Ethnic Diversification of Disney Princesses
By Taylor Marvin
Is the increasing ethnic diversification of the Disney Princesses important?
Disney Princesses were uniformly white for most of Disney’s history. However, beginning in the early 1990s Disney began to feature non-white princesses, a trend that continued unbroken until 2010’s Tangled. Here’s a graph comparing the percentage of Disney Princess identified as white with the white percentage of the total US population:
Source: US Census, 1790-1990, 2000, 2010.
Disney Princesses: Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Little Mermaid (1989), The Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010).
A few notes about the graph. I count Rapunzel from Tangled as a Disney Princess, even though she hasn’t officially been inducted into Disney royalty yet. Similarly, I count Ariel as white, though this is debatable, given that she isn’t technically human.
This is actually interesting, and unexpected – the Disney Princess pantheon is actually significantly more diverse than American society, and has been since the early 1990s. This isn’t to say that that deceptions of non-white Disney Princess have attempted to realistically portray non-white American narratives, but the growing diversity of the princesses is clearly a gain for American society. Similarly, it’s interesting that the only Disney Princess that’s actually a US citizen, The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana, is black. While the American film industry is often, and justifiably, criticized for presenting a view of the world that is too centered on the white experience (Blood Diamond, set in Africa but focused around white leading characters, is a good example of this), Disney has actually done a fairly good job at presenting leading characters that do resemble the ethnic mix of modern America. This is fairly superficial, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important.
The gradual diversification of the Disney Princesses is an interesting example of progressive social goals aligning with businesses’ profit motives. Clearly, it’s socially beneficial that Disney provides a diverse enough group of characters that most young American girls can find one to identify with, and while ethnic affiliation isn’t strictly necessary for this type of identification, it is fairly common. People tend to identify with characters that look like them, a trait that seems more common in children than adults. Of course, it’s debatable whether the Disney Princesses are actually a good influence on young girls. They have bodies that are only attainable for a few percent of women, impossibly unlikely life stories, and the princesses of the older Disney movies live lives of royal entitlement and show few admirable traits like determination or sacrifice. However, Disney princesses have been a part of our culture for three quarters of a century, and are likely to remain in the public consciousness into the future. This makes their diversity important.
However, Disney didn’t begin to produce non-white princesses after 1990 because the company suddenly became more moral; they did because of the potentially rewarding profits of increased princess diversity. America has become much less white since Snow White was released in 1937, creating increasing profit gains for entertainment companies marketing non-white characters to children. If Disney had refused to create non-white princesses, it’s likely that another entertainment company would have. In a very real way the creation of non-white characters was vital to Disney’s continued survival, and it’s arguably not a coincidence that the move towards a more diverse collection of princesses in the 1990s coincided with the companies most productive period. Similarly, beginning in the 1990s globalization shifted the Disney market from the US to one that’s primarily based abroad. For films to be reliable earners in multiple countries, it’s important that their themes and characters are universal enough to translate well across different languages and cultures. This dynamic is partially responsible for the wide proliferation of comic-based action movies – unlike witty comedies or dramas action doesn’t rely on complex dialog that doesn’t translate well, and everyone likes explosions – and similarly creates a large profit incentive for non-white leading characters popular outside of America and Europe.
We can’t expect profit incentives to align with worthy social goals often, but it’s important to recognize that these alignments do happen and I’d argue that they are one of the most reliable sources of human welfare improvements. That’s one of the real positives of globalization – most corporations (with notable exceptions) are profitable when their markets are both happy and wealthy, and the integrating global economy widens the portion of human society corporations have an interest in seeing satisfied. Of course, in today’s world a distressing large proportion of humans are left out of this privileged common market, but this number is shrinking.
This also suggests an interesting hole is Disney’s logic. Hispanic and Latino Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the US, with a growth rate four times the overall national rate. This is a large and growing market, and it’s interesting that Disney hasn’t attempted to to take advantage of it.