Disney’s first ‘Latina’ princess – or is she?

Whitewash: Blue-eyed Sofia was originally billed as a Disney’s first Latin American Princess.

This week, campaigners cheered as Disney prepared to introduce its first Latin American star. Yet Princess Sofia, when unveiled, looked indistinguishable from a European.

Pale skin, blue eyes, auburn hair, big purple dress and tiara: Princess Sofia appears to be an entirely conventional Disney heroine. Yet when she was unveiled this week, the character was greeted with uproar.

The cause? An announcement last week from a top Disney producer that Sofia was to be the company’s ‘first Latina princess’. Expecting a confidence-boosting role model for ethnic minorities, campaigners welcomed the news. Yet the face that stared from the publicity photos was clearly of European descent. She is, said one Hispanic advocacy group, ‘about as Latin American as Mitt Romney is Mexican’.

This may be a little unfair. Latin American countries have received immigrants from all over the world, and are famous for their ethnic diversity. In the USA, 53% of Latin Americans are white, and plenty – such as Cameron Diaz and Christina Aguilera – are blonde.

But when it comes to Disney, race can be a sensitive issue. From 1923 until 1992, every one of its main cartoon heroes and heroines were white, and many of the non-white characters were stereotypes that would today be thought of as deeply racist.

In the 1962 film Song of the South, one of the main characters is a goofy black slave who happily serves his master in an idealised version of plantation life. This was offensive even for its time – so much so that the film has never been released on video.

Then there are Fantasia’s black centaurs, busily polishing the hooves of their blonde cousins. The lazy, poor and uneducated crows in Dumbo are widely perceived as yet another black stereotype.

From the 1990s, Disney started to improve its diversity – but the controversy did not end there. Aladdin, which starred an Arabic lead couple, was set in a ‘barbaric’ land of Arab stereotypes, ‘where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face’.

Today, the faces of Disney are far more varied and multicultural than ever before. But, as the reaction to Princess Sofia shows, the issue of race in children’s entertainment can still be hugely fraught.

You shall go to the ball?

Stop this political correctness, many cry. As long as they are not vicious or offensive, producers should be free to populate their films with whatever characters they please. These are fairy tale fantasies for little children, they say, not documentaries about multiculturalism.

But companies like Disney have power, say campaigners for equal representation: films, books and television can shape the way that children perceive the world for the rest of their lives. And with power comes responsibility. If only white princesses are allowed a starring role, young people from all races will draw troubling conclusions.

You Decide

  1. Do producers of children’s entertainment have a duty to create characters from a diverse range of races and backgrounds?
  2. Most Disney films featuring racial stereotypes were produced in an age when racism was widespread. Some say they merely reflect those times: should this make any difference to the way we view them now?

Activities

  1. Pick a character you remember from a childhood film, book or television show, and write an analysis. Do you think that she or he was a good role model?
  2. Design the cast for a children’s cartoon that you think accurately represents your society as it is now.

Some People Say...

“It shouldn’t matter what colour a Disney princess’ skin is.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I haven’t cared about Disney since I was a baby.
This doesn’t apply only to children’s entertainment. Last year the popular British crime dramaMidsomer Murders came under scrutiny when a journalist pointed out that not one of its 81 episodes had featured a black character. The show’s creator defended this decision, but hosts ITV scrambled to apologise.
But does it really matter? I don’t judge races by what I see on TV.
Don’t be so sure: research has shown that fiction and the media have important effects on our perceptions of other groups within our culture – whether we realise it or not. Those who have been exposed to shows which propagate negative stereotypes show far higher levels of prejudice in studies than those who have not.

Word Watch

Mitt Romney
Willard Mitt Romney is the Republican candidate for the US presidency, which will be decided on November 6th. Romney is a Northern American Mormon of English descent, and recently caused some controversy by joking that it would be easier to win the election if he were Latino.
Latin American
Countries in Central and South America where the main language is Spanish or Portuguese are known as ‘Latin American’. Their ethnic background is a complicated mixture, including Native Americans, Southern European colonists and the descendants of African slaves. Heavy inequalities remain between these groups in many Latin American countries.
Plantation life
Between the late 16th and early 19th Centuries, roughly 12 million slaves were kidnapped from their homes in Africa and brought to the Americas to work as slaves. Most of them worked on large farms called ‘plantations’. Many white people idealised the arrangement, comparing the relationship between master and slave to that between father and son; in reality, though, slaves suffered from deprivation, epidemics, violence, disease and a terrible quality of life.

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