Thursday, November 14, 2013

Snow, Ergo White

Hey, I got a question for you.  Does this gal look like a cool character for a Disney movie?

made by the excruciatingly rad heysawbones.  Used with permission.

I know, right?  How neat would it be to have a princess from Tibet?  (Her name's Nyima, by the way.)

Or how about these guys?  Like, why don't we set a movie in Argentina, maybe high up in the Andean mountains somewhere?

made by the amazing Amy! Used with permission.
Oh, and one more: I didn't hear back on permissions, but you need, want, and deserve to check out Qila and Nanook.  Go do it right now.  I'll wait.

Anyway, here's what all of these ideas have in common: they all are fan-drawn characters, created by artists who wish that Disney had gone a different direction with its upcoming Snow Queen reimagining, Frozen.

And I tell you what: I could not agree more.  There's an interesting Tumblr, thiscouldhavebeenfrozen, which posts fan submissions and rebuts a whole array of "no, but this totally had to be a movie about white people" arguments (and does so pretty fiercely.)

Anyway, there's one post / infographic gallery in particular that I REALLY recommend checking out, about diversity in Disney, and the lack thereof.  (It doesn't look so good on the author's tumblr, but if you click the initial picture, you can click through the gallery one at a time and it's much easier.)  Here's the part that that blows my mind:

The white princesses are never given real-world locations and any assumed setting is based on the origin of source material and sometimes influence in design.

But with the exception of Aladdin, the movies with PoC characters are given explicit settings that justify their existence.

White princesses never have to justify their existence. 

Oh, and for those of you who for some reason don't have your finger on the throbbing heady pulse of the Disney Princess lineup, we're up to 11. (I know, right.  At this rate, the Earth's supply of winsome fictional royalty will be exhausted by 2037.)  Here's the current lineup. 

from Fanpop  © Disney
Anyway, it's a hell of a notion.  The part about how Ambiguous Fantasy Neverland is whiter than Chubbuck, Idaho, and if we're going to have any kind of princess-of-color, we have to program the TARDIS for Jamestown, 1607, or New Orleans, 1923 - you know, go to Earth and set the friggin' GPS, because we need precision scientific accuracy in order to locate sufficient justification for a brown girl.  (Or even a white girl with an accent, in Merida's case.)

Okay, so I was thinking about all that.  And then I thought - you know what Disney movie is COMPLETELY AWESOME?

from  © Disney

YES.  Would you believe that they were originally going to set Lilo and Stitch on a farm in rural Kansas?  Can you imagine how much less interesting that would have been?

Okay, okay, let's go again - think of another one that just took Standard Formula Disney and snapped it over its knee.

from Generic Movie and TV © Disney


The Emperor's New Groove is easily one of my favorite films - I am always hugely impressed with any movie that can do genuinely funny all-ages comedy, and this is easily one of the best.  And again, how much less memorable would it be if we sucked out all that indigenous high-altitude flavor (freaking LLAMAS, people!) and set it in Vaguely Germanic Neverwhere?

And you know what's weird about these?

There is nothing in "cuddy but violent alien crash-lands into the lives of two struggling orphans" that screams modern Hawaii.  There is no part of "outrageous buddy comedy about learning how not to be a jerk" that even suggests Incan Empire.  We got to have two solidly non-white settings just for the hell of it - and I would submit, two fantastic movies as a result.  Why?  Well, here's a theory: because a creative team willing to go beyond generic settings and protagonists was far more likely to do likewise for plot, characterization, and dialogue.

And hell, let's throw up some props for Atlantis while we're at it.  Like, who would have beefed if Kidagakash had looked like Namor the Sub-Mariner?  Nobody!  But there we are - free complimentary princess of color!  Look at her, all powerful and magical and shit!

from Disney Junior © Disney

(So why is Kida not in the Disney Princess lineup?  Maybe because her movie didn't do so hot.  Or maybe because she's an actual twentysomething adult who becomes a queen and leads her people instead of, you know, skipping off into a nebulously responsibility-free happily-ever-after.  But I digress.)

Okay, so I guess what I'm saying is:

1.  I don't think Disney deliberately sets out to be stodgy or exclusive.  (On the contrary, they'll do whatever gets them the best PR and the most money.)

2.  I do think Disney is far more willing to take risks outside of its giant expensive tentpole Standard Disney Formula films.

3.  I absolutely believe that more underrepresented characters and settings need to be brought into the picture - and the more we ask for them and talk about them and support the ones that do make it into the world, the more likely that is to happen.

So that is what I am doing here.

You know, it's a good thing you're not a big fat guy, or this would be really difficult.


  1. For much of its existence, "Disney" meant Walt Disney -- the talented European-descendant white guy who originally started it in Kansas. Through it's "Golden Age" up into the sixties Walt's oversight was felt in every film the company made, from Mikey's first talkie "Steamboat Willie," to the now unavailable (and generally considered racist) "Song of the South" (Zippidy-do-dah).

    Besides opinion that Walt was racist, there are also allegations that Walt was antisemitic, but I really think it and his "racist" views may largely have been a part of the white-centric culture and times he grew up and lived in. There weren't many people of color in ANY movies made in Hollywood before the sixties, unless they were specifically made as "separate" films for African-American markets.

    I'm not sure there's really any ingrained aversion to non-white characters at Disney -- the main color they're interested in is green (as in "Ka-ching!"). But there is probably at least some level of commitment to "preserving Walt's vision" and "celebrating Disney's Golden Age" -- essentially the mind-set that, "if XYZ worked before to make lots of money, why mess with it???"

    But I believe that's probably changing -- between increasing vocal opinions and financial success of products with non-white MC's, it would be foolish of Disney not to change. Personally, I enjoy seeing a wide variety of ethnicity in their movies and shows -- like you said, it adds interest and richness to the stories.

    1. Oh, totally! I think you nailed it exactly: given what American society was doing through all those decades, it was probably inevitable that Disney (and the man himself) would be reflections of that.

      Actually, I heard an interesting reply when I was griping about seeing the same actors in every SFF movie: namely, that that's how creativity is understood by non-creative people. "If Hugo Weaving in one movie sells beaucoup tickets and gets the nerds all stoked, then clearly we need to cast him in ALL the movies." You know, as if this were a chemical equation, instead of a work of art. Maybe your XYZ notion has the same basis. the real mission objective here is to convince Disney that no, the movie's melatonin levels aren't directly proportional to its revenue - it really is okay to dial them up a little more.

  2. Disney. It's not just the race thing; it's the age thing. Pocahontas, for instance. They had to grow her UP, give her boobs and make an extraordinary bit of history into a milksop "princess" romance. How cool would the animated movie "Pocahontas" have been from the viewpoint of a 12-yr-old Powhatan girl?

    And even though Anne of Green Gables isn't a princess story, once Disney got their hands on it, they grew Anne DOWN for the WWI years. In the books, Anne Shirley Blythe is a middle-aged mother of seven by the time World War I breaks out, and three of her sons go off to fight. Only two come back. In the Disnified non-cartoon series, Anne goes off as a jounalist to look for Gilbert Blythe. Aaargh.

    Plus, on a decidedly non-princess note, it has bothered me since early childhood that Goofy is a dog and gets to wear clothes and talk and Pluto is just a dog. I never "got" that.

    And yes ... I have overthought this. And I do forgive Disney all their story trangressions and weird dog racism for the film "UP" .... I ♥ it.

    1. Oh, I know, right! That's what makes me nuts about the people who are like, "oh, but it had to be a movie about white people, because historical accuracy!"

      And it's like... okay, first of all, there were *plenty* of non-white people in Denmark when HC Andersen was knocking this stuff out, and secondly, this is the company that happily MUTILATES its source material for the sake of marketability.

      I'm not really sure what's up with the dog thing either. Maybe it's a case of divergent evolution, like humans and apes. Regardless, although I would be happier if Pixar hadn't been bought by Disney, I gotta agree: there is some FINE material under the mouse ears, and a significant minority of it is original in-house stuff. (Wreck it, wreck it, Ralph, as fast as you can...!)