In his 1976 essay, Edward Said described ‘Orientalism’ as “Putting on a pair of glasses that distort your vision”, these ‘glasses’ inform our perceptions of the East, the orient, the other, which has often been portrayed in the media as different from the West. This constant us vs them mentality, in which the West is seen as superior to the East stems from colonialism, and the view that the ‘Orient’ as exotic, sexual, mysterious, dangerous and inferior to the the superior west who can easily impose its culture on the east.
While the world has done much growing since that time, orientalist views are still very much part of our psyche and hide in our unconscious mind, and nowhere is it more prevalent than in modern film, especially Disney movies, which has deep, long-lasting impacts on children’s concepts and ideas.
Disney Princesses are seen by some critics as reflecting what society thinks the ideal women should be, and often reflect common characteristics of Anglo-saxan women in ethnic representations, Gregory states that this “exaggeration of whiteness in primary and secondary characters, subtly promote an ideology of White supremacy” (2010, p. 241). In fact since the first princess film in 1994 there have only been four main feature films that have portrayed princesses of colour, they are Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), and The Princess and the Frog (2009), a ratio of four out of ten of the main princess’s line were of colour. The four ethnicities represented in the films were Chinese (Mulan), Native American (Pocahontas), implied Middle East through symbols (Jasmine) and African- American (Tiana).
In a 2001 study Faherty conducted a study of the representation of racial ethnicities in both Disney and Pixar films and found that “European-American characters are the most dominant group, with Asian, Arabic, and American Indian characters lagging far behind. Europeans and European-Americans account for 47.6% of the depicted characters, while Asians appear at a rate of only 5.1%. Taken together, characters depicted as African-Americans, Arabic, Hispanic, or American Indian appear only 5.7% of the time” (Faherty 2001, p. 7).
So after 65 years of no representation for African-Americans Disney princesses, it was no surprise that The Princess and the Frog was met with such a warm welcome and became an instant classic. The film however wasn’t without criticism as Tiana spending most of her time as an animal (frog) failed to move African- Americans “beyond the stereotypical image of black women as invisible or as solely attached to labour” (Talley). The representation as an animal, dehumanizing Tiana’s character, while the movie finally introduced an African- American princess into the mix, it only promoted further racial stereotypes; not to mention historical inaccuracies as the 1920’s New Orleans created in the film varied vastly from the racial segregation reality at the time, instead the film depicted a ” racial melting pot of acceptance” (Gehlewat, Ajay).
The importance for Disney to not only be racially inclusive but historically accurate will diminish orientalist themes and promote social change in the media representation of those of colour, lets hope that in the two ethnic princesses proposed for the future (Moana the Samoan Princess and the Latina princess Elana of Avalor) will be represent a positive change.
De Soyza, T.M.K , Kendra Birnley, K 2013, Being a Princess of Color: The Struggle for Racial Representation, accessed 10/04/2015, http://www.clark.edu/Library/InstitutionalRepository/HawkinsAwardWinners2013-2014/research-essay-second-place.pdf
Faherty, V.E 2001, “Is The Mouse Sensitive? A Study Of Race, Gender, And Social
Vulnerability In Disney Animated Films.”, in Simile, issue vol.3 , issue 1 pp. 123 – 224
Gehlewat, A 2010, The Strange Case of The Princess and the Frog: Passing and the Elision of Race, in The Journal Of African American Studies, vol.14, issue 4, pp. 417-431
Gregory, S 2010, Disney‘s Second Line: New Orleans, Racial Masquerade, and the Reproduction of Whiteness in The Princess and the Frog, in The Journal of African American Studies, vol. 14, issue 4, pp. 432-449
Said E,  2001 , From Orientalis, in Anthology of Theory and Criticism, The Norton, New York.
Talley, A 2008, Happily Ever After?: Culture and the Construction of Disney Princesses of Color, in . The Study of African American Life and History, pp. 223 -228