A brief history of Disney’s complicated relationship with racial diversity

A brief history of Disney’s complicated relationship with racial diversity

By Gabby Cushman

Disney broke the internet recently with the new teaser trailer for their live-action version of The Little Mermaid starring Halle Bailey. The two-minute-long snippet of Bailey singing the iconic “Part of Your World” has made a much more significant impact than most film teasers would. It started a TikTok trend of parents sharing their Black children’s joy over seeing themselves represented as one of Disney’s most beloved princesses. This overwhelmingly wholesome response shows how much it means for children of color, who often go underrepresented in children’s media, to see characters that look like them in popular movies and television shows. 

Diverse racial representation is something that Disney has struggled with since its conception. Although we’ve seen improvement recently with films like Encanto and Pixar’s Turning Red, the media giant still has a long way to go regarding meaningful, accurate cultural representation. Let’s look at the history of BIPOC characters in Disney and Pixar films to see why Ariel being Black is an essential step in the right direction.

“Classic” Disney films and racial stereotypes: Dumbo and Peter Pan

Classic Disney movies during their “Golden,” “Silver,” and “Bronze” ages that lasted from 1937 through 1988 either lacked any non-white characters or enforced negative racial stereotypes in the ways they presented their “diverse” characters. Dumbo and Peter Pan are among some classic Disney titles that have restricted access for kids on their streaming app Disney Plus due to “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.” 

In Dumbo, there is a scene where a group of performing crows seems to represent racist minstrel shows, with their leader even being named Jim Crow. In Peter Pan, the white main characters encounter indigenous people who chant in an unintelligible language, have their culture appropriated by the Lost Boys, and are repeatedly referred to as a harmful term: “redskins”. Now, if you play these movies on Disney Plus, the following message is displayed:

“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together. Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe.”

The first BIPOC Disney Princesses: Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocahontas

It wasn’t until the Disney “Renaissance” era from 1989-1999 that we finally saw the first non-white Disney princesses. Yet these BIPOC characters were far from real representation. Aladdin, starring Princess Jasmine, was criticized for perpetuating negative stereotypes about the Middle East and Asia. The two leads, Aladdin and Jasmine, have lighter skin tones and eurocentric features, which contrast significantly with the villainous street merchants that were given heavy Arab accents and exaggerated facial features. Disney’s Mulan, though receiving a lot of praise for its representation and female empowerment message, was still criticized by Chinese audiences for depicting Chinese culture in an “Americanized” way. It only made $30,000 when it premiered in China, where Disney movies tended to make millions.

Pocahontas is one of the most problematic out of these early BIPOC-led movies. The historical figure Pocahontas was a teen when she was kidnapped and forced to be baptized as a Christian before being married to John Rolfe, who believed he was “saving her soul.” Some native oral traditions even allege that Pocahontas was greatly mistreated and assaulted during her captivity. Pocahontas died at age 21 due to illness, though some believe she was poisoned. This tale is vastly different from the Disney movie, which portrays Pocahontas as a free-spirited adult woman who falls in love with the English adventurer John Smith. Disney filmmakers decided to change the story as they believed the original was too “violent and complicated.”

The strange pattern of BIPOC characters becoming non-human during their films

In 2009, Disney made history by creating The Princess and the Frog, which starred Tiana, the first Black Disney princess. Although the movie was praised during its premiere and is beloved by many, The Princess and the Frog falls into a troubling trope of Disney/Pixar BIPOC protagonists becoming non-human creatures for most of the run-time of their movies. This pattern includes Brother Bear, The Emperor’s New Groove, Soul, and Turning Red. Some of these transformations are seen as a nod to their culture’s mythos. However, it is concerning to see movies that should serve as representation for BIPOC children instead chip away at that representation and dehumanize their racially diverse protagonists when this doesn’t happen nearly as often to white Disney/Pixar protagonists. 

Positive steps towards racial diversity in modern-day Disney films: Turning Red and Encanto 

In recent years, Disney has made some positive progress in terms of its character diversity. Moana, their latest Disney princess movie, was widely considered a great tribute to Polynesian culture and tradition. Disney even brought together a team of Pacific Islander advisors to help develop the film. As mentioned above, one of Pixar’s recent movies Turning Red follows a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl named Mei who turns into a giant red panda when she experiences strong emotion. Although Mei does fall into the pattern of BIPOC leads undergoing an animal transformation, Mei switches between her animal and human form throughout the film, maintaining her lively character and humanity. Domee Shi, the film’s director, is Pixar’s first Asian female director and their first solo female director. And what’s considered to be one of Disney’s best forms of representation so far is the critically-acclaimed Encanto, a movie that celebrates Colombian culture through its cuisine, architecture, clothing, and the beautiful familial relationships that the plot centers around.

A long way to go

Disney is not perfect in its efforts to broaden racial diversity within its projects. The recent Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) was widely criticized for portraying South East Asia as a monolith instead of showcasing the incredible variety amongst the eleven South East Asian countries the film attempted to condense into its world. But this is why we must pay attention to these attempts at better diversity in children’s media. The new live-action The Little Mermaid shows why positive representation should be acknowledged and celebrated. Seeing Black children overjoyed at Ariel being a beautiful Black mermaid with red dreadlocks showcases exactly how meaningful Halle Bailey’s casting truly is. Her version of Ariel marks a turning point for Disney that I hope only continues to spotlight BIPOC protagonists for children worldwide. 

Ready to be part of something bigger?
Join the Little Justice Leaders community. Together, we're creating a space where educators and parents can learn together, grow, and help build a movement to create a generation of changemakers.

Embrace the challenges, celebrate the wins, and remember that every step you take in social justice education is a step toward a brighter, more inclusive future. Your voice and experiences are vital in shaping the next generation. So, keep those conversations going, and let's continue changing the world, one conversation at a time!

To get access to tons of free resources and connect with other like-minded educators and families, join the Little Justice Leaders community.

Back to blog

Leave a comment