Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Diversity That Wasn't

As we come to the end of this three-part-series, it's time to discuss the most disturbing trend within the Disney princess phenomenon: racism.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mike Miley under Creative Commons 3.0

Beginning with the most recent installment, Womanist Musings blogger Renee Martin had this to say about Tangled:
The world is anything but equal and this is evidenced by what bodies we choose to celebrate and what bodies we choose either to denigrate or ignore.  Each day that a little White girl turns on the television, or opens a book, she can see multiple representations of White womanhood.  In of itself, Rapunzel is not problematic, but in a world in which natural Black kinky hair is seen as unkempt and downright ugly, Rapunzel amounts to a slap in the face. It tells little girls of color that they will never be beautiful, because they were born without the characteristics that are normal to White womanhood.
Martin believes Tangled's timing was strategic, resetting a certain standard after Disney's first (and last) "token" Black princess. 

And she makes a strong case. 

Disney's representations of women of color have always been flawed.  Certain princesses are sprinkled into Disney's motley crew like an affirmative action fairy tale, but they always come up short.

Using Martin's example, Tiana was the first princess that didn't have long flowing hair.  It was styled in a constant up-do.  And there were other racial discrepancies in this milestone movie, discussed expertly by Shannon Prince for Racialicious back in 2009.

As Prince explains, there was much ado about The Princess and the Frog.  Finally-- a Black female lead!  But when Tiana finally arrived, she spent most of the movie as a frog.  No other princess had ever changed form-- especially not into an animal.  Can we say de-humanized? 

In the story of "The Frog Prince" the prince was a frog until the princess kissed him, and then he wasn't a frog anymore.  Tiana's story is infinitely more complicated.  And while Disney tried to spin it as a clever-new-take on a tired-old-story, every other traditional princess had stayed true to her tale.  And her molecular structure. 

But some princesses aren't really princesses at all.  Pocahontas is not a princess because a tribe is not a monarchy.  Her father was a chief, not a king.  Her grandmother was a tree, not a queen.  And speaking of speaking to trees, her "colors of the wind" earthiness is a positive stereotype, but a stereotype nonetheless.

Disney has always struggled with Native Americans.  While Pocahontas is a far cry from Tiger Lily and blatantly offensive portrayals of the "red man" in Peter Pan, the fact remains White, European colonists are singing about 'savages' as they merrily initiate what will later be recognized as genocide.

Pocahontas misrepresents colonialism-- an important lesson often distorted in American classrooms.  In reality, she was taken as a child, converted to Christianity, and taught to hate her own culture.  This is an imperialist take-over, not a fairy tale.  Looking back, it was rather fitting that Mel Gibson was John Smith-- a man racist strong enough to tame a wild woman of color.

Mulan also required an exceptionally strong man to tame her unruly ways.  While Chinese women are portrayed as submissive and feminine to a fault in "Bring Honor To Us All," this warrior-princess was too masculine to be a real princess.  Mulan was a gender-bender, as were some of her male co-stars.

This movie also reminds us that Disney's comic relief characters are always more ethnic in appearance, like Mulan's grandmother.  She speaks broken English and her eyes barely open, while the lead characters are very American-ized.

You see this in Aladdin as well.  The villains-- Jafar and his guards-- have darker skin and telling features, where Aladdin ("Al") and Jasmine could pass for White.  They speak like American teenagers while the merchant who sings the offensive song ("where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face, it's barbaric, but hey-- it's home") in the opening has a very thick accent. 

Jasmine's outfit is also hyper-sexualized.  She happens to look as though she belongs in an Arabian harem-- like the one depicted in Prince Ali Ababwa's parade

However, she's no slutty Gypsy like that "disgusting" Esmerelda, who was definitely NOT a princess.

So in the last consideration of Disney Princesses, I leave with you Renee Martin's final thoughts:
"The Disney princess series is absolutely problematic in the harmful messages that it sends young girls, but I venture to say that its treatment of race compounds the dissonance of worth and value that little Black girls live with everyday.  I believe as women, we would all be better off if the genre simply disappeared, but if they must continue, framing them in a manner that specifically harms girls of color by celebrating Whiteness as the ultimate example of femininity must end."
As Disney's retirement from fairy tales prompted this lengthy consideration of its princesses that took up the part of a week, it seems Martin got her wish.  Indeed, as of November, the genre has simply disappeared.

No comments:

Post a Comment