Disney and Race

How writing characters should be improved

More stories from Zoe Clark

Breaking Down Barriers
January 23, 2024

According to the official Disney website, there are twelve Disney Princesses. Out of these twelve, seven are white. Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, and Moana have touched hearts as our five princesses of color. But they are vastly outnumbered, not just by the seven European princesses, but by many other Disney films that feature white main characters.

Our first princess of color, Jasmine, was a huge success. However, the animated films have been criticized for its predominantly white cast and staff, despite being set in the Middle East. Aladdin mixes elements of different cultures and religions and contains harmful stereotypes. Disney has acknowledged these, and has added a short message at the beginning of Aladdin on platforms such as Disney+ that warns viewers. However, they have taken no other steps, and many do not know about the message or the stereotypes of Aladdin. Clearly, Disney still has more work to do, which is proven by the 2021 movie Raya and the Last Dragon.

Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the fantasy land Kumandra, located in Southeast Asia. However, Raya only cast one Southeast Asian actor – Kelly Marie Tran, who voices Raya herself. Many other actors in the movie are East Asian. Asia is generalized by the media as all being similar countries to those of East Asia, like China, and therefore given more visibility, while Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia are overlooked in the media. For Disney to cast East Asian actors in roles of Southeast Asian characters not only gets rid of the opportunities for Southeast Asians to tell their stories, it contributes to harmful stereotypes about Asia as a continent. Furthermore, for the one Southeast Asian Disney movie to be a fictional country that mixes elements of different cultures, much like Aladdin, is a waste. Instead, Disney should have chosen to embrace one specific culture. 

Another major problem in Disney media is race-swapped characters. On May 26, 2023, The Little Mermaid will come out. This will be a live action remake of the 1989 animated film of the same title. The film faced mixed messages at the casting of Halle Bailey, a black actress, as the role of Ariel, who was white in the original film. Children will benefit by having another princess of color on screen as a role model. However, just changing the race of an already existing character makes people of color feel like an afterthought. Race-swapping Ariel means that she won’t have elements of black culture woven into the movie, like Mirabel in Encanto or Mei from Turning Red – two characters who’s writing involved elements of real Colombian and Chinese culture. The only reason Ariel is black is to fulfill a race quota.

Disney has also announced Wish, a movie with an Afro-Latina princess. Compared to movies such as Frozen or Incredibles 2, Wish has had almost no visible marketing, despite its upcoming release in November. This movie is being set up to fail, and will become the reason Disney won’t make another black princess for a long time. Characters of color are constantly given a disadvantage in the media, even down to appearances. In Princess and the Frog, Tiana spends most of her time as a frog, and Joe, the main character in Soul, spends most of his time as a soul. Tiana and Joe spent more time being green than black. During Tiana’s little screen time as a human, her hair is almost always tied back. At least with Wish, the main character Asha has braids, which is more representative of black women’s natural hair. 

Disney needs to put more effort into creating characters of color that are authentic and well written, and made to succeed. They’ve made progress with the addition of many more characters of color, but they still have a long way to go. I encourage you to go watch Wish when it is released. Do not let the movie flop. Show Disney that we need and want more princesses of color, because children around the world deserve to see someone on screen that looks like them.