The Eurocentricity of Disney

I recently saw a post on Facebook linking to this debate over Disney princess ethnicity representations. The image is of four princesses (and one queen), the most recent four: Rapunzel, Anna, Merida, and Elsa:

A commenter notes that all four are white.

The response to this comment is pretty brutal:

“Rapunzel is a German story. do you want to know what color the people in Germany are?” The argument goes on to say that Frozen is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, who happens to be Danish, and that Brave takes place in Ireland. And guess what color Irish and Danish people are.

Apparently, “there are plenty of ethnic disney ladies,” who are ethnic “because it makes sense with the story.”

And finally, the claim that “DISNEY DOES NOT WHITEWASH” because whitewashing would be making Jasmine blonde and naming her Jessica.

Please. First of all, get your facts right. Brave takes place in Scotland, not Ireland. It may not make a difference for the point being made, but your argument is not going to hold much weight if you don’t at least fact check.

Now, most people who have known me more than five seconds know that I love Disney. I will cry during scenes I have watched a million times. I will cry while replaying those scenes in my head. I am a die-hard Disney fan, and I will defend the cheesey world-through-rose-colored-glasses outlook forever. But even I can admit that Disney is way too white. (The original comment was not claiming that Disney “whitewashes,” only that there are a whole lot of white princesses.)

Tiana is mentioned as one of Disney’s “ethnic” princesses who is ethnic “because it makes sense with the story.” Well yes, Tiana is a waitress in 1920s New Orleans. But she didn’t have to be. “The Frog Prince,” on which The Princess and the Frog is based, happens to be a Brothers Grimm story, just like “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and “Rapunzel.” So the one and only black Disney princess is from a German fairy tale.

Some might say that this is a point in Disney’s favor. They didn’t have to make this princess African American, but they’re so all-inclusive that they did anyway. In fact, they changed the story around – just little details like the setting and the presence of voodoo – so that a black princess could fit in.

Except, that’s a little patronizing, isn’t it? It’s like saying that a black princess wouldn’t make sense unless the entire story is rewritten for her. None of the white princesses need their stories rewritten for them to fit in. This automatically sets Tiana apart as the “other.”

Why not just find a traditional African fairy tale and make that into your next princess movie? Just about every culture has an oral story tradition. Disney is just too ethnocentric to look for anything but Eurocentric stories.

(To be fair, Mulan was based on a Chinese legend. But that movie was not entirely commendable in their representation. I mean, c’mon, the Chinese women were dressed as Japanese geishas. Because, you know, all Asian countries are the same.)

The fact that Disney took a German fairy tale and changed it around so they could finally add a black princess to their cast begs the question: Why? Did they do it so that the little girls belonging to one of the largest minority groups in America could have a role model? Or did they do it to get people to stop complaining about their white princesses? Obviously I can’t say for sure one way or the other. But let’s take a look at the timeline:

In between the princesses shown here, we also have Esmeralda (1996). So we have five white princesses of indeterminate nationality (except Belle is definitely French), then one Middle Eastern princess, one Native American princess, one Roma (gypsy) princess, one Chinese princess, one African American princess, and then it’s as if Disney said, “Okay, that should get ’em off our back,” and we get four white princesses in three movies, all in a row.

As for the claim that “there are plenty of ethnic disney ladies,” the answer is a big fat “no.”

“Ethnic” is not a nationality, race, or culture. When you discuss “ethnic” princesses as a group, you’re lumping together a bunch of women from very different cultures. For example, even though you may call both Pocahontas and Tiana “ethnic,” and even though both live in the same country (although it was not its own country during Pocahontas), the life and experiences of a pre-colonial Native American woman is very different from those of a 1920s African American woman. Hell, the life and experiences of Pocahontas were vastly different from those of women who were native to almost any other part of what is now the United States of America. And yet, in the eyes of little girls, Pocahontas now represents all Native American women, even those who were at war with Pocahontas’ tribe before English settlers showed up.

The biggest issue here is that little girls need to see examples of women that they can grow up to be. When Halloween rolls around, girls with white skin have a lot of options if they want to dress up like a Disney princess. Even just red-headed girls now have Cinderella, Ariel, Merida, and now Anna. Blondes have Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and now Elsa. Brunettes have Snow White and Belle. But little girls of Native American descent only have Pocahontas, who is only one example from only one Native American tribe.

Of course, this isn’t about kids’ options in Halloween costumes. It’s about having positive examples in which you can see yourself. White little girls have a lot of those examples. (Not as many examples as white little boys, but certainly more than any American minority of either gender has.)

Disney should never be considered to have “plenty” of “ethnic” princesses, because once you say that it’s like you’re saying you’re done trying to be diverse.

What would you rather see:

another “new” version of a fairy tale you’ve known your whole life (because even if you’re not white, as long as you went to school in America, you probably know these fairy tales) or

a truly new story you’ve never heard before, a story whose ending can still surprise you, whether that story takes place in ancient Hawai’i, India, Russia, North America, South America, Africa, etc.?

For my answer, I’ll refer you to Barney Stinson, who is not always right, but certainly has a fair case in this particular instance:

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