dedicated to the growth of a mother-daughter relationship. At the end, I definitely felt like giving my ma a call and seeing how things were going. This intergenerational relationship is the center of the film, and it’s a nice deviation from finding a true love. The lack of romantic motivation is refreshing. 

Brave is really unique in a film in the sense that Merida is a princess that wants nothing to do with the realm of love. In an archery contest for her hand in marriage, Merida enters in disguise and then wins with triumph. But being a princess, her primary concerns were still princess-like (what to wear, feminine skill training, getting married, etc). Merida is a rebellious tomboy, which is a lot of fun, but she was shoved into the cookie-cutter role of a princess and it just isn’t a place that fits her. 

Merida is a warrior, like Mulan. She believes she is not burdened by gender roles nor should she have to adhere to them. Her mother, however, thought differently, and through a course of events, Merida’s mother, Elinor, is transformed into a bear. Instantly filled with regret, Merida discovers she must mend the tapestry of the family that she tore in a tantrum to break the spell before it comes permanent.

Now why would our brave (no pun intended) warrior have to save her people, herself, and her mother with a traditionally feminine skill? Was this just another part of being forced into the princess trope? Or did Merida overcome something that was difficult for her, as she was not that great at needlework to begin with (and the needlework completed by her is shabby anyway)?

Feminist rating: 10/10

Passes Bechdel Test

Fails Racial Bechdel Test

 

Frozen

Frozen was recently named the top-grossing animated film of all time. It has sold big, lived big, and nearly every person on Planet Earth has seen the damn film. So, what’s the fuss all about?

There are zero people of color in this movie. It was released in late 2013 and there are ZERO. People. of. Color.

This film is a victim of Disney fans’ “historical accuracy” argument, just like Tangled. Do those people not realize that there is a talking, autonomous snow man and that Elsa has magical ice powers throughout the film? How is that historically accurate? And if you’re going that route, let’s say Frozen takes place in Norway. Norway’s original people were the Sami people, and they looked like this:

Not very European looking. Not the blonde-haired, blue-eyed people that Frozen depicts. Argument invalid.

While the lack of diversity is certainly a problem in this movie, there were some really awesome things that happened as well.

  1. The chemistry between Kristoff and Anna is a red herring for “true love” at the end. FIRST ANNA SAVES ELSA, THEN ANNA IS SAVED BY ELSA. Disney broke it’s own rule of having a prince fall in love and save a princess with a kiss. By simply redefining this quintessential element of breaking fairy tale curses,  it opened the door for love to be defined in many different ways. Not just in the sense of a hetero romance, but between family, and even between women. That’s pretty cool. It totally destroys heterosexism and embraces female to female relationships.
  2. Elsa’s struggle with her powers is a metaphor for depression. As a person who struggles from this, and being familiar with the isolation that goes along with depression, it gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling that there was a Disney princess out there that struggles with it too. Disney, to my knowledge, has never touched on mental illness. Another barrier is broken with Frozen. How cool. 
  3.  There is a gay family in the trading post, and it is nothing that is made a big deal of. Infact, I didn’t notice it the first time I watched this film. I think it’s really awesome that Disney broke another barrier in that instance. Instead of having a homosexual as a token item in the film, he was nothing more than another character – very human and dimensional for a side character. It happens in a split second. I have included the scene here:

Feminist rating: 9/10

Passes Bechdel Test

Fails Racial Bechdel Test

 

The Princess and the Frog

Ah, finally, a black princess!

And it only took Disney 72 years from the debut of our first princess, Snow White. We can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Not.

 

  • Tiana is not even the beginning princess in her own film. Charlotte, the rich white girl Tiana’s mother works for, is the initial princess.
  • Tiana is falls in love with a white boy. Now, he may have olive colored skin and an accent, but for all intents and purposes he’s a freaking white boy. There’s nothing quite like having a movie dripped in that racism. Because black boys don’t need heroes, right? (sarcasm~~)
  • Tiana is a frog for the majority of her time onscreen. Disney couldn’t even allow her to be the black human being she is. 
  • The representation of voodoo is disgustingly racist. Racialicious, a blog dedicated to the discussion of race issues in pop culture, sums this up nicely in this article (please read the whole thing, it is excellent):

“To underline how offensive The Prince and the Frog’s version of voodoo is, imagine if another religion were treated as a system of enchantment that could be employed for good or for ill. Imagine if the prince had been changed into a frog because a Catholic priest, referred to as a magician, who is wearing a Roman collar but seems to exist in a separate universe from the actual tenets of Catholicism, sprinkled him with cursed water from a baptismal font, and the only way for the prince and Tiana to save themselves was for them to get the pope-wizard to feed them magical communion wafers. It’s because voodoo is an African religious system that it can be treated with such license as though it weren’t a real religion like Christianity or Hinduism.

  • The villain in this movie is a black person. The princess is a black person. But the prince is a white person. This is white colonialism’s defense: white man saves brown woman from brown man. No, sorry. Not ok.

 

Ok, ok, so everything I’ve said and read about The Princess and the Frog has been negative. here are some of the things that I enjoyed:

  • Tiana has her own goals outside of finding a man or falling in love. Her restaurant! How awesome! She wants to run a business!
  • Tiana represents a different socioeconomic status than the other princesses. Not many of us are the rich and fortunate Sleeping Beauty or Ariel. Not actually being royalty made Tiana more relatable.

 

Feminist rating: 6/10

Passes Bechdel Test

Passes Racial Bechdel Test

 

Mulan

Mulan, often hailed as the more feminist of the Disney princesses, certainly has some problems. While I primarily agree with the sentiment that Mulan is empowered and a bad ass, let’s not forget that the film opens with a number that places Mulan’s only value in her ability to find and keep a husband. “Girl” is regularly used as an insult in this film, and the song “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You,” while catchy, is certainly enforcing gender expectations. While gender norms are oppressive towards women, they are oppressive towards men as well. The need to be tough and physically fit can be quite the burden on our men.

Another cool thing about Mulan is she sheds all preconceived notions of a princess. She is articulate, loves being educated, strong willed, and disobedient. It’s refreshing after watching white disney princess films.

The representation of the Chinese race is problematic in this film and is manifested in a few characters. Chi Fu, the advisor sent with Shang and Mulan to defeat the Huns, is a nasty caricature of Chinese stereotypes. His accent is heavy, his animation is tacky, his voice actor is putting on airs, and his is highly sissified and used for comedic relief against the dark tones of the film. Another character that is problematic the is Emperor of China himself. While he is meant to be portrayed as a fair and trustworthy ruler, he spouts “words of wisdom” that you would see printed on placemats at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Lansing.

Chi Fu

My favorite part of the film, though, is during the number “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” and Mulan kicks the butt of every male soldier.

Feminist Rating: 7/10

Fails Bechdel Test

Passes Racial Bechdel Test