Arts and Entertainment

Disney Over the Years

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Issue 16, Volume 112

By Simone Raleigh 

For the perfect fantasy world that Disney aims to present, the mark of respectful cultural portrayal is often missed, as Disney toes the line between representation and appropriation. The franchise has the power to shine a spotlight on various countries and cultures, depict diverse people and ideas, and promote openness and understanding. However, Disney also holds a weighty history of falling into hurtful stereotypes that misportray those the film originally intended to represent.

Multiple generations of children have grown up with the iconic princesses who, for many, were role models just as impactful as their non-fictional counterparts. And with the good comes the bad, as the impact of falsehoods and misrepresentations in these films is far from benign. Many films perpetuated the stifling barriers of gender roles and emphasized the importance of appearance, teaching unrealistic beauty standards. The Classics-Era princesses were primarily passive and temperate, waiting for someone to come rescue them. The first Disney princess to ever exist, Snow White, had the main responsibility of keeping house for seven men, and she was then saved by another one. The “Renaissance Era” of Disney princesses, which took place in 1989 and lasted for another decade, marked Disney’s start in moving away from the unrealistic standards that were instilled by past films. While the Renaissance Era did pave the way for nuanced, worldly princesses, Disney failed to shed the archaic idea of a “prince,” or rather, a knight in shining armor who saves the princess. Just take Belle (Blanca Suarez) from “The Beauty and the Beast” (1991) for example: her key characteristic is not her beauty, but rather her intelligence and love of books; however, under the guise of progress, Belle ultimately gives up her livelihood for her romantic interest.

However, in recent years, Disney has abandoned the princess-needs-prince trope, moving beyond one of the formulas that had made its company so popular, and instead honing in on an image of the modern heroine. Disney’s “Moana” (2016) doesn’t have a love interest nor does it leave viewers wanting one. Moana’s journey of self-discovery and themes of identity are only amplified by the lack of a Prince Charming. An even better example might be “Frozen” (2013), in which the trope of the nice handsome prince is subverted by having him be the villain of the film. With “Frozen 2” (2019) being Disney’s sixth-greatest grossing film and the highest-grossing princess film (its predecessor clocks in at number 10), these films have proven that antiquated love stories are second to engaging plots that highlight strong female characters… in which a love interest is entirely optional.

The representation of strong female leads is far from the only diversity issue Disney has faced, as it has a long history of creating offensive movies originally intended to promote cultural inclusion. In “Aladdin” (1992), the fictional kingdom of Agrabah is portrayed as barbaric and savage through the lyrics of the opening song, and then again in the marketplace, where merchants are scammers and sellers threaten to cut off the hands of thieves. The film does not allow the audience to go out with a positive view of Eastern values or customs. Except for Aladdin (Scott Weinger), who is drawn with more European features and simply appears tan, the characters are caricatured. As for Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin), her costume comes from the orientalist fantasy nourished by the western world about Arab women.

“The Princess and the Frog” (2009) serves as another example of Disney’s ignorance. The film is set in New Orleans in the 1920s in the midst of racial segregation, and while it introduces Disney’s first black princess, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), it fails to represent the African American experience, instead opting for an unrealistic, flowery portrayal of racial dynamics at the time. The film retains the culture’s link to jazz and keeps the Vodou spirituality in the form of dark magic to add a fantastical touch to the story, but excludes the deep-rooted history of slavery, exploitation, prejudice, and discrimination. Instead, to maintain its reputation, Disney presents social inequality only from the point of view of classism. This is displayed at the end of “The Princess and the Frog” (2009), when Tiana remains a princess whose status is more restaurant owner than royalty. She serves food to Charlotte and her father in what is a supposedly triumphant moment, lacking any hint of resentment toward or a sense of irony about the fact that she is still serving the white family. As a result, viewers are deprived of seeing a reversal of fortune among those formerly higher on the social ladder or of the exploitative of the heroine.

Despite Disney’s past of poorly executed movies intended to provide representation, one of its newest releases, “Encanto” (2021), is a success, following the Madrigal family in a rich Colombian town where every street and person is as vibrant as the next. Positive representation is something that is crucial for a story, using iconic cultural landscapes and accurate depictions of characters and their lifestyles. From the diverse cast of characters to the costumes, and from foods like the Colombian cheese arepas to the colors used within the film; all of it was researched in-depth, and viewers can see the effort clearly. Even for those who are not Colombian, having such representation on screen in front of Disney’s vast audience can be a perfect opportunity to grow their knowledge of and sensitivity toward various cultures they may not have exposure to otherwise.

Disney’s new, thoughtful representation is also seen through its music. Newer soundtracks have larger purposes through lyricism, and provide thematic clues or employ plot devices to create an enticing story. “Encanto” stands out as a Disney film that digs deep on topics like the weight of family pressure and the desire for perfection especially through its soundtrack, following in the footsteps of Disney’s “Inside Out” (2015), which was the first mainstream Disney film that explicitly tackled mental health. As seen in “Try Everything” from Zootopia (2016) with lyrics that talk about failure and resilience, and “Let It Go” from “Frozen” (2013), which is centered around letting go of negative inhibitions, Disney’s music provides complexities to movie plots. Through carefully crafted lyricism, Disney is able to communicate deeper messages that are perhaps unexpected from the animated franchise, yet all still crucial for children to be able to address in their own lives. Disney’s soundtracks combine a meaningful message and an interesting plotline, bringing audiences of any age a piece of art they truly can relate to.

Disney has come far, moving from blatant ignorance to a modern era of empathy. While Disney still has a long way to go, its recent efforts are a clear indication that the future is bright for the animation giant. As we have grown up, Disney has evolved along with us, leaving us anticipating its new releases. Despite its past shortcomings, we can expect Disney to continue down the path it has set out on without losing the magic and nostalgia of our old favorites.