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.
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)?
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.
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.
Above you can see the distortion of Mulan through Disney’s revamp of its princesses. While I already dislike the marketing of Mulan in anything but soldier gear, I don’t want to hate on femininity too much, because femininity is awesome. And being feminine doesn’t mean you’re not a badass or tough or strong. But what I DO dislike about the marketing of Mulan is that Disney seems to forget that Mulan was a soldier and pretended to be a man for over half the film. She hated dressing up and being a puppet.
Disney whitened Mulan’s skin and redesigned her dress to be sparkly. Perhaps the most disgusting retouching they did of this princess is her eyes and hair. I don’t think the Mulan we know would be caught dead in something like this. So why does Disney market her like this? Because they socialize little girls to believe that being sparkly and unrealistically beautiful is what a princess should be.
Cinderella is also dramatically reimagined for this newer marketing campaign. Take, for example, the difference in size of her ribcage, the enlargement of her eyes and mouth, and they narrowed her shoulders. Cinderella has been all around shrunk to fit the current version of the beauty myth. With Cinderella already being a problematic story, there’s no reason to confuse girls even more about their place or what they’re supposed to be.
Now that I’ve shown you what to look for in the redesigns of our beloved characters, here are some more for comparison:
All in all, please do not be distracted by the sparkles and red carpet glam Disney painted these women with. Think about the images you’re surround by and how they are edited to fit a certain corporation’s agenda.
This is a video post I’m sharing of Melissa Fabello, an editor of Everyday Feminism, a website dedicated to activism and education. Here she shares the importance of critically thinking about the media we consume, and how we feel after we consume it.
She jokes about how we probably don’t want to be “that friend.” The one that is constantly criticizing media for its lack of diversity in all forms (women, people of color, fat people and thin people, etc). But the reality is, we should all be that friend. We should all work to maintain media literacy.
That’s what I’ve strived for in my criticism of Disney the past few months. I’ve wanted to work on my own media literacy while educating others.
What we consume as a culture and society shapes us as individuals. What we show our children shapes them as adults. We need to educate ourselves and want something better for ourselves.
As Melissa says in the video above, all media is owned by 6 corporations. And those 6 corporations are run by straight, white men. If all of our media and stories are coming from that slim demographic, we really need to think about the stereotypes and misinformation we are consuming when we watch television or read magazines.
What I want for my children, and what I’m sure a lot of people want for their children, is to lead happy and healthy lives. I want them to love themselves and the people around them. I want them to enjoy their world and the media. I don’t want them to grow up hating themselves. So, let’s all work on media literacy.
You can find a post on educating children on media literacy here.