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Representation of People of Colour in Disney’s Cartoons


Nowadays the Walt Disney Company, commonly known as Disney, has become a so powerful and influential children's media conglomerate that it can be addressed as a genre itself, the 'Disney genre' (Wang 2022). By watching its last production titled Encanto (2021), the story of a magical Colombian family, it is clear that a lot has changed in the company's creative methods since the release of the first feature-length animated movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Disney went from not including people of colour to othering them. Di Giovanni (2007) describes it as the long Disney tradition of portraying people of colour for the sake of white pleasure and voyeurism. This is usually done by representing people of colour and the lands they live in as exotic, distant, and savage. However, Di Giovanni also explains that this fascination for the unknown is always balanced with familiar white and western elements that have the role to not estrange or making uncomfortable the white western audience. This brings to a misrepresentation of non-white cultures and has important negative consequences on the audience. Despite the audience appreciation of Encanto (2021) for its accurate cultural representation, it will be shown that Disney's portrayls of non-white charcaters still presents problems.


Disney’s past misrepresentations

Disney's productions have representation issues on both visual and narrative elements; however, the harshest and most impactful alteration of characters of colour happens mostly through visual elements such as the deformation of the bodies. An example of this is the cartoon The Princess and The Frog (2008)whose protagonist is the first black Disney Princess, called Tiana. The princess’ skin colour is the only reference to her being black. This is because her facial traits are the same as the ones of her white friend Charlotte. In addition, none of the black characters in the story is portrayed with natural afro hair. Those whose head is not covered by a hat have slightly wavy or straight hair. Despite this might seem like a depiction of alternative hairstyles that black people sometimes wear, it is more deeply problematic. In fact, natural afro hair is not just a common hairstyle among black people, but rather a cultural symbol of identification and black power. This has also been shown by the strong public appreciation of the recent Disney Junior series Rise Up, Sing Out (2022) which teaches children how to take care of their natural afro hair (McKay 2022). For this reason, erasing the natural appearance of afro-textured hair in cartoons can be perceived as an erasure of the characters' black identity. Another problematic point, as Dundes and Streiff (2016) point out, is that prince Naveen is portrayed with orange-brown skin. This, together with the fact that he comes from an imaginary place, does not allow him to be recognised African-American as Tiana. Leon-Boys & Valdivia (2021) explain that for a long time, this type of ethnic ambiguity has been applied by Disney to allow different audiences to identify themselves with the characters. Nevertheless, the only consequence of this type of representation seems to be the depiction of African-American women as unable to find any prince of their same ethnicity (Dundes & Streiff 2016).

Figure 1: Kenzo Brooks' reaction when he realises he looks like the character of Encanto (2021) Antonio

In past Disney animated cartoons, what Lugo-Lugo and Bloodsworth-Lugo (2009) define as racialized anthropomorphism is applied. With this term, the writers describe the act of addressing a specific ethnicity to an animal or other non-human character. In fact, in many Disney cartoons, the protagonists of colour spend most of their time in different bodies. Chronologically, the first one has been Tiana who together with prince Naveen spends the majority of the time in the shape of a green frog rather than as a black woman. In this case, the black body is not only lowered to the level of an animal but is transformed into an amphibian. This species is rarely considered cute or attractive, and it is described in the movie as being slimy, and yet disgusting (Dundes & Streiff 2016). Differently, in Coco (2017) Miguel magically becomes able to visit the Land of the Dead. Despite the fact that he does not undergo any transformation, he is forced to hide his skin and cover his face in make-up so that other skeletons do not understand he is not dead like them. However, towards the end of the movie, Miguel starts slowly turning into a skeleton because of the too much time spent in the Land of the Dead. as Wabuke (2021) explains, the transformation is not problematic per se but becomes an issue when it is done to a non-white protagonist that is supposed to represent oppressed minorities. In this case, the change of the body into a non-human entity becomes a form of "erasure and dehumanization" (Wabuke 2021) of the character of colour. This is because by transforming people of colour into objects or animals their skin colour is deleted and this conveys the message that non-white characters are tolerated as long as they are not seen during the entire movie.

Disney’s recent improvement

Physical misrepresentation has not been applied in the cartoon Encanto (2021) that presents non stereotypical representations of racial diversity in Colombia. After its release, the movie has been appraised to be a breaking point in Disney's past of racist and sexist misrepresentations, and for discussing more relatable topics with children. The cartoon has had a lot of acclamation between critics and obtained 91% of critics' consensus and 93% of audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and a vote average of 7,2 on IMDb, the most common measurements for the quality of media entertainment products. The public approval became symbolic with a picture portraying a young boy standing next to a TV showing Antonio, the younger character of Encanto (Figure 1). The two subjects present the same skin tone and same hairstyle. This picture has been used to symbolize all the children that cannot see themselves reflected in cartoons, and how things have now changed thanks to Encanto. As it can be read in the majority of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb reviews, the animated cartoon has been positively welcomed mainly because it includes black Colombians, a minority group rarely included in media products. This minority group has been excluded and ignored for decades, and it is still fighting to receive political recognition in today's Colombian society (Molina 2022; Wade 2009). By portraying different tones of non-white skin, Encanto (2021) acknowledges the existence of additional skin types other than black and white and gives African descendent Colombians visibility and importance (Figure 2). In addition, by including in the same family different skin types, the cartoon portrays Colombians as a very diverse population and questions the common image of black people as dark-brown skinned and Colombians as mulattos (Molina 2022). This is something that has not been done in previous cartoons like Moana (2016) and Coco (2017) where all the characters are represented with the same skin tones. This not only provides a stereotypical image of what Polynesian and Mexican people look like but also excludes anyone who does not look that way from belonging to that population. Because of this, if “identification can only be made through recognition” (Friedberg in Bell Hooks 1992, 119) then Colombians can recognise themselves in the characters of Encanto.

Figure 2: Encanto's (2021) revolutionary choice of portraying members of the same family with different skin tones

Despite physical misrepresentation has not been applied in Encanto (2021), the cartoon is far from being perfect and has problematic features at the narrative level. If the definition of othering as “the process of attaching moral codes of inferiority” (Krumer-Nevo & Sidi 2012, 299) is considered valid, then also Encanto provides a misrepresentation of Colombians and more in general non-white western people, into a single altered identity. The difference is that it is done more subtly only through narrative elements and not also with visual ones, as in previous Disney productions. A recurring element in Disney cartoons with characters of colour is the contrast between the wildness and paradise trope. In Encanto (2021), the creators managed to deliver the typical idea of an idyllic landscape by representing the valley where the family Madrigal lives as very rich and luxuriant (Figure 3). The very medium of animation is what allows cartoon creators to create the paradise trope and exoticization can happen in the best possible way. This is not necessarily problematic; however, it becomes problematic when it is constantly associated with every non-American landscape. In this case, rendering the settings exotic can be considered a form of othering and enduring colonialism because it comes from a desire to fantasize about non-western cultures and it commodifies the Colombian landscape and culture for Western consumption (Tamaira & Fonoti 2018). What problematizes this even more is the flip side of the trope of paradise, so the stereotype of Colombia as a primitive country. The creators inserted wildness and rurality in the cartoon by setting the story in the first half of the 20th century and in a small village. The choice of setting the story in the middle of the forest rather than in one of the many cities of Colombia recalls the colonial viewpoint according to which southern rural locations were places of solace from the intense urbanization and civilization of the north (Terry 2010). The cartoon includes wildness also in the social organization of the village that is lawless and does not present any kind of institution. As a matter of fact, except for the authority of the grandmother in the family, the cartoon does not present any social order or organization such as schools for children or jobs for adults. Tamaira & Fonoti (2018) explain that institutions signal the accumulation of knowledge and, according to the white perspective, this complexity also indicates civilization. For this reason, it can be claimed that the exclusion of societal complexity makes the cartoon a perpetuation of the stereotype of Southerners and people of colour as backwards.


Effects of discrimination

As of now, many scholars have paid particular attention to the possible consequences that media can have on children. It has become common knowledge that when it comes to this more vulnerable part of the audience, it is very important to provide them with healthy and empowering media products, whatever cultural community they belong to. In this regard, Lugo-Lugo and Bloodsworth-Lugo (2009) describe the fundamental role that cartoons have on children's lives by defining them as "portable professors". The reason behind the use of this term is that cartoons have a very important role in youngsters' lives because of their influence on the development of children's deeper selves and identities (Hurley 2005). At the same time, cartoons also work for them as a mirror of society from which they do not only learn important values but also their and other people's status. Hurley (2005) also explains that through media children develop their knowledge about other people, themselves, and their position in society. In addition, in order to develop a positive self-image children need to see themselves represented in texts (Jordan & Hernandez-Reif 2009). Consequently, if children see themselves represented in a denigrating way, they will start to believe that is the truth. Being aware of this increases the need for understanding if cartoons represent people of colour in authentic and accurate ways and if they add to multiculturalism.


Figure 3: the trope of paradise applied to Encanto's flora and fauna

The findings of two very interesting studies prove the strong negative effect that the lack of multiculturalism in Disney cartoons can have on children around the world. The report by Hunt (2022) published in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) explains that African Americans exposed to denigrating images of black people are likely to start believing they are real. This damages black people's self-image and future aspirations. In addition, misrepresentations of black people also affect white people by distorting how they see, empathize and understand this group. Breaux (2010) explains that this can also be applied to any person of colour and that white people's distorted view limits non-white people's opportunities and possibilities, another cause for self-esteem issues. In this regard, a study carried out by Nastasia and Uppal (2010) was able to demonstrate the different perceptions that girls from Western and non-Western cultures have of Disney princesses of colour. The study tried to understand if the multiculturalism added to the Disney princesses actually empowered the voices of cultures that were less represented in Disney cartoons. The results show that non-western girls continued to not recognize themselves in the characters of the new exotic and multicultural princesses. As for American girls, they did not seem to notice the difference in skin types and kept seeing themselves represented. What both groups had in common was that they saw the exotic princesses as very similar to the previous white and western princesses. The article also suggests that the self-assurance of white girls is given by watching cartoons that match their reality, and this is thought to harm the self-esteem of children belonging to other cultures than white Americans.


Conclusion

For a very long time, Disney’s racial representation methods have caused misrepresentations of people of colour. The most evident example of this misrepresentation is the physical appearance of non-white characters. This includes many features as facial traits, hair, and the bodily transformation into other entities. These problematic elements are not present in the latest Disney production with non-white characters titled Encanto (2021). Despite the movie presents many progresses in the physical representation of people of colour, it still presents problems at the narrative level. The cartoon conveys the two contrasting tropes of wildness and paradise that reinforce the stereotype of Southerners and people of colour as backwards yet curious creatures. This demonstrates that despite Disney's conglomerate has improved the way it represents characters of colour, the new representation techniques keep presenting problematic stereotyping and racist aspects. These features have to be analysed and highlighted because, despite they are not as evident as in the past, they keep having a negative influence on children's self-image and relation to other people and cultures.









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