Júlia Puigdomènech Vidal, Cristina Saguer Magrans, and Montserrat Vivó Vila

3 T's

The Disney Princesses Across Time
photo from the blog: https://freefallingforawhile.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/disney-princess-culture-why-i-think-its-okay/


In recent years, the entertainment industry has experienced some significant shifts around the world. Many of them have been for the better. Traditionally, the entertainment industry in general has been characterised by its lack of inclusivity and diversity. As a bridge that connects all individuals, this is abundantly clear in mainstream media, especially as it plays a key role in ‘shaping the very nature of society’ (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation SDC, 2020). When correctly employed, greater diversity and inclusivity can be an effective tool that gives voice to underrepresented groups. It can even foster great racial cohesion and harmony.

Not only has the mass media increasingly shed light on the major challenge concerning the lack of inclusion but, at the same time, relevant personalities of this industry have raised their voices to change established norms, challenging the status quo. Even huge corporations and conglomerates, like the Walt Disney Company, have striven to become more inclusive. This company has set several goals aimed at moving the company culture towards giving greater importance to the underrepresented while avoiding racial and gender discrimination.

Famous 'Partners' Statue outside Walt Disney World in the US
photo from https://www.disneyfoodblog.com/2021/01/18/walt-disney-set-to-be-honored…


While this is generally seen as an ethically progressive pivot, it coincides with a growing cultural awareness globally. More and more people seek mass media that includes the diversity of races and ethnicities in the content that they consume. Similarly, the latest trends show that parents are increasingly advocating for media that educates their children, particularly concerning cultural and ethnic diversity (Cision PR Newswire, 2021).

However, even though several corporations have followed the Walt Disney Company’s lead by including more and more non-white characters and giving greater importance to other non-western cultures, can we say things have progressed? The truth is, we cannot yet affirm that diversity and inclusivity are fully achieved in their films.

Further advances and social pressure are needed for the industry to create more movies that do not follow exclusively Western-centric approaches. For instance, a study showed that films featuring racial minorities in lead roles receive significantly less production budget (Smith, Weber, Choueiti et al, 2020). Likewise, simply adding more non-white characters does not resolve the issue. The representation of non-white characters in their roles must be carefully considered. In the past, the non-white or non-western character has been generally represented as a secondary role. In the rarer event that the main character is non-white or non-western, they are often depicted through Western and orientalist lenses. It is in this sense that it is up to the public to exert pressure and demand egalitarian and socially representative films from private production companies.

To further explore whether the changes in the industry are indeed genuine, it helps to begin from one of the most iconic products of Disney: The Disney princess. Is the increasing inclusion of racially and ethnically diverse characters, particularly the Disney princesses, having a positive impact on cultural understanding and stereotyping? More diverse role models in films, as well as in other formats of mainstream media, imply a contribution to tolerance and anti-racism as well as a promotion of inclusivity. The Disney princesses’ films are a clear and useful example to see the evolution in the field, as change seems to be heading towards further diversity and inclusivity, not only through representation but also through narrative. Furthermore, this article uses the conceptual framework of the Three Tomorrows of Postnormal Times to analyse the changing dynamics of representation in terms of race and ethnicity in Disney princes’ movies.


Evolution so far

To determine the impact the role the princesses have on Disney’s overall shift towards inclusivity and diversity, we must begin by looking into the evolution of their movies produced throughout Disney’s history. We quantify the princess movies produced by considering how/if racial and ethnic inclusion has been depicted in each film over the years. Our analysis examined where or not, and to what degree, each movie made a clear attempt to more accurately present representation of social reality by resisting the structural tendency to only portray white princesses. Furthermore, this quantitative research complements the qualitative knowledge of how Disney’s productions fit into the wider trends within the film industry and those of the general global society, aiding in a better understanding of their impact. A mixed-methods approach will hopefully reveal holistic conclusions about this topic.

The aim of the following tables and graphs is to visualize the evolution of inclusive and culturally accurate characters in Disney’s princess movies.

In Figure 1, the two main variables that have been examined are: 1) whether the princess is white or not and 2) whether the inclusion of racial and ethnic characters that are not white is culturally authentic or, on the contrary, based on Western stereotypes and orientalist notions.

Figure 1: Race and ethnic representation in Disney princess movies. 

In Figure 2, the Disney movies that featured white princesses as the main character have been given the value of 0 whereas the films that incorporated princesses from different ethnicities besides whiteness have been given the value of 10. This graph helps us to properly visualise the relative increasing trend throughout the history of Disney’s princess films.

Figure 2: Race and ethnic representation in Disney princess movies according to the year released.

Figure 3: Degree of cultural authenticity in Disney movies with ethnically and racially diverse princesses

In Figure 4, the following graph shows the accuracy and authenticity with which cultures are represented in Disney princess films. Movies that reflected cultural authenticity and an accurate representation of different ethnicities and cultures, beyond the default of Western whiteness, have been given the number 10, whereas the inclusion of non-white princess characters done through orientalist lenses, and in a stereotyped manner has been given the value of 5. This system denotes the difference between accurate representation, Western-biased portrayals, and no inclusion at all.

Figure 4: Degree of cultural authenticity in Disney princess movies according to the year released.

As it is represented in the previous graphs, five decades have had to go by before Disney first introduced a non-white princess: from the first princess Snow White in 1937 to the first non-white character Jasmine in 1992. And even though at that point movies that featured non-white princesses started to be produced, it wasn’t until 2016, with the release of Moana, that a Disney princess movie portrayed a real cultural understanding from a non-western-centric point of view (Avery, 2020). Nevertheless, despite a pause of five years between 2010-2015, since the first emission of Aladdin there seems to be a trend pushing for further inclusivity in Disney movies, accompanied by a more recent trend that ensures the inclusion is culturally authentic and not simply Western and Orientalist portrayals of stereotypes.

First Tomorrow

​​The utilisation of the three tomorrows’ framework has been instrumental in conducting a comprehensive analysis of the inclusivity evolution of Disney princesses. Each tomorrow represents a different temporal perspective that examines the progression of inclusivity over time.

Much of what has already been discussed concerns a close examination of the historical and contemporary developments surrounding Disney princess films to gain a deeper understanding of the present state of inclusivity. This investigation has largely delved into the first tomorrow. By thoroughly analysing the shifts and transformations that have taken place, we aim to identify patterns and trends that can help us project its evolution into the near future. Through the examination of past and present data, we strive to comprehend the extended present, which allows us to make informed predictions about what lies ahead. By extrapolating the information gathered from current conjunctions and considering the prevailing trends, we can project the trajectory of inclusivity in the future. Based on the evidence presented in the graphs and tables, it is evident that there is a notable upward trend towards increased inclusivity, particularly concerning ethnically and racially diverse characters. This positive movement is likely to persist in the near future, as there is a growing recognition of the importance of representation and diversity within the Disney princess enterprise. The data strongly suggests that efforts to embrace and showcase a wider range of backgrounds and cultures will continue to be a priority for Disney, ensuring a more inclusive and diverse line-up of princesses for audiences to admire and relate to.

photo from https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Family/Modern-Parenthood/2013/110…


Second Tomorrow

The growing politicisation of Disney movies is a new phenomenon that signals a fracture regarding the traditional company policy of avoiding these kind of issues. Given that the general political context that has and will continue to polarise society – dividing it between the advocators for accurate representation and inclusion in the film industry and the rise of the far right and conservative politics – the casting decisions made by Disney will be given more political meaning and significance, forcing the company to position itself on various issues.

Looking through the lens of the second tomorrow, we can anticipate that Disney will encounter further resistance to make truly inclusive and culturally based movies. Yet, if the support and demand for this kind of films grows, Disney will become a symbol of resistance for conservative politics. In this regard the recent clash between Disney and Florida governor Ron DeSantis may be a first example of what may happen. DeSantis has already taken measures against the company to reduce Disney's jurisdiction over its self-governing area in central Florida, forcing Disney to position itself against it to preserve some civil liberties. If the company has to face more opposition from other states and governors, it could pressure Disney to play more low-profile over inclusivity issues in order to avoid restrictions, reversing the apparent trend.

The political situation in the US presents more problems. Rising xenophobia and the soaring influence of the far-right are affecting popular opinion with regards to racial inclusivity. This can be seen through Fox New and other right-wing media’s constant accusations against Disney claiming that the company is indoctrinating children. For instance, we have already seen far-right supporters’ backlash against films that portray the LGTBQI+ community, labelling Disney as ‘groomers’, and accusing film production companies of having a sexual agenda for children. Negative connotations and the use of pejorative labels and stereotyping are also on the upward when traditional structures of power are challenged through issues related to race. If this backlash were to spread and increase, it could force film production companies like Disney to halt the release of films that have clear aims to be more progress, inclusive, and diverse.

meme from https://br.pinterest.com/pin/547680004682616184/


However, seeing the powerful relevance and power behind social media activism, it is our belief that the trend will not be reversed but will continue to grow. In our contemporary times, we have seen digital platforms become stronger and stronger and the impact they generate due to social pressure is increasingly undeniable and quite far reaching. Take for instance social movements that stem from social media and/or those that have been very active in using this tool as a revolutionary instrument. The classic examples are the Black Lives Matter or the MeToo movements. Given that this trend has already been rising exponentially, it is our anticipation that it will further exacerbate the need to have more inclusive films in the industry. As demand will grow further, so will the number of movie productions - and Disney will be no exception. The use of hashtags like #RepresentationMatters #DisneyPrincessesOfColor will flood the internet, alongside demands for diversity in Disney princess films. This possible future scenario is also backed up by a more sociologist evidence. A poll research study concluded that 64% of Americans found social media as an effective instrument to give a voice to underrepresented collectives and as a tool that plays a relevant role in creating sustainable movements advocating for social change (Pew Research Center, 2018). Furthermore, we do not think that the change will be limited to the inclusion of culturally and racially diverse characters, but future films will also show intersectional identities, for example portraying queerness.

Nevertheless, it is of the utmost importance to acknowledge that activism and inclusion has also become a generalised trend in almost every big corporation. Seen from an economic perspective once again this might be a marketing tool of capitalism. Knowing that inclusivity is on trend, companies may very well mask their economic and private interests as part of social corporate responsibility to customers and ignore the structural problems that lie beneath it. An example of this would be if companies like Disney were to reverse the apparent trend that shows films being more culturally authentic and fall into a tokenistic fallacy that is only focused on having non-white characters as principal roles, but they continue to be produced and financed by mainly white executives (Kelley, 2018). In this sense, we view the future scenario still embedded in racial and ethnic discrimination, as we estimate that real change behind the scenes will take much longer to be put in place due to its lack of visibility.


Third Tomorrow

The third tomorrow allows us to deconstruct the axioms ingrained in our cognitive system and be aware of our own biases. In this case, we acknowledge that our worldview departs from assumptions based on the liberal paradigm and thus what is right within the moral compass of this perspective. According to this set of values, inclusivity is perceived as a positive trend that promotes human rights and democracy among other factors. Nonetheless, the liberal cognitive bias could be narrowing our view by not considering future positive options that do not entail inclusivity. Furthermore, this research underlyingly stems from a dichotomised worldview where items are labelled either good or bad, especially in the context of rising trends and disruptive tendencies.

Through developing a postnormal menagerie, black elephants have been used to recognise that in our prediction of the future, preferences may have been allowed to prevail. In other words, the trends of further inclusivity in Disney movies that we proposed are not very contradictory with our future preferences. As it is difficult to imagine a future that is not aligned with the current predominant values, we acknowledge that we tend to anticipate a future that we consider favourable since it is what resonates with our sense of what is or is not normal, familiar futures.

All of this brings us to trying to point out the unthought. Having established that it is possible we are under the effect of a cognitive bias, we have aimed to deconstruct part of our knowledge of Disney films. All movies produced by this company are rather romanticised, portraying idealistic stories that in reality have a much more cruel and even nihilistic background stories. By softening cruel endings and changing old tails in a systematic manner we tend to assume the positive insights of Disney movies as the only possible framework in which the enterprise can operate. But why wouldn’t Disney explore more dystopian avenues? Is it because it has a very defined target audience that would not be accepting of this new tradition? Maybe a new trend for the company that has not been explored here is shifting the traditional line of embellishing what used to be much darker and focusing on the antagonists in stories where they are the successful characters in a non-romanticised way by digging into structural taboos like drugs or sex. Therefore, an unexpected turn would be if Disney started showing images based on the hardship of realities that many people experience and highlighting the vile characters in movies. This could even potentially lead to the extinction of films about princesses as they are currently conceived.

photo from https://www.sacurrent.com/arts/elena-of-avalor-a-cultural-game-changer-…



While it is acknowledged that current trends show that Disney films are heading towards higher inclusivity as well as enhanced cultural authenticity, there is still much room for improvement. The future trajectory of such films will be very much conditioned by political contexts and the future decisions taken by the company, which in turn, can position it as a symbol of resistance against extreme conservative politics. Consequently, it is considered that such future shifts can also challenge traditional frameworks, leading to the re-evaluation of the romanticised depiction of Disney princess films and the omission of their underlying ruthlessness. Therefore, this could pave the way for a shift towards an alternative way of understanding and analysing Disney princess films, while improving inclusivity and cultural accuracy in its storytelling in postnormal times and beyond.


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Júlia Puigdomènech Vidal is seeking a MSc in Public Policy and Human Development, specializing in Migration Studies at the United Nations University (UNU-Merit) in Maastricht.

Cristina Saguer Magrans is Seeking an MBA in International Management at ICEX-CECO in Madrid.

Montserrat Vivó Vila is Seeking a Master's in Crisis and Security Management, specializing in the governance of Violence at the Leiden University in the Hague.




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