Reflection of real people in fictional worlds

Disney focuses on true diversity and inclusivity with popular films this decade


Graphic created by Lilyana Salazar

The happiest place on earth: Disney struggles to live up to its motto as the demand of consumers for accuracy in media is on the rise. Disney’s early and most popular films feed into negative facades about various cultures but their efforts to address their mistakes are being exercised today. “It’s our natural instinct to implement ourselves into characters we are most like and believe ourselves to be. If that’s all we see as kids that’s all we grow up to believe we can be,” senior Ella Balan.

In a media-derived world, we are directly influenced and impacted by the digital entertainment we consume. Because of this we often overlook socially unacceptable concepts. Today’s generation of viewers challenges programs and businesses to break stereotypes that have been enacted for too long. And Disney, a long-standing offender, has been a contributor in taking modern steps towards inclusivity. Follow a look at Disney’s evolution in their efforts towards inclusivity.

Did they even try?
Movie: Aladdin (1992)
Some are surprised to find that the original lyrics to one of Aladdin’s hits titled “Arabian Nights” was so blatantly racist that the lyrics had to be changed.

And let’s not forget that in the animated film the vast majority of townspeople are villainized and depicted as cruel. Filmmakers gave no consideration as to how individuals of Arabian descent would be impacted by the fictional facades created. Furthermore, instead of using correct symbols and lettering, scribbles were used to represent the Arabic language.

Details that may have seemed minor and insignificant but reveal how careless producers and animators were in failing to educate themselves about the culture they profit off of. Needless to say, a lot was done wrong; fortunately, Disney immensely improved with the 2019 version starring Will Smith, Meena Massoud and Naomi Scott, as they used the modified version of “Arabian Nights” and shed light on the beauty of various Middle Eastern cultures.

False representation
Movie: Pocahontas (1995)

Disney’s Pocahontas caused a complex stir of emotions and controversy. Although it was Disney’s first time introducing a princess of color, the representation of Native American culture was discredited by white saviorism.

The true story of Pocahontas includes her contributions to Jamestown’s success as well as her deeply saddening abuse. Disney dismissed historical events by misshaping true events and creating false scenarios. Despite the beauty of the picture and sound brought to the screen, Disney had no place in using real people in history in false ways and encouraging stereotypes we struggle to break to this today.

We notice
Movie: Mulan (1998)
Mulan expresses many beneficial mantras such as pride, honor and the importance of family. Mulan was also a breakout film for smashing preconceived ideas about gender roles. Despite the fact that Mulan empowered young girls to explore inner strength and courage, the racial portrayal of certain characters was simply not acceptable.

Characters that take on comedic and antagonist roles are depicted with thicker accents and extremely exaggerated Asian features. It is not the accents of the characters that is inherently racist, it is the contrast of these characters compared to the protagonists and likable individuals who are voiced by American actors with Caucasian features.

A refreshing contrast
Movie: Princess & the Frog (2009)
2009 was the year that Disney added their first African American princess. It was a moment of joy and accomplishment that was long overdue. Anika Nani Rose voices the hard-working princess, Tiana. However, it was disappointing to realize that most of Tiana’s screen time was spent in the color green, as she was turned into a frog early on.

Tiana’s dynamic personality was refreshing for audiences, along with Mulan it was one of the first times viewers saw a lead female character being dependent and strong.

What struck me with internal conflict was the character Charlotte and her relationship with Tiana. Charlotte is a white, rich and rambunctious girl. The movie clearly shows the class contrast between Tiana and Charlotte. Tiana works for her earnings, goals and dreams while Charlotte is handed wads of cash and spoiled with goods. It is difficult to understand if the creators wanted to implement real-life social issues or if they fell into the stereotypical lower vs. high-class roles.

Some accuracy
Movie: Moana (2017)
Moana marks an important era of Disney; a shift in cultural appreciation is seen as creators educate themselves. This movie is one we may celebrate. Even though the Movie Moana is not 100% perfect, it is by far one of the most well-represented Disney movies in terms of culture.

The representation of Polynesian culture is for the most part accurate. Aspects like the canoes, wayfinding (using stars to navigate) and the myth of Maui are all true aspects of certain Polynesian cultures. Not only that, but Moana is the first Disney movie to put Pacific Islanders in the spotlight.

“I also enjoyed Moana, which is Pacific Islander, which is what Filipino is specified as. It was nice to have an islander princess, and it didn’t just focus on the guy. It empowered ethnic women,” senior Ella Balan said.

Well done
Movie: Coco (2017)
Coming from someone of Latin descent, Coco impacted those I was close to in an eye-opening way. To witness a child light up with excitement for being represented is an experience of contagious happiness.

The film was made with years of prior knowledge and research about Mexican cultures and transitions. More specifically, Coco encapsulated the true spirit of the popular tradition Dia de los Muertos. Tropes of this movie include loss, passion and familial love.

Things are looking up
Movie: Encanto (2017)
Encanto is set in Columbia, and what was most impressive about this film was the accuracy and attention to minor details. Audiences appreciated the precise color schemes used as well as details in both music and food dishes.

The music team for the production was accompanied by the well-known Lin Manuel Miranda who is Latino himself. Miranda and others on the creative team traveled to Columbia prior to the pandemic in order to soak up the surroundings of Columbia and get creative with their storytelling.

Coming soon to theaters
Movie: Live-Action Little Mermaid (2023)
Perhaps the most interesting movie in this timeline is one that is not yet released. In early 2019, Disney Director Rob Marshall announced actress and singer Halle Bailey as Ariel in the upcoming live-action Little Mermaid. Due to uncontrollable circumstances, the movie has been postponed and is scheduled to release in 2023. Backlash has been given to the young actress because Bailey is an African American.

Judgment for the change in Ariel’s appearance is disappointing, as the actress embodies the young and vibrant voice and attitude of the animated princess so well. The casting director made the best choice in choosing Bailey for the role. Fans of the 1989 version should be excited to see such a talented individual represent a lively character!

Disney Plus
It is deeply frustrating to live in a world surrounded by racism, sexism and homophobia; however, we are only able to improve the future, not change the past. I applaud Disney for recent and honest efforts to be more aware. Disney Plus has added an unskippable, 12-second message in front of controversial movies or shorts.

“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures; these stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.”

“If we were to remove the Disney movies that we grew up with and the stuff we don’t agree with, then it doesn’t give kids the chance to create their own opinions. I feel like it’s censoring them and erases our past. As a society, we need to remember where we came from and what we grew up believing so that we can further educate our society as adults,” Balan said.

By being socially aware and educating ourselves we are able to create safer environments. Rather than conflicting with one another, individuals will be able to collaborate. Disney proves that day-to-day entertainment has an impact on social issues. Take control of the way you perceive media and invest time to think about the effects.