Something a little different from me. Today I want to celebrate some Disney Princesses.
You can’t escape seeing merchandise adorned with the likes of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Merida, Ariel, and Snow White – and of course the as yet unofficial Disney Princesses of Frozen’s Anna & Elsa.
But as well as being Disney women, they also have something else on common – all of them are white.
As parents of a mixed race daughter, it’s important we include representations of girls & women of colour in stories, films, and merchandise she is exposed to. As far as Disney Princesses are concerned, the women of colour tend to be far less prominent than their caucasian counterparts, so here are some Disney Princesses of colour that I have made a point of introducing our daughter to.
One of the early films in the Disney Renaissance, this sees Princess Jasmine as the female lead opposite the eponymous Aladdin. Of presumably Persian royalty, she is a character who is destined for an arranged marriage but is looking for more than a foppish or arrogant prince. Could Aladdin be the one?
The animation is classic Disney, the characterisation very American, and the songs are catchy enough. Jasmine has an independent spirit, but storywise she’s really there to support Aladdin. And the fact is that the human characters are all upstaged my Robin William’s genie anyway – one of the first times a big star was cast in an animated movie.
Probably best reviewed and most popular film on this list, this is a fairly safe choice. However, some scenes may be a bit intense for young children. I had lots of cuddles during the finale.
Imagine Avatar minus spaceships, plus songs. That’s kind of what Pocahontas is.
I’m doing this film a disservice. It was cited as one of the main sources of
theft inspiration for James Cameron’s sci-fi saga, but it’s a far more involving movie than that (not a fan).
A highly fictionalised version of the true story, this focuses on the romance between the Native American ‘princess’ Pocahontas and the English Captain John Smith.
Pocahontas shares similarities with Princess Jasmine, in that she is expected to be married off to a husband of her father’s choosing – but she wants more.
Featuring some stunning designs and animation, this was a far better movie than I remember. It was an engaging mix of comedy, drama, and action – and a great starting point for conversations about race, colonialism, and the consequences of the choices we make. The casting of Mel Gibson as John Smith, in this tale of racial tolerance, seems somewhat ironic in the light of later events
I also found myself humming the standout musical numbers of ‘Just Around the River Bend’ and ‘Colours of the Wind’ for many days afterwards.
Based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan (or Fa Mulan), and voiced by Ming-Na Wen (now well known as Melinda May in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Mulan is a woman who joins the Chinese army in the place of her elderly father, disguising herself as a man.
The film possibly tries a little to hard with the ‘women can do what men do too’ angle, and it perhaps falls into the trap of songs that pause rather than progress the plot – but the most memorable number of all, ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ navigates this adeptly.
Mulan is a welcome Disney Princess because she is a woman of action. We need more of those, alongside princesses known for dancing or sleeping.
You probably won’t find Esmeralda on any backpack or water bottle at the Disney Store. She was never fully admitted to the hallowed ranks of the Disney Princesses, and has now all but disappeared from the world of Disney. This is a real shame.
Based on the book by Victor Hugo, the film liberally adapts many elements of the story, including this character. Voiced by Demi Moore, here Esmeralda is a dark skinned Romani Gypsy, who displays the exuberance of a woman who is confident and adventurous, as well as being kind and empathetic.
Set against a backdrop of the Romani people being demonised as subhuman criminals (sound familiar?), Esmeralda is both despised and lusted after by the villain of the tale Judge Frollo, who is waging a campaign against all Romani in Paris yet is having trouble dealing with some repressed feelings for Esmeralda. She is a trusted member of her community, who is older and wiser than most Disney females, a step ahead from the teenage heroines we are generally used to.
Again, this film offers a good starting point for discussions about discrimination and injustice, while presenting a well rounded female character who is full of life and determination.
And I wish I could get my daughter an Esmeralda lunchbox at the Disney Store.
Disney have made a decent effort over the past twenty or so years to be more racially diverse (recent examples also include Princess Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, and the forthcoming Moana, set in the south pacific). While I appreciate there are overriding issues with gender representation and Disney Princesses (admittedly only two of these movies – barely – pass the Bechdel Test), that is something that I can address by talking to my daughter about these stories. But there is no substitute for her seeing women who look like her, or at least the woman she will grow up to be, on films, tv, and merchandise.
Disclosure: I am a member of the Netflix #StreamTeam program. Our household receives free Netflix for a year and I post about how our family uses the service.
To check out these Disney movies featuring women of colour, please head to Netflix.