Diversity in Disney animated films

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April 27, 2017

As a young girl, Victoria Orozco was enthralled by Disney princesses. She had her favorites, Mulan and Jasmine, from Aladdin, but she remembers thinking as a child that there were no Hispanic characters like herself. Orozco, a junior at BYU from Texas, ended up relating the most to Mulan, who is a Chinese character.

“I actually related a lot to Mulan when it came to culture, which is maybe why I like her so much,” Orozco said. “My father has pounded the importance of family honor into my head since I can remember.”

''I actually related a lot to Mulan when it came to culture, which is maybe why I like her so much.'' Victoria Orozco

Despite a history of criticism on the lack of diversity in Disney movies, the animation studio has made large strides in the past twenty years. Various cultures have begun appearing in its movies to help children like Orozco feel like they have a character to relate to. Though some movies may be more successful in the portrayal of cultures than others, Disney’s attempts have made an impact on children’s views of diversity and how they relate to characters, something that is key to mothers who hope to expose their families to the world.

Over the past 78 years of Walt Disney Animation Studios, there have been few non-white main characters in its 54 movies. Since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves came out in 1937, there have been just 11 animated features in which the main character was another race. Of those 11, seven have come from the past 20 years, beginning with Pocahontas in 1995.

The first Disney movie celebrating a different culture was Saludos Amigos in 1943, which spawned a sequel called The Three Caballeros, which take place in Latin America. Before 1992, there was just one more movie that starred a character of a different race – Jungle Book in 1967.

After Aladdin was released in 1992, movies with a diverse main character began to be less of a novelty. This push toward diversity is seen in Disney’s most recent animated movie, Big Hero 6. In this movie, four of the five main characters are not white. The co-director of the film Chris Williams talked about the diversity of this film in an article by BuzzFeed.

“One of the things that I am proud of is the fact that we do have this very diverse cast,” Williams told BuzzFeed. “In one sense, we don’t make a big deal out of it. The characters are certainly not defined in any way by their race and I’m very proud of that.”

Clearly, Disney is looking to build on the diverse characters in future films. In 2018, a movie called Moana will be released, which will focus on the adventures of a Polynesian princess.

For the young viewers of Disney, finding a character to relate to can be very important. It is easy to pick the character that looks the most like you, so when a red-headed little girl sees The Little Mermaid, Ariel might quickly become her favorite because they look similar. For a young Asian girl, her options are limited to Mulan, which is something that BYU animation professor Kelly Loosli discussed.

“We all relate better to people and things that look like us,” Loosli said. “What is sad about this is that for years, everybody aside from white males were not catered to. Girls would watch movies about boys, and boys would not watch movies about girls. That’s the same for other races… When you see characters that look like you, that’s going to be appealing.”

''We all relate better to people and things that look like us.'' Kelly Loosli

In the case for Disney, Loosli saw two sides to the situation: the company could be exploiting the minorities for more money, or they know that there are interesting stories that could not only make them money, but also reflect other cultures.

“If you only do it once, then it is pure exploitation,” Loosli said. “If there were kids who reflected the sort of heritage in that particular film, then you would have all of these kids having characters they can look up to.”

According to Dadaviz’s Jody Sieradzki, there is a strong correlation between the skin color and hair color in the Disney princess sales merchandise on eBay. All of the white princesses have the most success, especially Elsa and Cinderella, who have pale skin and light hair. Darker skinned and darker haired princesses like Tiana and Jasmine are less successful on this chart. The chart shows that even with more diverse movies, it is clear that white children are still the majority of movie-goers, especially those that are purchasing merchandise.

For young Hispanic children, like Orozco, their options for characters to look up to that are like them are non-existent in Disney movies. That is the case for Rebecca Aurich, a student at BYU – Idaho from Oregon. Aurich is half-Peruvian, which made finding an animated character to relate to a bit more difficult.

“I liked Belle growing up because I looked most like her,” Aurich said. “I always noticed whenever a character had brown hair and brown eyes like me. I think it is important and a little more realistic to have diversity in these movies instead of just white characters.”

The lack of Hispanic characters in Disney has been noticed by the fans of these animated features. Since The Three Caballeros, there has not been a main character who has been Hispanic. There have been a few side characters, including Tito from Oliver and Company, Audrey from Atlantis: The Lost Empire and most recently Honey Lemon from Big Hero 6.

The portrayal of Honey Lemon created a little controversy, however, due to her appearance. She has a slight accent when pronouncing some words, but when Aurich was asked if she realized Honey Lemon was Hispanic, she had no idea. Some fans of the movie online were disappointed that her race was not made clearer, while other fans loved the character as Hispanic or whatever ethnicity she really is.

Some movies in Disney’s long history have caused quite a stir in how they portrayed various cultures. In Dumbo, the leader of the crows that are with Dumbo when he learns how to fly is named Jim Crow, which was the name of the segregation laws in the South. There is a song in Peter Pan that is called “What Makes the Red Man Red” that refers to Native Americans that is widely known as a racist song. The portrayal of Middle Eastern culture in Aladdin is often a target of criticism because of the original lyrics to the opening song, “Arabian Nights”.

“Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”

Though culturally diverse films are more common these days, that does not mean that they are always well-received. Many have criticized how the different cultures are portrayed in some Disney movies. For example, in Princess and the Frog, a movie starring the first black princess, Tiana spends half of the movie as a frog. There are also many stereotypes in the movie about the South and the African-American culture, which was not well received by some movie-goers. Although Princess and the Frog did receive criticism for turning the first black princess into a frog for the majority of the film, Loosli stood up for Disney’s first black princess.

“When you think about Disney women characters, Tiana is the kind of person you want your daughter to be like,” Loosli said. “She works hard, she is focused, she sets goals, and nothing is going to hold her back. She was going to make things happen for herself… There is definitely a need for movies like Princess and the Frog.”

''If they don't have a good story to go along with it, it is just diversity for diversity's sake.'' Morgan Stradling

As important as diversity is, Morgan Stradling, editor in chief Rotoscopers.com, is hesitant about making films with diverse characters just to check it off a list.

“I personally enjoy when Disney goes to different places,” Stradling said. “It helps to diversify the Disney princess lineup when you have all of these princesses from different backgrounds. It helps people relate to these characters more and feel like they have someone to represent them. At the same time, diversity for diversity’s sake is a bad thing if they feel like they have to. If they don’t have a good story to go along with it, it is just diversity for diversity’s sake.”

Mothers have taken notice of the movies that portray diversity in a positive light so that their children can be exposed to different cultures. Joyce Haner, a mother of three from Oregon, has noticed the shift and is grateful for it.

“I think kids’ movies are a good way to introduce children to the idea of diversity and not everyone being alike,” Haner said. “Kids take things like that so much easier than adults. They don’t necessarily see the difference between people’s skin color or socioeconomic status like we do. So having that in kids’ movies makes it so much more ingrained in them for when they become adults.”

Karli Blackwell's thoughts on diversity in Disney movies.

To some parents, diversity is not something that they are worried about their children seeing enough of. Karli Blackwell is more concerned about the content of the movie being appropriate for her daughter, Kensley.

“I tend to think more about whether it really is a kid movie or an adult animated movie,” Blackwell said. “Ones that have come out lately have kind of felt more adult, like Shrek. That’s more what I look for: Is the movie going to be good for a little kid or is the dialogue too mature?”

Despite all of the controversy, Disney has definitely improved over the years in how it approaches diversity in its movies. With the company, children, and parents happy with the outcomes of the films, Disney will likely continue to diversify the casts of its movies.

For up to date news on Disney’s upcoming animated films, check out Walt Disney Animation Studios’ website here.


Kimberlie Haner is a graduating journalism student at Brigham Young University. She is from Portland, Oregon and is a big sports enthusiast. When she is not watching a BYU or Portland Trail Blazers game, she is probably watching a Disney movie.

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