In a nutshell
- The 16th of October marks the 100th anniversary of Disney’s founding.
- Michelle Anjirbag-Reeve is a researcher at UAntwerp and a Disney expert. She investigated diversity in Disney films.
- Disney characters of colour are still viewed through an excessively Western lens and are subject to different rules of conduct.
- Disney indulges in cultural imperialism, with ‘white male’ remaining the norm.
- We must continue to be critical and expose problematic issues in Disney films in order to bring about change.
Literature researcher Michelle Anjirbag-Reeve (Faculty of Arts) herself from two different cultures and therefore a ‘person of colour’, noticed it even in her childhood: when she and her friends were imitating the Disney princesses, she would be asked if she wanted to be Jasmine or Pocahontas. ‘But I wanted to be Belle!’ She decided to delve into the diversity theme in the Disney fairy tales for her PhD project, and the entertainment giant has never let her go since. A critical analysis in response to a century of Disney.
‘Shall I show you something?’ Literature researcher Michelle Anjirbag-Reeve enthusiastically jumps up from her chair, runs to the shelf and returns with ‘Mickey Mouse proclamation ears’. She had received them from her colleagues in Cambridge, when she obtained her doctorate with a thesis on diversity in Disney films. Since then, Disney has stayed with her. She has since written several papers and books on the topic and, a few years ago, through contact with Professor of Youth Literature Vanessa Joosen, she came to Antwerp to work as a researcher for the ‘Constructing Age for Young Readers’ project. As the Disney company celebrates its centenary in October, a review is appropriate, and there is no one better to ask than the greatest Disney expert the UAntwerp has in its ranks.
Disney characters of colour
‘By the way, I am working on a new book about Disney’, notes Anjirbag-Reeve. ‘It builds further on my doctoral thesis and examines how Disney has changed our perception of race and gender. Amongst other things, I examine how racial differences are presented in Disney stories and identify areas of potential for people of different skin colours. I take The Little Mermaid from 1989 as a starting point, because it was the first film with a different cultural (i.e. Caribbean) influence, through the character of Sebastian the crab. The diversity was still minimal at that point, as the main remained quite homogeneously White. Most films stayed that way for a long time. In the past decade, Disney has released many remakes of the classics. Happily, they do reflect more diversity, albeit to only a limited extent. In the remake of Beauty and the Beast from 2017, it is assumed that LeFou, Gaston’s servant, is gay, and Madame Garderobe is Afro-American, but the main cast remains White and straight. Incidentally, in 1997, Disney made a special television adaptation of Cinderella, with the Afro-American singer Brandy as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, but that was unfortunately a one-off outlier.'
We still need to ask who will have access to this “magic kingdom” and for whom access is accompanied by the caveat that they can be changed or rewritten by Disney.
Different colour, different rules
‘We had to wait until 2009 for the first Black princess’, recounts Michelle. ‘She was Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, but you don’t actually see her on screen much, because she turns into a frog during the story. Does she get her prince and castle in the end? No. She buys her own restaurant with her own money. According to my research, Disney princesses of colour do not get their ‘happily ever after’ brought to them on a silver platter. They have to work hard for it. Mulan is a character of colour, but not really a princess, because she works in the army, and Jasmine from the film Aladdin does not have free will. She is the Western perception of the typical Middle Eastern woman growing up in a repressive culture and having nothing to say. That changes slightly in the remake when, at the end of the film, her father says that she can decide for herself whom she will marry and that she now has the power to change those rules.'
‘I thought that this year’s live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid—with Hally Bailey, an actress of colour, as Ariël—did a very good job. But we’re not there yet’, warns Michelle. ‘We must continue to be critical and expose problematic issues in Disney films in order to bring about change. I still think that Disney often falls short of representing diversity, and the process is too slow. For example, they do ‘pan-African storytelling’, as if Africa is one homogeneous continent, but it absolutely is not.'
Michelle continues, ‘I think that Disney continues to indulge in cultural imperialism, with “fellow White people” remain the norm’. ‘Characters of colour are still viewed through an excessively Western lens and are subject to different rules of conduct. I also miss more gender heterogeneity—why does every princess have to have her prince? Couldn’t it also be a princess? Or a non-binary person? We still need to ask who will have access to this “magic kingdom” and for whom access is accompanied by the caveat that they can be changed or rewritten by Disney.'