Ever since I was a young girl, I was infatuated with the Walt Disney Corporation princesses, I loved the theme song that opened every movie and I especially grew fond of almost every one of the feature films that I grew up with during the 1990’s. I would not wish for a princess that looked like me (yet), no, I was content to day dream of what it would be like if I had beautiful porcelain white skin and blond hair. It wasn’t until the release of Aladdin (1992) when I personally could identify with an animated character that looked like me and had some the same culture as I did.
Three years later Pocahontas (1995) was released and I found myself, once again, feeling more connected to a heroine who needed to be independent, but I still stayed loyal to Jasmine (to this day) in that she was my favorite princess of all. When Mulan (1998) was released a few years later, I thought that Disney was on the right path, showcasing a new breed of independent and strong multiracial and multicultural women helped introduce a young impressionable audience with images, albeit some stereotypical images of these foreign, exotic characters and their stories. Each of these characters of color is presented in their own unique ways, each embodying a different race/ethnicity and a different culture, however, the extent to which each portrayal is accurate is debatable.
Princess Jasmine, the love interest of Aladdin is portrayed as quite exotic. With her big, wide eyes, foreign jewelry, two-piece silk outfits (that do not ever manage to cover up her shoulders and stomach), and her satin flat slippers are lovely, but foreign. For many families and their children Princess Jasmine was the first Arab character that they were introduced to via mainstream media, and the stereotypical images that were created then has lasted until this day. Princess Jasmine is a free thinking young woman, who refuses to be married off to someone she does not want or love. She is clever, witty, and is not afraid to break some traditions.
Princess Jasmine’s character is not your stereotypical Arab woman, but her fashion (dress) and her environment is straight out a Persian fairytale. Princess Jasmine is still portrayed as what Kathleen Reedy theorizes as “the harem girl,” Reedy makes the observation that “these women rarely exist as individuals, but almost always belong to someone, either a relative or a master.” Because Jasmine is dressed in revealing clothing and is shown as an exotic, beautiful woman that is meant to be put on display, Reedy says that Jasmine’s behavior completes the stereotype that Arab women are subservient and inferior to the their men.
In the opening song of the movie has a slightly racist undertone with the lyrics stating: “I come from a land…where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” The lyrics were later changed to “where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense. It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home (Maio 1999)," because the Arab American community protested the stereotype that Arabs are barbaric and violent; the image of the angry and brutish Arab man who barely speaks English is present in the minds of many, especially after watching how the minor characters in Aladdin such as the soldiers, sheiks, and thieves.
Princess Jasmine is also used to illustrate a point about pressure from parents to get married as soon as a woman is of age. Even though her father is a fairly jolly character and spoils his daughter, he foolishly persists that she gets married which ends up doing more harm than good. The notion of the stereotypical Middle Eastern custom of arranged marriage is tip-toed around, but it is still there nevertheless. A pressured marriage is also evident in Disney’s next movie which starred a woman of color.
Pocahontas, which was released in 1995, and was the first Disney heroine to be based loosely on a real person, and her story based on some factual events. Before watching this movie as a young girl I had no other interactions with Native American people other than the few that were featured in Peter Pan. I thought that Pocahontas’ character was very noble and intelligent, and I loved that she wasn’t made from the same mold as Cinderella or Aurora, by this time I was looking for a free spirited role model and the fact that Pocahontas was unconventional in everyway appealed to me. I watched Pocahontas character development with interest; the theme of respect for “Mother Earth” gets wrapped up in everything Pocahontas does. Her role as the Native American girl who can speak to nature and has immense respect for the plants and animals is a positive one, but still stereotypical of Indigenous Peoples.
Another stereotype is one that life isn’t complete until one is married and Pocahontas, like Jasmine, is pressured by her father to get married. Her father, Chief Powatan, is a strong, but safe presence throughout the film, reminding Pocahontas of her duty to her people and that she needs to be married and start a new journey with her betrothed warrior Kocoum. While I wouldn’t say that this obstacle to our unconventional princess is stereotypical of Native American culture, I will say that it is sexist to suggest that a woman isn’t complete without a man. Another stereotype that was dominant throughout the film was the idea that Native American Indians are savages.
In fact the song from the movie “Savages” is poignant in describing what some of the White settlers thought of the American Indians when Ratcliffe, the villain of the movie sings, “What can you expect from filthy little heathens? Here’s what you get when the race are diverse. Their skin’s a hellish red; they’re only good when dead. They’re vermin, as I said and worse, they’re savages! They are not like you and me, which means they must be evil.”
Fortunately, Pocahontas isn’t all stereotypes; there are more positive representations of the Native American culture, partly due to the fact that Disney hired American Indians to work on the film and act as consultants during the making of the film. The detail the Disney animators put into the characters and scenes were right on with their background drawings and storyboards, so much so that I also was taken away by this sudden exposure to “authentic” representation. Remember other than Peter Pan; I hadn’t had any other American Indian or First Nation influences. Christopher Finch states that “Pocahontas is notable for historically accurate settings (Finch pg.334),” and I drank every detail in as best I could. I loved each one of the animated full-length feature films my parents bought me and I absolutely loved the next Disney film to portray a major character that was a woman of color.
Mulan, the thirty-sixth animated feature film to be released from Disney was an instant hit. This particular movie addressed a host of topics included the in-group prejudice between the Huns and the Chinese; sexism, by exploring the double standards of marriage commonly applied to women, but not men and touched a little on xenophobia – a fear of the foreign outsiders. I didn’t really catch any stereotypical slips, if anything Mulan defies gender norms and the image that Asian women are passive, instead, she changes out outward appearance to match her inner strength of being a woman warrior who is an independent outsider, resolute and aggressive in her efforts to institute correct order (Berry pg.68).”
I also found it interesting that the alias Mulan takes on as “Ping,” which according to “Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Stories and Sketches” by Maurice Baring, "Ping" in Chinese means soldier-man, and it is a derogatory termed used to reference one’s contempt for a man. So even though Mulan’s character fights very hard against double standards and sexism by almost winning the war single-handedly, she is still not really accepted after all of her efforts until recognized by the alpha male – the Emperor of China and even then when she returns she is romanced by the now love-struck captain of the Chinese army.
Mulan, as well as Jasmine and Pocahontas struggle under the pressure her parents put on her to get married and start the traditional accepted life. This motif is common across different races, but it seems that it is especially important in these three character’s cultures respectively. Each protagonist deals with this life changing recommendation of marriage in their own way. Jasmine escapes behind the palace walls to “slum it” with Aladdin who is the epitome of “the bad boy,” Pocahontas covers up her feelings by hiding them all-together from her family and friends until it is too late, and Mulan runs away and changing her outward appearance to become more respected and bring her family honor.
The positive and accurate multicultural representation of the different races of Disney’s heroines has steadily increased over the years, and with the coming of the first African American/Black American princess in the “The Frog Princess” due in 2009, there is hope that even more characters of color will be made a part of the Walt Disney Corporation’s famous legacy.
It is Disney’s best interest to portray more positive images of People of Color in their fairy tales as “these images…have particular important of children in the internalization of White privilege (Hurley 2005).” Disney movies are a fundamental staple in the foundation of almost every child’s experience and with that much influence, Disney needs to continue working on reinforcing positive and non-stereotypical images of their characters, and adding more major characters of color into the elite Disney Princess group is a good place to start.