Inclusivity: Can you paint with all the colours of Disney?

The first fully animated Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was released in 1937. Being released two years prior to World War II means that the film reflects very different societal values and attitudes to todays. Thankfully, we now have characters like Merida in Brave who are able to choose a career instead of a husband, unlike Snow White whose life was fulfilled the moment she found herself a man. However, it seems that there is still a lot of work to be done before we can bestow Disney with the ‘inclusive’ accolade.

Disney storylines have progressed drastically since its initial creations to reflect the progression of society. I am so pleased that the younger generation are now growing up with films that are fighting negative stereotypes and “ism”s. Disney was attempting to conquer these issues as I was growing up, but the trouble was that it always ended the same way: a prince came along to save the incredible woman who had spent the entire film proving that she did not need saving.

“She still had to end up with the attractive man to protect her”

A prevalent example of this is Mulan. In this film, the title character joins the army by pretending to be a man (a crime punishable by death), saves the life of her general, saves the Chinese Emperor and by and large the country from war, and yet she still had to end up with the attractive man to protect her.

More recently, films have been beginning to reject this predictable ending such as Moana which features a Polynesian protagonist who finds her own identity at the end of the film, rather than her true love. To me, this feels like a huge step in the right direction, as we are now teaching young people that there are more ways to be fulfilled in life than living out the housewife ideal, although that is still equally valid.

“It can feel as though they are only doing this to somehow fulfil a quota.”

Having said this, I do still have one bone to pick with Disney. It is fantastic that they are including female characters of different skin colours, ethnicities and body types (Moana was the first to not fit the archetypal Disney princess figure) but it can feel as though they are only doing this to somehow fulfil a quota. For instance, Mulan is the only Disney film which is based on Chinese culture (tick!), Aladdin deals with Indian (tick!) and Tiana in Princess and the Frog is the only protagonist of African- American heritage (tick!).

“The recent shift to live action versions of this films seems to make this issue even more prevalent”

Conversely, how many Disney films have we seen with the white, hourglass-figure female lead? Why should this culture deserve so much more coverage than all the others? The industry is certainly taking steps in the right direction; I just hope that this grows even further to level out this imbalance.

A current trend is for classic animated films to be re-worked into live action versions, such as Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella. These films have been criticised for being money-grabbing endeavours (but that’s a whole different debate) and a further bi-product is the effect on the younger audience.

As a child, I grew up watching cartoon Disney films consisting of princesses with impossible waists, porcelain skin and beautiful flowing locks. These portrayals have been criticised for demonstrating unrealistic expectations for young girls, but I would argue that of course the characters were unrealistic because well, they weren’t real? I doubt very much that there is a mermaid in the depths of the ocean who dreams of growing legs, or that a witch cursed a princess to a life consisting only of sleep (although at this point in the semester, that doesn’t sound so bad). These films offer alternative worlds and realities; therefore, it is understandable that their appearances may also be unrealistic and unattainable, especially as they are clearly animated.

“All these princesses looked practically the same”

Personally, I never grew up wishing to look just like a Disney princess because I was quite happy appearing in 3D. I feel that a larger issue is the fact that all these princesses looked practically the same. If Disney were to include an array of body types, skin colours and even hair length then this would convey to its young audience that they can each relate to one of these fantastic characters, and there was not only one model on which being a ‘princess’ is based.

The recent shift to live action versions of this films seems to make this issue even more prevalent. Young children are now seeing real people in these alternate worlds which I believe is lending itself to issues with body image. This was illustrated by the backlash to Lily James’ performance of Cinderella, as the use of a corset to accentuate her already tiny waist was criticised.  Alternatively, Emma Watson refused to wear a corset in Beauty and the Beast precisely to avoid this normalisation of the teeny-tiny waist figure.

“Every type of woman can be the hero of the story”

Disney films are certainly on their way to becoming an inclusive brand, but they are not quite there yet. I personally would like to see more stories focused on different cultures and what it means to be a ‘princess’ in different environments. Furthermore, it would be incredible to see live action versions of these kinds of films as well as the archetypal white princess storylines. It is important that Disney include a greater range of female protagonists to mirror the range of women across the world. It is even more important to do so with the live action versions of the classic fairy tales to demonstrate to its young audience that any and every type of woman can be the hero of the story.

Emily Casey

Featured image courtesy of  steven van via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here.

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