On Disney and Diversity

Anna Dusseau | 22nd June 2020

My kids have recently fallen in love with the Descendents movies, and let me start by saying that it’s a pretty cool franchise. Oh sure, you’re gonna want to puke in your mouth every time you hear these guys break into song, but honestly? You know we would all have killed for a film like this when we were young. Fun, sassy, flipping the fairytale on its head, these Disney Network ‘baddie romps’ are like movie munchies for pre-teens. There’s just one problem; they aren’t very diverse. More than that, they aren’t very black. You only have to scroll through the IMDB cast list to see what I mean. So, let’s fast forward to the end of Descendents 2, where black actress China Anne McClain packs a punch as uber-villain Uma, abandoning her plans to seduce Prince Charming when she leaps overboard and morphs into a giant octopus hell-bent on destruction. She’s good in the role. And I have no problem with the black character being the villain. In fact, it wouldn’t even register on my radar if she wasn’t – you know – the only major black character in the movie. Because now I’m thinking… Is it okay that the white prince is reunited with his white ‘princess’ by outsmarting the black sea witch? More to the point, is it okay that this is pretty much the only representation of ‘being black’ in the movie? No, I guess it isn’t. I guess I’m going to need to speak with my kids. And I do.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white? Well, actually it does if you want to shift Disney merchandise.”

It’s not that the film itself is a problem; it’s everything that goes with it. Look at almost any group of children playing and you’ll know what I mean. Regardless of colour or ethnicity, the preferred games for under-10s involve princesses and superheroes. We are talking almost exclusively white models of fantasy play, here. The Little Mermaid. Spiderman. Captain America. Princess Sofia. These are the characters and storylines that sell, and research shows that there is a direct correlation between hair and skin colour and the shelf success of Disney dolls. Cinderella, Ariel and Belle remain eternally popular among all children. Jasmine and Tiana, less so. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white? Well, actually it does if you want to shift the merchandise. And is there a single non-white Marvel hero? Okay then, Black panther. Point taken? Very few little girls are dressing up as the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, regardless of their own skin colour and ethnicity. Little boys all want to be Iron Man, don’t they? He’s cool. But let’s flip this narrative on it’s head for a moment and consider my four-year-old son, who loves football. We speak French at home and it was very important to him to find a French footballer to idolise, so we introduced him to Paul Pogba. Now, his bedroom is covered in Pogba posters and Manchester United is has usurped his dad’s beloved Olympique de Marseille, purely because Pogba plays for them. Paul Pogba is black and it kills my son every day that he can’t – truly – be ‘like him’. No amount of gel can make my son’s floppy European hair imitate that bleached Afro mohican that looks so ‘bad-ass’. Is this what it feels like every day for black children playing at being white heroes?

“Is there a single non-white Marvel hero? Okay then, Black Panther. Point taken?”

I was wondering what really is the answer here, because the challenges are so embedded. The National Curriculum alone fails at the first hurdle by offering our multicultural kids a white Euro-centric vision of the world through literature, history, geography, and more. Disney’s just a drop in the ocean. But it feels like the right time to mention other books and movies you could be engaging your children with if this post has resonance for you. There are some great stories with non-white heroes out there. Julian is a Mermaid. Baby Goes to Market. Young Heroes. Zoey and Sassafras. Anna Hibiscus. And what I love about this last one is the way that, rather than placing black characters into a white context, Anna’s white mother and mixed-race family are transported to Africa, where they are embraced by the family and equally embrace the African culture of Anna’s extended family. It is being white that is different here, although not in a negative way, and that is a delicate and important balance to reflect. For older teens and young adults, how about The Hate You Give or Rainbow Milk? Of course, when it comes to movies, any millennial will remember the movie Cool Runnings which was actually more than a caricature of Jamaican culture; it was a movie about a group of black people and we didn’t see much of that in the 90s. But films have moved on and there is a world of non-white films to explore if you look beyond the mainstream cinema listings. The Karate Kid. Wadija. City of God. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Akeelah and the Bee. The Golden Blaze. Do try to get your kids seeing storytelling in colour, whether they are black or white. Iron Man can be anyone at all. And princesses don’t all have tiaras and ringlets. That’s a good lesson for everyone, to begin with.

Published by Anna Dusseau

Writer | Educator | Homeschooling Mum

6 thoughts on “On Disney and Diversity

  1. I have to agree that equal representation does not exist within the fabric of our society Anna. We don’t watch too much Disney thankfully. But who knows in the years to come! You are right, the corporate directive of Disney clearly is blinkered. It has always been that way! But what about the future? Our children’s future? As individuals, we can only chip, chip away at the machine, with t TT he way that they turn out as people in the future! But there are many children from families within the ‘establishment’ that sadly will only adopt the ethos of that said ‘establishment’!!! It is s as n uphill struggle for sure. Just look at t TV he last 200 years. Sorry, I wanted to finish this in a positive! We can but live in hope! That or revolution… (that sounded political – but I’m sure me bring political is okay as this is your portal, not mine!) have a relaxing evening Anna…

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  2. Haha! Don’t worry; predictive hates me, too. Thanks very much for your comment. It’s certainly a tough one to navigate and get right. I think a lot of us do this naturally with our own families and within our circle of friends, but this is an important time for us all to make it clear where we stand on things and what we want the future to look like for everyone. One race; the human race. ✊

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  3. I agree that representation is so important.

    I think we are slowly starting to see that – like the recent Star Wars trilogy had a female lead and a black lead actor (hero).
    Marvel Comics in recent years have tried to flip the script in their comics by introducing a female black Iron Man, a female Thor – both of which will make it into the movies in coming years.

    And the recent She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (on Netflix) did a fantastic job of featuring strong female characters of different ethnicities, sexual orientation, body sizes, and gender identity. I highly recommend this to your kids. They will love it and so will you. I wish I had this show growing up.

    But to your point, so much more needs to be done. And for us as parents and educators to help amplify that to a larger audience.

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