Arts and Entertainment

Disney’s Diversity Dilemma: Representation or False Inclusivity?

Once again, the issues around Disney’s diversity in casting seem to ask: when is race-swapping appropriate and when is it a lazy play on representation?

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“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb thy golden stair” reads the original Grimm Brothers’ version of the iconic fairy tale, Rapunzel. At its conception, Rapunzel was a story about a young German girl locked in a tower by her evil mother. But the driving force of the story was Rapunzel’s wealth, embodied in her hair, which was “as fine as spun gold.” For hundreds of years, writers and casting directors alike have agreed that Rapunzel has and will always be a white woman with long blonde hair. That is, until last month, when various sources revealed that Avantika Vandanapu, an Indian American actress, would be playing Rapunzel in Disney’s live-action adaptation of Tangled (2010). The news was a false rumor, but the potential casting of an American Indian actor sparked controversy among some fans: who was Rapunzel, if not a white woman with golden hair? Once again, the issues around Disney’s diversity in casting seemed to ask: When is race-swapping appropriate, and when is it a lazy play on representation? 

The news that Vandanapu would play Rapunzel immediately sparked arguments online. Many people flooded her comment sections to say that she was beautiful but not the right kind of beautiful to play Rapunzel. Others attacked her personally, making racist comments about her Indian background. Those in Vandanapu’s defense argued that Indian culture reflected many elements of Disney’s Tangled story, like how Indian women are known for their long hair and how Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights) resembles the scene when lanterns are released in Tangled. However, others argued that casting Rapunzel as an Indian woman in Disney’s version, which follows the Grimm Brothers’ story, is a forced representation that was ultimately uninspired and unnatural—and that Vandanapu should play a princess in another movie, perhaps about an Indian princess. 

In the past few years, Disney has been the subject of major criticism due to casting people of color in live-action remakes of animated movies whose characters were originally white. Discussions similar to those surrounding the rumored Tangled remake arose when black actress Yara Shahidi played Tinker Bell in Peter Pan and Wendy (2023) and black actress Halle Bailey played Ariel in The Little Mermaid (2023). Though representation in the film industry is important in promoting diversity and empowering minorities, it is often seen in a negative light because the focus on diversity ultimately takes precedence over the plot of the story. When The Little Mermaid was first released, most of the criticism took the form of comments about how Bailey was not the “right fit” for Ariel. But this discussion fell to the same level as the P.R. team of the movie; critics were so focused on race that they seemed to forget all other aspects of a live-action film, like the quality of production, costumes, set, and acting. 

Still, it’s important to note that studies on representation in the film industry have revealed that a lack of representation in major films has a lasting negative impact on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) youth. Examples of racial stereotypes perpetuated in Disney movies include the generalized depiction of villains that often have ethnic features and darker skin tones compared to protagonists who have Eurocentric features. In Aladdin (1992), Jafar is the villain with darker skin and more exaggerated features than the protagonist Aladdin, who has much lighter skin. The representation of dark-skinned characters that children do see is perceived as negative and villainizes them from a young age. There have been many improvements like with The Little Mermaid where black children were overjoyed to see themselves as the protagonist, instead of as villains or side characters. 

Disney’s attempt to diversify its characters has been pinned as unoriginal by fans who want to see new stories about characters with different backgrounds instead of changing the race of previous ones. Youtuber Amala Ekpunobi explains in a video that “when we have a character that we already have a depiction of, or lore that alludes to their race, it feels weird to have that character changed for the sake of representation.” The main solution to the issue of Disney’s diversity is taking new inputs and creating new movies with characters from different backgrounds. We can see that Disney is implementing these changes with movies like Raya and The Last Dragon (2021), which is about a Southeast Asian princess. Because developing new characters takes time, it seems that Disney finds it easier to cast BIPOC characters to avoid allegations of not being inclusive. However, inclusivity can be achieved in live-action films with the characters Disney already has at hand. 

Even though diversity is desperately needed in the film industry, Disney’s race-swapping method is a weak and uncreative attempt to appease the legitimate criticism of many BIPOC families. With the vast resources of animators and creators that Disney has access to, it is not only essential but also creatively enriching to create new stories about characters representing a more multicultural America. Without these new stories, the gap between Disney movies and their intended audience will continue to grow.