Diversity in Disney

Words by Sarah Hillman
Art by Kelly Zheng

When I was 11, I was invited to my best friend’s music-themed costume party. I was pumped. Costume parties are great, right? We were all abuzz, trying to find the perfect idol to dress up as.

For my blonde friend, it was a no-brainer—she curled her hair into ringlets and went as Taylor Swift. But as my other friends began picking and choosing their costumes, I found myself stumped. Who could I think of that was a half-Chinese, half-white musician? Scratch that. Who could I think of that has dark hair and vaguely looks like me? The (slightly problematic) answer I found to that question was… Selena Gomez.

That burning frustration jumped out at me in every magazine I read, every movie I watched and as soon as I turned on the TV. In each of them, I searched for something I could identify with. Screens and screens of homogenous faces stared back. There were maybe one or two silent, dark-haired figures. Where were the rest? Where were the Asian girls in the stories when I was growing up? To be fair, Mulan was pretty busy, getting down to business and saving the whole of China. And while she will be my favourite Disney gal forever, she represents such an intensely gaping ratio of diverse characters in films.

Screens and screens of homogenous faces stared back.

Disney’s diversity history has been shaky, and it still has a long way to go. Yet today we can see sparks of hope popping up in the cinemas. The past few years have seen gems like Moana and Coco come to life, bringing us rich stories from under-represented backgrounds. Pushing aside the age of countless stories of princesses in their castles, Moana gives us the tale of a Polynesian girl determined to save her island. We couldn’t be further from Princess Aurora and her prince. An even wider jump away from this narrative, Coco lit up our screens in a dazzling ode to family and Mexican traditions. Both were received as global blockbusters and will surely turn into classics in years to come.

We underestimate the power of these films. I hate to admit it, but I only recently watched them myself. I think I subconsciously dismissed them as just ‘kid’s movies’. Really, they are anything but. Films that come from such an influential powerhouse such as Disney become part of the fabric of our society. To think that a child might look up at the screen and, perhaps for the first time, see themselves represented is both beautiful and saddening. Children everywhere should be able to turn on their TVs and feel included in the stories. They should feel included in their society.

To think that a child might look up at the screen and, perhaps for the first time, see themselves represented is both beautiful and saddening.

As Disney classics are in the midst of a revival through live-action remakes, we can see waves of change swelling up onto our screens. Social media recently kicked up a storm at the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the upcoming The Little Mermaid reboot. While some were singing their praises for the casting, others were tearing down the idea that a non-white actress could play the role of…a mermaid. To think that the hashtag #NotMyAriel circulated spells out the precise reason why it is imperative to see more diverse faces on our screens. We have had a white Ariel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Belle—isn’t a re-make in 2019 finally the chance to do something different? To choose the best person for the role, regardless of their skin colour? 

After dipping their toes in the water with Black Panther, Marvel too is hopping aboard the diversity train. This film was certainly a huge leap forward in its productions and achieved global success. Superhero movies aren’t just starring kick ass men, but now the ladies are taking centre stage. Both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel were major blockbusters. With kids idolising superheroes, Marvel needs to show them that their heroes can be girls, people of colour, of any sexuality and all physical abilities. 

Hollywood certainly has come through with some long-awaited and refreshing representation decisions. To think if I was to go to a costume party now, I could actually choose characters like Rachel Chu, Lara Jean and Sasha Tran. However, we are yet to see the same kind of influential representation in Australian media. Luckily, children’s books seem to be picking up where our film and TV fall off. A quick search for stories about diversity provides plenty of beautifully-illustrated books spreading messages of love and acceptance for all. If you remember Mem Fox from the classic Possum Magic (as if the primary school librarian would let you forget?), she has penned a picture book called I’m Australian Too. It rejoices in the number of ways that families end up in this big country. 

However, as Awkwafina navigates Hollywood post-Crazy Rich Asians, she urges that we need to move past the “mirage of diversity”. We need representation that is here for the long-run. Ethnically-diverse actors should not be a trend, nor should their cultural identity be the main token of their inclusion on screen. Kids see difference. Kids learn what they know and how they act in society from the screen. This is why diversity matters. Diversity needs to not just be strived for but expected. Only seeing cookie-cutter, white breed heroes and princesses creates narrow ideas of strength, humanity and beauty. Let’s instead keep the doors wide open. Let’s create a new generation of heroes, love stories and stories our kids can look up to.

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