I want to celebrate some Disney Princesses… of colour.
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 in 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.
Princess Jasmine in Aladdin (1992)
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 – but she’s one of the first Disney Princesses of Colour. 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 the best reviewed and most popular film on this list, it 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. While it was cited as one of the main sources of
theft inspiration for James Cameron’s sci-fi saga, it’s a far more involving movie than that.
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 one of the another Disney Princesses of colour, 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 design 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 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.
Tiana in The Princess and the Frog (2009)
With great fanfare, and high-profile pre-release publicity – Tianna in The Princess and the Frog was all set to become THE Disney Princess of colour. With a simmering dress and sparkling tiara, she looked every bit the classic princess – but African-American.
While visually this hits all the right subversive buttons, in the actual film, in classic mismatch of movie and marketing, she looks like this for a small section of the film. In fact, she spends the majority of the movie as a frog! Yes, the first African-American Disney Princess isn’t even human for most of the story.
Also disappointing was the popularity of the film, which was far less than hoped for. Disney felt that having ‘Princess’ in the title put off boys, which is why their subsequent The Snow Queen became Frozen.
But visually, it’s great that the makers of cards and lunch boxes have this addition to the Disney Princesses of Colour to use alongside Cinderella, Aurora, and Ariel (not that they do very often).
Set in the South Pacific, Moana is an empowered female protagonist, without the trappings of princess culture, and a brown person with a body type that doesn’t conform to western ideals. In a reverse of Trinity Syndrome, we have a super-powerful male supporting character (Maui, voiced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) who is there to enable Moana to complete her quest.
It’s a terrific story of Moana’s journey across the ocean to save the world – that boys are as engaged with as much as girls. When we saw it, there was a little boy in front of us who was out of his seat with excitement, and danced around to every song.
Having lived in New Zealand for a few years, I know there will be some criticism of cultural appropriation from Disney, and these are important issues to raise. But I was pleased to see so many of the voice cast were of Māori/Pacific Island descent.
And there will be millions of little girls seeing themselves – or someone who looks like them – on-screen for the first time, the lead character in her own epic tale, and that is wonderful.
As a parent, I love stories of children defying the wishes of their parents and being proven right to do so. Our daughter is a real sticker for adult rules, to the point that she gets really upset when characters in movies go against the advice of their elders. Stories like this help show her that sometimes, when you are confident in your way of thinking, it’s ok to defy those who claim to know better than you, to make an informed choice – because you can never assume adults are always right.
Is Moana an official Disney Princess? The movie actually answers that question for us. According to Maui “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, then you’re a princess.” So that’s settled.
Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
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 Judge Frollo, the villain of the tale, 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. But perhaps this lack of youthful innocence is why she has been cast aside?
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 Princesses of Colour – Representation Matters
Disney have made a decent effort over the past twenty or so years to be more racially diverse. While I appreciate there are overriding issues with gender representation and Disney Princesses (admittedly only three of these movies – just about – 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.