Real Role Models: Representation and Diversity in the Future of On-Screen Princesses

Disney characters are considered hallmarks in a young person’s upbringing. This is to such an extent that 67% of polled Brits highlighted the importance of Disney princesses being good role models for children.

However, Disney’s battling struggle with satisfying its more traditional fan base has led to a miserable lagging in terms of representing our ever-diverse society. The result: intersectional feminists are left isolated and unimpressed by an outlet which endorses whitewashing and enforcement of heteronormativity.

Yet, the last few years have witnessed the taking of initial steps towards rewriting Disney’s historic code.
Disney’s original Lion King was Oscar winning and grossed 312.9 million US dollars. For a story set in Africa, an overwhelmingly white cast only saw a few roles being brought to life by minority voices.

These voices were those of the two hyenas. One academic even claimed that the voices exactly ‘fit into stereotypical depictions of black, Hispanic, and mentally disabled depictions of the lower-class people of colour’, further perpetuating harmful stereotypes instead of giving centre stage to authentic voices that affirm the narrative. The 2019 remake takes a redirection. Beyoncé and Daniel Glover lead while white voices take a necessary step back and are given to more periphery characters.

In 2016, Disney also chose to revert the image of a stick thin Princess through the first Polynesian Princess. Moana was noticeably built to look strong and athletic, avoiding typical associations of princesses being weak and fragile. Steps to diversify were also taken when a gay character was premiered for the first time in a live remake of Beauty and The Beast in 2017.

Yet while Disney looks to slowly work toward repainting its classic characterisations, public backlash towards these moves remain aggressive. The announcement that 19-year-old R&B artist Halle Bailey would be cast as Ariel in the latest live remake of The Little Mermaid led to mass criticism towards the loss of the tale’s integrity. #NotMyAriel was designed to present the misjustice of casting a black princess in a role which when originally drawn clearly portrayed Ariel as white.

By clutching to the origins of a tale, online trolls look for a means to disguise its racism. Art is an ever-evolving form which grants society the power to re-claim, re-interpret and re-design works however it likes. No past or person has the ability to set in stone how we look at fairy tales, which are fiction, first and foremost. Society must rightly continue to mould our art forms to evolve and diversify in order to fit our present.

Some Disney fans took this undertaking into their own hands by rereading and reviewing Frozen’s Elsa as a queer icon. They related to the resolution of secret inner turmoil being caused by a sense of self-acceptance and reclaimed “Let it Go” as an anthem representative of coming out and revealing one’s true self. Disney responded to rumours that Elsa would be the first gay princess, coupled with the insistence that Elsa would continue not to be defined by romantic relations. Although this is an important distinction for Disney to promote, I struggle with the idea that The LGTBQ+ community must look to a ‘not obviously straight’ princess as their likeliest representative, rather than someone who is queer and proudly so.

Yet, a 2018 YouGov poll indicated that only 49% of people felt comfortable with a gay princess, the rest either being firmly against or unsure about it.

Although Disney understandably must play to their audience, they must also take a direct step in the right direction towards diversification and inclusion. Art has the power of influence. By featuring racial, sexual and bodily diversity on our big screens, Disney can take a vital step in re-training not just viewers, but society’s collective mind and attitude, redefining what we consider to be a new normal.

Written by Issie Levin

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