Representation from an early age is essential to make sure identities can develop themselves to the fullest extent without feeling ashamed of their appearance, practices, or ideas. In many countries across the globe, one of the most prominent household names is probably Disney. This company therefore takes on a huge responsibility to represent kids worldwide to the best of their abilities, which isn’t always as easy as changing a cultural joke or translating road signs.
To deal with this, the Walt Disney Company has specific jobs dedicated to international adaptations (as can be seen in their new Inside Pixar series), but also a ‘chief diversity manager’ whose job is to “ensure that inclusion and a deep sense of belonging are embedded in the fabric of how [they] do business every day”, as described by Latondra Newton who has held the title since 2017. But how is this manifesting itself in practice?
As students in the class ‘English: language, society and culture 1’ have seen over the past year (this is an elective year long course for all specializations), representation can be problematic. Who is ‘allowed’ to write from the perspective of someone else’s shoes? This question is a recurring theme in popular entertainment, for example when Jeanine Cummins wrote American Dirt, a novel about a Mexican family fleeing to the US (as the novel contained stereotypical depictions of Mexicans). Cummins is a well off American writer with family ties in Ireland and Puerto Rico, who has never had to flee or immigrate, yet despite this, the book was long awaited and was even chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Mexican-American writers critiqued her on not being in the right position to write personally about a group that she is not a part of (or identifies herself with). Similarly, it is easy to see how Disney can be in a tough place because it is viewed by children in a large range of countries, but still is an American company. Especially in children’s movies, Disney tries their best to glocalize the films as much as possible to create a universal town that kids all around the world can relate to. Every movie is later passed through an international committee to review the universal aspects of the movie and potentially change the characters, objects or signs to fit the target audience. Yet, Michelle Anya Anjirbag (a prominent scholar in children’s literature, media and culture) also points towards this as a potential issue in portraying ‘the other’:
“While I would hesitate to go as far as Zipes, and others, and suggest that the Disney corporation is currently attempting to impose American value systems upon the rest of the world in a deliberately political, colonizing, or imperialist way, it remains important to talk about the power dynamics involved when a company such as Disney decides to tell stories from outside its own sphere, rooted in Western, Anglo-American, conservative-leaning hegemonic culture.”(ANJIRBAG, 2018, P. 3)
Such a critique does not mean Disney should only create content for white, middle class Americans though. It means they should push themselves to attract people from various backgrounds, countries and classes to work on producing authentic content together. Even though it was not a blockbuster hit, Queen of Katwe was exactly what the diversity initiative should be working towards. A more successful example is the recent release of Soul, one of the first big animated feature films with a black lead by Disney. Normalizing minorities, whilst also not using them as token characters to be considered ‘inclusive’ is extremely important from a young age.
However, Walt Disney was founded in 1923 and has gone through many transformations throughout the years, which means it has an imperfect history that reflects the societal inequalities of its parent country. Some of these examples include characters like Jim Crow (Dumbo), the portrayal of happy Black slaves in The Song of the South, or the evil villains in The Lion King (and many other movies) seemingly being portrayed as gay and effeminate, marginalized and darker toned.
In some instances, scenes or characters have been removed, but in others, Disney has opted to add a 12-second disclaimer to its original content on the streaming platform Disney+. Additionally, it has changed one of its attractions at both US based Disneyparks (in California and Florida) by revamping some racially insensitive depictions in the Jungle Cruise ride.
While Disney is working on this and including a more diverse cast in their content, there is still a lot of criticism towards the company, notably on its LGBTQ+ characters. Until now, there is only one openly gay lead personality in the movie Onward, released in 2020. Even though this might be seen as a celebration, to many Disney fans this is a tiny step that should have been taken long ago. Besides some minor representations where gay couples featured in the background, Disney had a lot of other possibilities to give LGBTQ+ characters screen time. In the past, Disney has mostly used this (consciously or unconsciously) in their villains, known as queerbaiting, where certain characters are portrayed with negative stereotypes associated with the LGBTQ+ community. As a result, many people have created fanfiction to promote LGBTQ+ representation, and sometimes even tried to push Disney to change their plots to give a character a homosexual relationship. Two of the most prominent ones are Elsa in Frozen, and LeFou in Belle and the Beast. There have been heavy debates about introducing a girlfriend for Elsa, mainly because part of her character (according to Disney) is her independence, which can also be said for Merida (in Brave) and Moana. However, this feminist reply did not stop Frozen fans rallying to the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend before Frozen II came out in 2019 (during Pride Month), which did not result in the addition of an LGBTQ+ character. This movement has not stopped despite the disappointment and is continuing to rally for the next potential movie release in the Frozen series. There is also a strong counter movement from people who enjoy the strong single personality Elsa embodies and want to #KeepElsaSingle.
Not all efforts of Disney to create diverse content have been received with open arms. Tiana from Princess and the Frog (released in 2010), was the first African-American Disney princess and received a lot of criticism because she was portrayed as a frog for a large part of the movie. In addition to this, the strong segregation of New Orleans in the 1920s is almost completely absent from the movie (similarly to complaints Disney has received after the release of Pochahontas). Racially diverse princesses have also been portrayed as less traditionally feminine and more practically minded. Besides from not being very popular, Tiana has also been repeatedly excluded from princess themed merchandise like t-shirts, calendars or dolls.
We can see that Walt Disney Studios is working on improving its inclusiveness, but this is still not well represented in the movies they bring out. Even though it is difficult to include every nationality, race, sexuality or other identifier, Disney has a prominent role in depicting diversity. With the new life action movies coming out based on the old fairy tales and iconic Disney stories, a lot of stereotypes and discriminating factors are being replaced by a strong and diverse cast.