by Anjali Yedavalli
Disney is loved for its candy-coated fairytales and glamorous role models for young girls, all stemming from their Disney Princess franchise. Each princess is unique—with her own talent and story. And with these diverse storylines and characteristics, young girls have an array of women to relate and look up to. How has Disney progressed in their portrayal of these ‘princesses’ through the years, though—if at all?
After a long reign of white princesses, Jasmine was introduced as the first princess of color, which was extremely impactful on young brown girls. Not only was her skin tone dark like theirs, but she had clearly ethnic features, including a sloped nose. Overall, she emphasized the beauty of non-Eurocentric characteristics, femininity, and independence. One question commonly brought up about Jasmine is her ethnicity. The movie is undoubtedly based on Middle Eastern folklore and Arab culture, with its origins coming from the tale 1001 Arabian Nights. However, many have pointed out the confusing splotches of South Asian culture. The casting of half Indian Naomi Scott as Jasmine in the live-action adaptation of Aladdin only added to that confusion. While Aladdin remains a beloved classic, it is important to understand the criticism that minority groups are not interchangeable.
Disney’s Pocahontas has garnered controversy over its questionable accuracy. Now, it is viewed more as an outdated embellishment of a story and not a fair representation of Native culture. Other criticisms have been brought up about Mulan and Princess Tiana. Though Mulan was a beloved character in the United States, she was loathed in China. For example, the historical blurring-the-lines between different Chinese villages, traditions, and stories offended some Chinese audiences. Others felt that it was an overly Americanized departure of the original Mulan story.
Tiana, however, seemed to have all the boxes checked. She was hardworking, relatable, and intelligent as can be, prepped to be a perfect picture of representation. Then, Disney turned her into a frog for half of the movie. The trope of turning Black characters into an animal or abstract being for the majority of their movies is strangely common, and one that has made many Black viewers feel as if their characters didn’t “deserve” a full movie to themselves. (If you are surprised that this commonly pops up in entertainment, check out a resource listed below.) The more you think about it, the more disturbing it gets.
While representation is meaningful to communities of color, so is accuracy and respect to source material. Disney has grown more culturally aware over the years and has made an effort towards increasing its inclusivity, which is something not every film studio can boast. Moana was a beautiful portrayal of Polynesian culture, giving audiences a strong and relatable protagonist with much to show regarding her identity. This March, Raya and The Last Dragon seeks to spotlight Southeast Asian culture to its fullest extent. It is important not to paint Disney with a rose-colored gloss; while it seems that Disney is slowly trekking the right path, this does not make it immune to criticism. However, it certainly is exciting to think about the fact that little girls of all ethnicities may soon have a crown of their own to bear.
To learn more about Black characters in media, check out this resource.
About Anjali Yedavalli
Anjali Yedavalli is a senior at Dunlap High School. Aside from taking academically rigorous classes, Anjali is involved in Speech Team (IHSA State qualifier in 2020), Student Council, UNICEF Club, the school plays, Jazz Choir, and is the Madrigal Queen of Dunlap’s Madrigal choir. Anjali’s main goal in the community is spreading passion for both academics and creativity. She has organized and led multiple public speaking workshops for middle school students and volunteered her time at North South Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding underprivileged children in India. In addition, she has joined and contributed to the Dunlap Young Musicians, a student-created music group that performs at senior homes on the holidays. She is also active in her Sunday School (Chinmaya Mission) and has helped write promotional songs and plays to help fundraise for the school. Last but not least, Anjali is a classically trained Bharatanatyam dancer of Mythili Dance Academy and has contributed to shows that have raised over $500k for a variety of charities.