There aren’t many Disney WoC. So when Disney does have a WoC character, there is a pattern of behavior that Disney engages in while animating and writing these characters. While I was watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I observed that Esmeralda is treated as an object by the three men that the movie revolves around. She has no agency or real decision making power regardless of her enjoyable sass and attitude. It almost seemed like Disney had to make a point — that you can be a fighter and knowledgeable, but if you are a woman, that doesn’t matter because you only have value to men based on the shape of your body and color of your skin.
I found a multitude of issues with Esmeralda and The Hunchback of Notre Dame itself. First and foremost — for many readers that may not know this — the term “gypsy” is a slur. Disney’s usage of only that word to describe the ethincity of Esmeralda, instead of paying her culture the due respect it deserves (some suggested terms include “traveller” or “Romani”) is racist and insensitive.
Another issue I found was that Esmeralda was highly sexualized – more than any WoC Disney character that I can think of off the top of my head. Sexual undertones flooded the dialogue and animation every time Esmeralda was on screen. I found a video that breaks down some of those subliminal messages and constant sexualization.
Frollo, the villian in this film, is riddled with irony in my eyes. While he is portrayed as an evil man, and Esmeralda and Quasimodo defeat him and his small world views, he seems to embody how white people culturally appropriate other ethnicities and treat them like accessories. It is interesting to me that while that social commentary is happening, the actual behavior of cultural appropriation is also occurring at the same time by those in control of the story: Disney. Perhaps this could be excused through a story’s unreliable narrator, but Frollo isn’t the narrator, is he?
I argue that cultural appropriation includes the sexualization of ethnic women because they are stripped of their agency and autonomy as human beings and instead turned into sex fantasies for white men. This is an issue in sex tourism around the world where (typically white) men travel to solicit sex from women in sexual slavery. It is concerning to me that this had bled into a so-called children’s film.
Frollo is, for all intents and purposes, a rapist. While the act of rape does not actually occur, he threatens Esmeralda with death if she does not “belong to him” and we all know that that means. Coercion is not consent. He has an entire song, “Hellfire”, devoted to condemning her to an eternity in hell for making him have ~feelings~ in his no-no zone. He also smells her hair while he holds her from behind at one point, and he occasionally sniffs the scarf that she forgetfully left behind at a festival. He behavior is undoubtedly misogynistic and racially insensitive. Although he is the villian, these things are never discussed in a constructive manner. Even Phoebus, the man that Esmeralda is paired with (because having a female Disney character remain unattached to the all-mighty Disney prince figure is just too progressive), objectifies and sexualizes her, which make one wonder why on Earth a spunky, sure-of-herself woman like Esmeralda would tolerate it. Also, the question of why she ends up with a white, conventionally attractive man instead of one of her own race and culture remains to be answered.
Feminist Rating: 1/10
Fails Bechdel Test
Fails Racial Bechdel Test