Thursday, April 5, 2007

Disney's Ethnic Princesses: Positive or Problematic?

The Disney corporation is infamous for envisioning and creating gorgeous animated princesses that seemingly every little girl wants to be like. Each year, thousands of young American females dress up as Cinderella or Snow White for Halloween, throw "Disney Princess" themed birthday parties, or drag weary parents through Disney theme parks just to hug actresses wrapped in shiny polyester gowns.

Most of the Disney Princesses are Caucasian women, but there have been a few exceptions, such as Jasmine, the feisty daughter of an Arabian ruler; Mulan, a courageous Chinese warrior; and Pocahontas, a free-spirited Native American. Many Disney fans claim that these characters add much needed diversity to the Princess clan, and commend the company for such portrayals. Disney may have had benevolent intentions by developing ethnic female protagonists; however, I do not believe that the existence of these characters is solely positive.

These animated women, especially Pocahontas and Jasmine, tend to be extremely over-sexualized. Jasmine's appearance plays perfectly into the romanticized stereotype of the enigmatic Middle Eastern belly dancer: her thick black hair--crowned with a bejeweled headpiece--falls gently around her huge brown eyes and billows down her back, her long neck is adorned with a golden necklace, and her curvaceous but thin body is revealed by low-riding silk pants and an off-the-shoulders brassiere that poses for a shirt. Pocahontas is not depicted much differently. Animators drew this tanned Native American with flowing dark hair, and she wears a tight tube top dress made from animal hides. Her outfit, which accentuates the character's buxom hourglass figure and incredibly tiny waist, includes two wide slits up both legs that display a generous portion of Pocahontas' outer thighs. The most notable similarity between Disney's interpretations of Jasmine and Pocahontas is that both characters boast stereotypically attractive Caucasian facial and body features, just with "ethnic twists."

The problem with these depictions is that they may influence viewers--especially affluent white children who are exposed only to their own mostly homogeneous communities--to assume that all ethnic women are sexualized versions of white women. Furthermore, Disney's non-white Princesses, who look more like plastic toys than like humans, set an unrealistic standard of beauty for young ethnic viewers and females in general.

Disney's upcoming film debut of their first African American Princess seems to promise viewers with even more ethnic diversity, but images of this character prove that she, too, is an over-sexualized Caucasian woman with black skin. Her waist is as small as her upper arm, and despite full lips, her body lacks common African American female features such as a wide nose and hips.Although it may be admirable that Disney chooses to represent ethnic females at all, when will the corporation display ethnic (or even white) female characters that look realistic? Until that day comes, the line of Disney Princesses cannot truthfully be called diverse. Nor may the Princesses be called role models, for that matter.