Disney has a poor history of portraying diversity in its movies. They typically reflect the societal norms of the time in which they were made, which is why it’s only recently that we’re beginning to see Disney take an active approach in challenging its own stereotypes. From racial representation to dynamic, independent princesses, Disney is working hard to appeal to a society that’s becoming increasingly “woke.” But for everything Disney gets right, there’s almost always something it does wrong. And this is exactly what’s happening in an upcoming Disney film.
Jungle Cruise Will Have An Openly Gay Character
Disney’s Jungle Cruise opens in 2019, but the upcoming movie is already causing a buzz. The film stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Emily Blunt, and British comedic-actor Jack Whitehall, who is slated to play a gay character.
Based on the Disneyland ride of the same name, Jungle Cruise is set in the 19th century — a time when homosexuality was hardly acknowledged. Being that Disney movies have a reputation for perpetuating conservative views, if the rumors about Whitehall’s gay character are true then this is certainly a step in a more progressive direction. But it’s not the character’s sexual orientation that has Disney fans raging.
Was Casting A Straight Guy The Right Choice?
While Disney’s inclusion of an openly gay character in Jungle Cruise has people applauding the studio, fans are still criticizing the casting choice. Jack Whitehall is an actor prominent in the U.K., known for his stand-up comedy. He’s also a straight, white male.
Backlash against his casting include concerns that he’d perpetuate stereotypes since he is not gay himself. English TV personality James Barr also noted on Twitter: “It’s not that it’s a problem to cast a fantastic straight ally to play a gay role, it’s that there are so many gay actors that are under represented in all sorts of roles across the board.”
Casting Queer Characters In Subservient Roles Is Degrading
2019’s Jungle Cruise wouldn’t be the first time Disney experimented with gay characters either. 2017’s live-action remake of the classic Beauty and the Beast featured LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick, whose own subplot involved him exploring his own sexuality.
As with Jungle Cruise, fans had mixed reactions. While some commended Disney for daring to go there, others argued that they still missed the mark. Sure, Disney included a gay character, but one who was reduced to the role of a goofy sidekick. Hopefully, Disney considered this criticism when writing Jungle Cruise.
Zootopia Challenges Traditional Gender Roles
2016’s Zootopia experimented with gender roles and even animal roles. The film centers around Judy Hopps, the first rabbit to join the Zootopia police force. At the forefront, Hopps challenges the notions of typical gender roles.
While it’s certainly not uncommon to see female police officers, we typically don’t think little girls – who the movie is aimed at – aspire to enter a male-centric profession. Zootopia’s main character breaks down that stereotype, showing young girls they can be anything they put their mind to. Director Rich Moore even consulted real female police officers about their real-life challenges to accurately portray a woman’s experience in a male-dominated industry.
People Can Be More Than What’s Expected Of Them
Not only did Zootopia successfully break down gender roles, but it also conveys the message that people have the agency and ability to achieve more than what’s expected of them. Because Zootopia is about animals, filmmakers achieved this by making some animals the opposite of their cliché.
For example, Zootopia’s slow-moving sloth DMV employees hilariously perpetuate notions of sloths and DMV operations. But Judy Hopps’s ambitious persistence is in stark contrast to notions of rabbits being timid. “So maybe in the world of Zootopia it should be that sometimes they are cliche, sometimes they aren’t. That gives us that gray that better reflects our world,” Moore told the Los Angeles Times.
Big Hero 6 Makes Higher Education Look Cool
2014’s Big Hero 6 is another example of Disney’s departure from its stereotypical tropes. Big Hero 6 centers around 14-year-old Hiro Hamada, who takes an interest in illegal robot fights. After Hamada’s older brother exposes the teen to his robotics lab at a university, Hamada makes it his mission to gain admission to said university.
Disney’s 54th animated feature film was not about the protagonist getting what they want with magic or through some convolutedadventure. The film not only reflected the modern society of the time it was made, but also exposed its young audience to the idea of improving yourself and achieving your dreams through higher education.
Frozen Takes A New Approach To “True Love”
Even with Frozen, which debuted three years before Big Hero 6, Disney began tossing out the old formula for their plot lines. Frozen starts out with a typical Disney plot, when protagonist Anna falls for the unassuming Prince Hans.
But its her sister Elsa’s objection that puts the real story in motion. Elsa flees the kingdom after being branded a monster for her powers, setting Anna on an adventure to bring her back home. Elsa’s powers affect Anna in such a way that she can only be healed by “an act of true love.” The way that Disney portrays “true love” in Frozen is definitely contrary to its past films.
Disney Made A Movie About Sisterhood
Upon first watching Frozen, viewers are led to believe that the “act of true love” that will save Anna would be a kiss, but this isn’t actually the case. Disney turns the idea of “true love” on its head when the person that saves Anna is herself. Her self-sacrifice to save Elsa from murder constitutes the “act of true love.”
While Disney movies typically focused on the lead pursuing a romantic love interest, the relationship Disney chooses to focus on in Frozen is that between two sisters and more pointedly, that between two women. Aside from ditching traditional notions of love, Frozen was also praised for something else.
Was Elsa’s Story A Metaphor For Something Bigger?
Much of Frozenportrays Elsa isolating herself from the world due to the shame she feels over her powers, which have only proven to be destructive. Many fans have interpreted this as a representation of “being in the closet,” comparing Elsa’s experience with people who’ve experienced shame over their sexuality.
While Frozen doesn’t even explore Elsa’s love interests – let alone her sexual preference – many fans have gone on to champion Elsa as an LGBTQ advocate. Some overzealous fans have even gone so far as to campaign for future Frozen films to see Elsa in a same-sex relationship.
Rapunzel Scoffs At Marriage Proposals, Unlike Her Princess Counterparts
Disney is incredibly guilty of perpetuating the notion that women are mere damsels in distress waiting to be rescued. Thankfully by 2017, they’ve realized that the modern female has the agency to decide what she wants for herself.
In 2017 the studio released a Disney Channel Original Movie, Tangled: Before Ever After, which recounts what happens after the end of 2010’s Tangled, but before the sequel. In the movie, Eugene Fitzherbert (Flynn Rider) asks Rapunzel to marry him. Her eyes widen with terror as she ultimately rejects his proposal, making her the first Disney princess to flat-out do so after initially going through so much to win the guy.
Brave Is Unlike Traditional Disney Princess Movies
Rapunzel isn’t the only Disney princess to go against the grain either. Disney’s 2012 Pixar installment was Brave,in which its princess protagonist Merida incites the plot over her adamant refusal to get married to any of the suitors that were chosen for her.
Like in Frozen, Pixar’s Brave also focused on a non-romantic relationship. In fact, it didn’t even focus on a relationship between the protagonist and a stereotypical villain. At the heart of Braveis Merida’s relationship with her mother, emotional territory that – up until 2012 – Disney hardly delved into. But Disney’s efforts to challenge stereotypes didn’t end there.
It Took Decades For Disney To Make ThisHappen
It wasn’t until relatively recently that Disney began acknowledging the multi-cultural society we live in. The world had to wait many years for it to happen, but in 2009 the studio unveiled its first black princess, Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog.
It was exciting to see Disney challenging preconceived notions of what its princesses should look like, and putting a woman of color at the forefront of a classic fairytale was an awesome way to do so. But while Disney’s inclusion of people of color in a classic princess film was a huge deal at the time, some fans wouldn’t overlook what they found to be problematic.
Tiana Has Realistic, Achievable Goals
Aside from being the first (and as of 2018 the only) black Disney princess, Tiana isn’t like other garden-variety princesses who want to rule their kingdom with their prince. Instead, Tiana wants to open her own restaurant, inspiring young girls to have realistic and empowering goals.
But BBC reported some studies where “there were serious concerns about the fact that we had our first African American princess and she spent much of the time on screen hopping around as a frog.” Disney’s attempts at representation were thwarted by this fact. It would be almost another decade before Disney realized what full representation really means.
Black Panther Was A Huge Move For Hollywood
Enter Black Panther, which premiered in February 2018. Disney’s Marvel Studios production featured its first predominantly black cast, nine years after having one African-American character as the lead in a Disney movie.
As one of the top-grossing films of 2018, Hollywood – including Walt Disney Studios – realized the power and profitability of having more representation in film. Not only was Black Panther led by people of color, but their characters are regarded as superheroes with incredible power. The conscious inclusion in Black Panther was especially poignant considering the political climate in America at the time of its premiere.
The Filmmakers Went To Great Lengths
But representation in Black Panther went far beyond just having a predominantly black cast. It’s one thing to have inclusion, but it’s another to accurately and respectfully portray the people you’re including.
Hollywood, in general, has a history of misrepresenting black culture with “blaxploitation” films popular in the ’70s and movies like Coming to America. Black Panther’sfilmmakers made a conscious effort to not only include a mix of African-American and African actors, but they also took research trips to Africa and drew from specific cultural references and factual, historical resources. The result is an authentic – not campy – portrayal of the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
Shuri Is A Princess With Substance
Like Disney’s trailblazing princesses of recent years, Black Panther also features some strong, independent women. But the powerful women in Black Pantheraren’t struggling to fight for respect or acknowledgement because it’s already inherently there.
The Black Panther’s teen sister Shuri, for example, is a extremely-intelligent scientist who designed much of Wakanda’s technology. On top of that, she is also the princess of Wakanda. But this princess isn’t one whose storyline involves having to be saved or overcoming some sort of obstacle. Shuri is portrayed as an intelligent girl who has already done amazing things for her community. In fact, hardly any of the women in Black Pantherare placed in subservient roles.
Black Panther Also Portrays Female Empowerment
Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, whose romantic ties to the Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman) take a backseat to the matters at hand. She not only serves as a spy for Wakanda, but in the beginning of the film Nakia is seen fighting for enslaved women in the real world outside of Wakanda.
“What I love about the way this film represents women is that each and every one of us is an individual, unique and we all have our own sense of power and our own agency and we hold our own space without being pitted against each other,” Nyong’o said in a panel.
Disney’s Moana Tapped Into An Ancient Culture
Like Black Panther, Disney’s Moanawas lauded for its efforts in representation as well. With Disney’s first Pacific Islander princess, Moana introduces an entirely new culture and its history to viewers.
It can be argued that the same was done with Disney movies of the past such as Pocahontasand Mulan, exploring Native American and Chinese culture, respectively. However, it seemed that those films made little impact in cultural exposure like Moanaand Black Pantherdid. And unlike Pocahontas and Mulan – who are often included (but overlooked) in the Disney princess group – Moana broke the stereotypical princess mold just like Tiana did, but for a different reason.
Moana Is Just Like Any Average Girl
Unlike her princess counterparts of Disney’s past, Moana possesses what many regard as an “average” body type. Not unrealistically skinny, but not particularly overweight, Moana was a relief to parents who worry their daughters were growing up with insane beauty standards.
Moana may be considered a Disney princess, but she’s never actually called a princess in the film. Instead, she’s the daughter of the chief, who will become the first female chief in her tribe without a partner. She’s fiercely independent as well. Sure, she finds an unlikely companion in the demi-god Maui, but even he can’t get by without Moana’s help.
But Did Disney Perpetuate Stereotypes Here?
But as much as Moana broke some stereotypes, it sort of perpetuated some as well. The biggest example of this is in its portrayal of demi-god Maui, who is voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Maui is a big, muscular guy with unruly hair and covered in Polynesian tattoos. Many fans argue that this was unfair to Polynesian men, whose stereotype in terms of looks is exactly the way Maui was designed.
For as many things Disney does to eradicate stereotypes, they clearly can’t get everything right all at once. After all, it took decades to get to this point and it’s likely it will be longer until we are all represented and satisfied.