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Diversity in Disney animation

Research shows that children develop a racial bias from as young as five years old. Professor Jennifer Steele conducted a study of this behaviour and concluded: “when we ask children to categorise by race, both younger [5-8 year olds] and older White children [9-12 year olds] show a pro-White bias”. This research bears witness to the reality of subtle societal conditioning which influences minds from the minute they are born. Animation, being an important form of entertainment for many young children, has a significant role to play when it comes to celebrating diversity. But just how good are cartoons at offering positive representations of race, and race relations, on screen? 

It is no secret that Disney fairytale movie adaptations have for a long time focalised white characters for the vast majority of the lead roles. In recent years, however, viewers have seen the company work to diversify its animated heroes and heroines, with a notable example being 2016’s “Moana”. This movie felt necessary as it not just starred a person of colour as the lead character, but made efforts to bring Hawaiian culture to the forefront of the plot. A contributing factor to this movie’s success, I would argue, was in the casting. The lead voice role of Moana was played by Hawaiian-born actor Auli’i Cravalho, and this added a sense of authenticity to the production. The supporting cast include established stars Nichole Scherzinger, who was also born in Hawaii, and Dwayne Johnson, who is half Samoan. 

In the past, Disney has not always been as in tune with representation, and could be accused of white-centring. The 1992 box office hit “Aladdin” is set in the fictional Arabian desert kingdom of Agrabah. In spite of this, the titular character, Princess Jasmine, as well as the majority of the main supporting characters were played by white actors. 

Disney’s “Pocahontas” is centred on native american indigenous culture. It was another smash hit grossing over $346 million to date. This time, the titular character was voiced by a person that matched the culture being represented. Irene Bedard is a Native American actress who has voiced Pocahontas in several films within the Disney franchise. Pocahontas was in fact the first woman of colour to be the lead character in a Disney production.There is arguably, however, a bigger issue with the plot of the 1995 film. In an article in “The Atlantic”, the film is described as “a clunky attempt at the sort of watered-down corporate ‘inclusivity’ – seen everywhere in the 1990s – that downplays differences of background and opinion, and completely ignores the grim wheel of history in favour of a fuzzy, feel-good narrative”. 

It is notable that the directors of all of the Disney productions mentioned in this article, including 2016’s “Moana”, were white men. Interestingly, the same directors that worked on “Moana” also worked on 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog”, which is the first Disney film with a Black princess lead.

For a film to truly celebrate diversity, it needs to have diversity of experience in both its cast and its crew. These conversations finally taking place indicates steps are being taken in the direction towards racial equality.

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Jake Walker-Charles

May 2021
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