Needless to say, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t aware of Disney films, and you’d probably encounter equal difficulty trying to find someone who hasn’t heard of (or fantasized about being) a Disney princess. Whether you always wanted to be a mermaid, like Ariel, or were incredibly studious like Belle, Disney princesses offer up the opportunity for young children – and girls in particular – to form a sense of identification with the characters and inspiration from them. Arguably, the most popular princesses take the form of: Belle, Ariel, Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White and Jasmine.
Whilst Disney has had extraordinary success with these princesses, Jasmine was the first princess where Disney deviated from their white princess preference, and introduced the world to a princess of colour – notably from the Middle East. Of course, Disney has had some success with other racially and ethnically diverse princesses since then, such as Mulan, Pocahontas and Tiana, there is still an adherence to white princesses in general; Merida, Rapunzel, Anna, Elsa, to name a few.
Even when Disney has focused on princesses of colour, like Jasmine, the emphasis has never been on racial issues, different cultures or even with displaying princesses with accents (Merida and Tiana are the only princesses I can think of with distinct accents – and these are still Western, although Mulan might suffice). You need only look at Jasmine herself to notice her pristine American accent, stereotypical Arabian clothing and seemingly no connection to her own culture or the inclusion of said culture to the structure of the plot, with mysticism, magic, and men more central to the film. Mulan attempted to rectify this with an Asian princess portrayal, but still fell short and succumbed to stereotypes, whilst never seeming to get the recognition she deserves in popular media or indeed in the Disney company itself (i.e. you can only ‘meet’ Mulan in EPCOT in Disney World, unlike other princesses who are available in Magic Kingdom).
2009’s Tiana seemed to be a shining progressive beacon of light for Disney and society – the first black Disney princess – and expectations were high. But whilst Tiana’s personality and hard work ethic were admirable, Tiana’s community was criticised for its lack of racial issues, and the whole frog analogy seemingly relating people of colour to animals (in this case, frogs, although I’ll let you be the judge of that one). Following on from Tiana, we had a slew of white – but arguably somewhat culturally diverse – princesses, from the Scottish Merida to the Norwegian Anna and Elsa and then finally, seven years later, we have the first Polynesian Disney princess: Moana.
Whilst this is a somewhat taxing journey, and the fact that Moana isn’t exactly Disney’s first Hawaiian influenced character (Lilo takes that particular biscuit), it is a sign that perhaps Disney is ready to experiment with culture and racial representation again, with some of the trailers even hinting at a Polynesian accent and traditional pronunciation of certain words.
Disney is such a globally influential and conglomerate company which has the ability to empower young people, whilst offering up much needed representation, and that is why this move to a potentially more culturally diverse princess is so important, as it will pave the way for more inclusive representations of cultures from around the world, promoting cultural and racial acceptance. And hey, we all need a bit of that right now.