A New Disney Princess
Sign of the times or a diversity obligation?
Posted Jan 31, 2015
Two days ago, Disney announced its plan to include the first Disney Latina princess, and already, the most magical company on Earth has been receiving criticism. Elena of Avalor, “a confident and compassionate teenager in an enchanted fairytale kingdom inspired by diverse Latin cultures and folklore,” will guest star on Disney Junior’s Sofia the First in 2016, and eventually receive her own spinoff show later that year. Almost 15 years after Nickelodeon introduced its Latina juggernaut, Dora the Explorer, we might expect Disney fans to be excited about the development. However, many are wondering why Elena wasn’t considered for a full-length feature. Others are convinced that the new princess was created simply as a ploy to entice young Hispanic girls to beg their parents for Elena merchandise. Still, many do feel that Disney is taking a step in the right direction. Latinas should be featured in Disney animation, and the fact that Elena promises to be “confident and compassionate” means she will serve as a positive role model, (hopefully more so than some of Elena’s passive white forebears).
Disney’s Latina princess is an overdue yet critical addition to the company’s enchanted animated world. What is cause for concern, however, is the manner in which Elena came about and what it means for the title character, Sofia.
The Disney company has been criticized and berated for years, first for portraying only the white narrative, and then for depicting minority characters in a pejoratively stereotyped way that only serves to delineate them from the majority. In 2012, controversy surrounded Princess Sofia when executive producer Jamie Mitchell reported that “She’s Latina.” The Latino community was largely unhappy with this, claiming that with her fair complexion and blue eyes, Sofia simply isn’t Latina enough. Nancy Kanter, Senior Vice President, later posted on Princess Sofia’s Facebook page that the princess isn’t actually Latina, but rather “is a fairytale girl who lives in a fairytale world.” She goes on to say that these fantasylands may resemble real places, but that no characters in the show are meant to reflect any specific culture.
Disney backtracking at this pivotal moment was a monumental disaster. As Sofia was stripped of her “First” title, we as an audience missed out on two very important opportunities to explore and introduce the concept of racial identity to the Disney Junior fan base. The show passively omits Sofia’s loosely implied biracial heritage, thwarting the occasion to actively present a princess with both Latina and European roots. With interracial marriages on the rise, some reports indicating that over 8% of all new marriages in the United States are between interracial couples, it only makes sense to introduce characters that reflect this growing trend.
With the show’s refusal to assert Sofia’s ethnicity, the show’s audience also misses out on the chance to meet two characters, Sofia and Elena, who could represent a diverse heritage in a way that celebrates the varied external presentations of the Latino people. It might be Disney seems to have a sort of “one and done” mentality, particularly with regard to its princesses. We have a Chinese princess, an Arabian princess, and an American Indian princess; there is apparently no reason to revisit these cultures to tell another, different story.
I truly hope that this is not the case with Elena, that the introduction of a Latina princess is more than Disney simply fulfilling a certain obligation to diversity, and that she is a conscious testament of our times and that she represents what should be a growing commitment to portraying ethnically diverse characters, especially in children’s television.