This is a big week for Disney — not only will it try to prove 2D animation is still a hot commodity, but all eyes will also be on the corporation as it unveils The Princess and the Frog, its first African-American heroine in nearly 90 years of filmmaking.
This Friday marks Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation, a method abandoned after the box office failure that was Home on the Range in 2004. The Princess and the Frog will be the 49th addition to the Walt Disney Animated Classics line of films, a list ripe with Disney favourites like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
However, it is also a list lined with accusations of prejudice, sparking many critics to ask whether the new heroine, Princess Tiana, can finally repair Disney’s reputation for stereotyping.
Over the years, the Disney brand has been panned by cultural critics for its misogynistic and racist character representations.
For example, in 1993 Aladdin drew enough criticism from Arab groups — saying the film’s depiction of the Middle East was offensive — later versions of the movie and soundtrack were altered.
Kane Faucher, a media, information and technoculture professor at Western, notes that while Disney films like Aladdin do have an Arabic protagonist, “all the ‘good’ characters in the film are highly Americanized in appearance.”
Dumbo also found itself in hot water with the character “Jim Crow,” which referenced American segregation laws of the same name that remained until 1965.
Until this week, the crow was one of few African-American characters in Disney films.
The production of The Princess and the Frog was one riddled with racial controversy from the beginning. The original plot featured the main character as a chambermaid working for a wealthy white debutante. She was then to win the heart of a white prince who saves her from the clutches of her superior.
This idea was quickly scrapped after critics slammed its clichéd depiction of subservient black workers. Revisions to the script are still being met with concern — will it be able to rectify the image of African-Americans in Disney classics like Dumbo? Will the film approach its setting of New Orleans appropriately?
Still, others will undoubtedly ask, “What is the big deal?”
After all, many grew up with Disney and remember it as a fond childhood memory.
However, the Walt Disney Company is a business — one of the world’s largest media conglomerates to be exact. The ways in which race is represented is not necessarily of immediate concern for the company.
“Economically, any Hollywood film should be taken with a grain of salt,” former Disney employee turned Western media, information and technoculture lecturer John Reed says. “Disney is in the business of marketing emotions.”
Disney also wields a unique amount of influence over a child audience, and the company’s depiction of race is important because it “targets the demographic least capable or experienced to make an informed opinion on the consumption of media content,” Faucher says. “These films run the dangerous risk of impacting the way a child sees the world and how they will interact with those belonging to other ethnic groups.”
Perhaps more dangerously, Faucher notes, is how those of Disney’s audience “who do not belong to the dominant ‘white American’ discourse may come to subconsciously believe that they are lesser.”
For some, Disney has become a corporation that bears responsibility for defining the ways in which children are exposed to culture and race. The Princess and the Frog may be a step forward.