Disney hasn't always been known for promoting diversity throughout its history. For many, the company is synonymous with white, westernized standards of beauty and most of its earlier films that present more diverse characters are less than ideal representations. Despite this, Disney has been working hard to give fans a wider range of animated and live action role models, and the studio is improving in leaps and bounds. It was only last year that John Lasseter, COO of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, spoke about wanting to see more diversity in their upcoming films — and we are thrilled to see that the studio giant is following through!
An African Queen, a Polynesian Legend and a Latina Princess
Recently, Disney released a new featurette for Queen of Katwe, an upcoming biographical film about the first female chess champion of Uganda. Starring Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo, the film is not only set in Uganda, but actually filmed there — with many of the cast hailing from the local area. Madina Nalwanga, who stars as Phiona, grew up nearby, and it's incredible to see this story being told with such a deep connection to Uganda and the people it is about.
Next week, Disney takes another momentous step forward with the introduction of their first Latina princess - Elena of Avalor. The princess (and soon-to-be Queen) of Avalor will be coming to TV on July 22nd in a series that is a spin-off of the Disney Junior animated series Sofia the First, and which features a fantastically diverse cast. Elena herself is voiced by Dominican Republic-born actress Aimee Carrero, who is thrilled to see her culture getting some screen time. In the new show, Elena is tasked with ruling the kingdom of Avalor, along with some help from her extended family and her magical friends (winged cat-creatures). Like Queen of Katwe, it's a project steeped in the culture of the principle characters — and a refreshing break from the many offerings that include one or two diverse characters in an otherwise white world.
Disney's next animated "princess" movie Moana has also been making waves (pun intended!) as an offering that looks at legends and fairy tales from non-European cultures. The upcoming animated feature introduces a Polynesian princess who has teamed up with a demi-God to find a fabled island. Although the film has caused some controversy with its portrayal of Maui, it's fantastic to see characters from Polynesian mythology getting the same kind of attention as the classic fairytales.
Hints of LGBT+ Representation To Come
It's not just cultural diversity that is making headlines in the magical world of Disney, either. Two other franchises have been getting a lot of attention in recent months for the possibility of including LGBT characters.
Speculation surrounding Frozen 2, the much-anticipated sequel to Frozen, has given rise to a movement calling for Queen Elsa to have a same sex relationship. The hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend has focused fan desire to see a Disney princess (or Queen!) who finds love with another woman, with huge numbers of Twitter users calling for Disney to create a role model for young LGBT+ women.
Another sequel, Finding Dory, also made the news when the trailer revealed two women who might just be a lesbian couple. The film itself doesn't expand upon the relationship, and Disney has yet to confirm if these two women are romantically involved, but if they are, it would be the first LGBT+ couple in a Disney movie.
Live Action Diversity Is Also Progressing
Disney isn't just feeling the pressure when it comes to animation. Following the popularity of #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, more hashtags have sprung up around Disney properties.
#GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend calls for Disney/Marvel to introduce some same-sex superhero action — with Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes getting together in a future film. The Avengers franchise (and Disney's Marvel ventures as a whole) have proven immensely popular, but they aren't always a model of progressiveness. The studio has been called out in the past for leaving Black Widow out of its merchandising, and for relegating her to sidekick status in the franchise, as well as the fact that, until very recently, there was very little representation for women or POC. However, as the juggernaut that is Marvel/Disney rolls forward, we have increasingly more diverse films in the works.
Captain Marvel and Black Panther are due to hit the big screen in 2019 and 2018, respectively, giving Marvel a female-fronted superhero movie and a black superhero in the spotlight. Chiwetel Ejiofor's portrayal of T'Challa/Black Panther was one of the most well-received aspects of this year's Captain America: Civil War.
Another massive Disney franchise may also be adding some same-sex romance: Star Wars. Since The Force Awakens shattered box office records in December, many fans have been pushing to see Poe Dameron and Finn get together - and it seems like they may very well get their wish in future films.
After Some Stumbles, The Studio Is In Good Company
Disney has been slowly adding more diverse characters to its roster for some time, and with increasing success. Early attempts at branching out didn't always hit the mark - although films such as Mulan and Lilo and Stitch did relatively well, other films with leads that were POC failed to really click with fans (such as The Princess and the Frog - though that was probably as much to do with the weak story as it was that the lead was a POC princess). Even earlier attempts, like Pocahontas and Aladdin were more popular, but are routinely brought up as examples of how not to represent different cultures.
Now, however, it seems like the studio has hit its stride, and is pumping out a huge number of projects that feature minorities. It's not the only one doing so, either.
One of the big films of the summer is the rebooted Ghostbusters, a film that has been plagued with controversy since it was first revealed that it would feature an all-female team. Despite naysayers shouting from the rooftops that this would be a big, pandering, mess of a movie, the early reviews have been pleasantly positive. DC is also (finally) getting around to making superhero movies with female leads: this summer's Suicide Squad features Harley Quinn front and center, and Wonder Woman will be getting her own solo outing next year.
The Biggest Studio In The World Is Leading the Way
There will always be some backlash to this kind of change - the status quo is comfortable, and seeing minorities take center stage will take some getting used to for many movie fans.
However, seeing an industry titan like Disney leading the charge is absolutely fantastic for anyone who wants more diversity on screen. Disney is exactly the right studio to be taking risks and focusing on POC, female-led and LGBT films.
Their deep pockets and devoted fanbase make them perfectly positioned to try something new. Where a smaller studio has to make a profit on every project or risk going under, a giant like Disney can afford to take a loss on a gamble that may or may not pan out. While it seems as though audiences are reacting positively to seeing a wider range of characters on screen (so that these films are still turning a profit), doing something new is still perceived as a financial risk - which only a giant like Disney can afford to take.
The Disney reputation is also a huge boon to minorities looking for better on-screen representation. Disney (and especially the Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars franchises within the Disney umbrella) carries with it an implied seal of quality... and of acceptability. Disney isn't considered edgy — it's the last bastion of wholesomeness in a dark and gritty industry, which means that if they can present same-sex couples and female-fronted films, others can, too.
Marvel leads the way for superheroes. Star Wars is a record-shattering franchise that continues to inspire sci-fi. Pixar is the gold standard for family films.
With these three under the Disney umbrella, the company is uniquely poised to continue to influence other studios, both large and small. As long as the House of Mouse continues to push for better representation, it will make it easier for others to follow. It's for this reason, as well as for their own sake, that we're cheering on our latest Disney princesses, looking forward to seeing Moana, Elena and Phiona bringing their own unique perspectives to the Disney family. We're also eagerly waiting to see what Disney does next - knowing that Disney truly is leading the industry in many ways, and hoping that they recognize that with this great power comes the responsibility to help create a more diverse future for film-making.
Release dates: Elena of Avalon, July 22nd, 2016. Queen of Katwe, Sept 23rd, 2016. Moana, Nov 23rd, 2016. Black Panther, 2018. Captain Marvel, 2019. Frozen 2, TBA.