When I was young, my family would watch a Disney movie together every Friday night. The five of us would sit together on the living room couch with all the lights off and eat snacks we had bought from 168 Market. Because of this, Disney movies always bring back nostalgic memories of my childhood and hold a very special place in my heart. I grew up fascinated with Disney princesses and entranced by tales like Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, 101 Dalmatians, Pinocchio and the Lion King. Movies like these shaped my childhood and piqued my curiosity, inspiring me as I grew up.
But as I’ve matured, I’ve realized that the Disney industry is not the flawless fantasy my younger self once perceived it to be. In fact, some of Disney’s most prominent works – movies and characters that I idolized as a child – are riddled with bigotry and racial exclusion. While white women like Snow White are admired for their fair complexion, women of color like Pocahontas are praised for assimilating to Eurocentric culture and norms. Additionally, a group of crows in the 1941 Dumbo movie is led by a bird named Jim Crow, and one of the lyrics in a song by faceless black circus workers reads, “We slave until we’re almost dead / We’re happy-hearted roustabouts.” These racist caricatures are telling of Disney’s previous neglect of inclusivity and respect.
On top of that, it’s crucial to remember that Disney is a corporation, and corporations constantly promote consumerism at the expense of POC and other minority communities (see the racism propelling corporate America that barricades POC from promotions and opportunities compared to their white counterparts). So whether done implicitly or explicitly, Disney’s past is overrun by discrimination.
In recent years though, Disney has worked to overcome their earlier prejudices as exhibited by the rise of movies centered around POC characters. Their campaign for racial inclusivity has elicited widespread acclaim, as their fanbase has diversified over the years. For instance, “Encanto” is a magical realism film centered on a Colombian matriarchal family with unique themes including intergenerational trauma, compassion and forgiveness. The 2022 movie “Turning Red” highlighted Chinese culture and was the first Pixar film to be solely directed by a woman. “Raya and the Last Dragon” introduced Southeast Asian representation to the Disney franchise in 2021.
However, it is important to question the legitimacy of Disney’s new commitment to diversity. At its core, Disney is still an extremely powerful corporation whose main goal is to appeal to consumerism and materialism. Thus, their media’s diversity, though beneficial, is still a form of performative racial capitalism to appear “woke” just to make more money.
It’s relatively easy to make all the animated characters in a movie belong to a minority community – after all, not many people look beyond the screen to check if the cast and producers actually reflect the diversity that the movie itself claims it has. Unfortunately, this is often the case with Disney movies. Although the corporation has time and time again included minorities in feature films; in reality, they really just want to give themselves a pat on the back for coming off as racially inclusive. Many of Disney’s portrayals of minority communities, however helpful they may appear to be, are often painfully stereotypical and inaccurate. In fact, nearly all of the movies I listed above that have been attributed to boosting diversity within Disney have received widespread criticism regarding their approach to minority representation.
Regarding “Encanto,” many viewers agreed that the movie often lost focus of its Colombian roots and rather was broadened to appeal to the Latino-American community as a whole. By many, the movie was perceived as a perspective of Colombia through the eyes of Americans. And this rang true: the directing and writing credits for “Encanto” are made up entirely of white Americans. In an interview with the New York Times, Aiko Hilkinger, a Japanese-German screenwriter from Colombia, stated that “the lack of Colombian people behind this film in positions where they could make decisions and actively influence people… [made it feel like] Colombian culture and people were portrayed inauthentically.” On the creative end, the film combined various aspects from different cultures in Latin America rather than focusing on Colombia itself. This amalgamation of multiple ethnic customs into a single representation undermined the movie’s original purpose and sent the message that Disney didn’t care enough to accurately portray one community alone.
Furthermore, “Turning Red” provided somewhat of a one-dimensional portrayal of the Chinese community. Objects traditionally identified with Chinese culture like steamed dumplings, stone lions, red lanterns, tai chi, koi fish and qi pao dresses appeared multiple times in the film, as though the producers were trying to shove in the audience’s face, “Hey! We are proving that we care about the Chinese community by showing all of the stuff they are associated with in American society!” Moreover, main character Mei is depicted as an obedient daughter with steadfast filial piety, and her overprotective parents emphasize getting good grades. This portrayal oversimplifies Chinese immigrant families’ experiences, as it feeds into the broader narrative of Asian Americans as a model minority. And by propagating this discourse of a “Chinese tiger mom” and “Asians being good at school” in mainstream media, “Turning Red” actively confines Chinese Americans to a stereotype.
In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” critics expressed their disapproval of the lack of Southeast Asians in the cast. Only one actor of Southeast Asian descent was a part of the cast, Vietnamese-American Kelly Marie Tran, who voices the main character, Raya; the rest of the cast was mostly established East Asian like Awkwafina and Gemma Chan. Moreover, many viewers noticed that instead of delivering on the Southeast Asian representation that Disney promised, the movie combined influences from multiple Asian countries (like Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia) into one story – such as cultural dress, food, and even physical phenotype, completely invalidating and erasing the experiences of numerous ethnic groups. This engendered a view of Asian culture as homogeneous, when it is really one of multiplicity.
The production processes for “Encanto,” “Raya” and “Turning Red” all exhibit how Disney often lumps in minorities under a monolithic portrayal for the sake of “representation.” Through the neglect of the distinction between Latino and Colombian, or Southeast Asian and East Asian, none of the groups that these movies intended to “represent” could fully identify with the media.
As an APIDA viewer, I feel as though time and time again, mass media has failed to deliver accurate and meaningful representations of my community. Instead, movies, TV shows, and books have been saturated with the stereotypical model minority sidekick (see Lane in “Gilmore Girls” or Kelly Kapoor from “The Office”). To address these disparities, filmmakers and executives should come to terms with the fact that Asian Americans aren’t a monolithic group: some may have tiger moms who demand straight As & piano lessons while some may have parents who don’t mind a couple Bs; some may celebrate every culture holiday with their family while some may have never done so in their life. Seeing the same stereotypes surrounding the APIDA community being beaten to death on screen is getting tiring. Moreover, the few Asian actors and actresses who are successful are confined to notions of what the West believes is Asian culture. All the movies we see about white people are always just focused on the story that the director is trying to share, whereas most movies we see about the APIDA community are centered on proving that ‘a minority made it in Hollywood.’ And I’d like to see this change.
So while it is important to push for diversity in the film industry, we must remain aware of the fact that big corporations like Disney are still looking to make a profit at the end of the day. As more and more companies realize that they can appeal to minority groups by being representative of them in the media, it’s become more common to slap on the label of “racially inclusive” without giving much thought to how authentic or useful their content actually is.