For most of us, our entire childhoods revolved around Walt Disney and his animation empire. In fact, some of my happiest memories come from going to Disneyland as a kid. With this being said, there’s something very bittersweet about growing up and realizing that something you enjoyed as a kid isn’t as magical as it seems. While the movies themselves are harmless enough at a surface level, as I’ve gotten older, some of the hidden subtext and stereotypes embedded in these animations have become more visible.
Disney has a lousy track record of tokenizing minority struggles and stories. Tokenism is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate).” Many entertainment companies engage in tokenism, and it’s interesting to see it happen more recently than before. With the influence of social media and the rise of “cancel culture,” it might make sense to relate these timelines together, as entertainment companies would want to appeal to the consumers’ wants and needs to generate profit. But when these companies do not have their target audiences’ interests at heart, this is when tokenization is most prevalent. At its core, it is to monetize marginalized groups’ stories and struggles.
Despite the insurgence of tokenism in mass media, Disney partaking in tokenism seems a bit more sinister to me considering the age groups the company targets as an audience. The enterprise aims to reach mostly kids, especially those between the ages of 4 to 12. This is a very formative age for development and self-identity, so it is crucial to see accurate representation in the media. However, tokenization often depicts the struggles of minorities with no real significance behind it. One of the best examples of tokenism within Disney is the hit movie, “Coco.” The film is said to be based on a real family with a real story. Many people speculate that María Salud Ramírez Caballero, a 105-year-old woman in Quiroga, Mexico, was the inspiration for Mama Coco. However, Disney has failed to recognize or compensate this woman, although her native land has already recognized her.
We must admit that Disney has made significant strides in diversifying its movies and becoming more inclusive across race, disability and sexual orientation. However, I worry that these are merely tokens to the company and not actual points of change. For example, “Princess and the Frog” featured Disney’s first-ever Black lead in a movie: Tiana. However, she spent more than half of the film as a frog. Similarly, in Pixar, Soul was also the enterprise’s first-ever Black lead, and he too spent more than half the movie as a ghoul-like entity. Other examples of this trend are in “Brother Bear” or “Emperor’s New Groove”, where both the minority leads transform into animals. While it may be unintentional and for the sake of the plot, this has been a recurring theme across media and entertainment. It is disparaging to see minorities reduced from human to nonhuman objects or animals. It calls into question the true intent of filmmakers. Both “Soul” and “Princess and the Frog” called in Black producers, researchers and musicians, making the movies well-thought-out and devoid of ill-intent. While I agree that the transformations might be an integral part of the plot, I am still waiting for a Black lead in a movie that stays human for the entire length.
While Disney hasn’t done the best job at reassuring marginalized groups of the validity of their stories, the enterprise has done a fair job of becoming more inclusive in recent years. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to fully get to a point where specific target audiences are wholly satisfied with the depiction of their culture and community. Hopefully, in the near future, Disney and other media companies will recruit a diverse range of producers, writers and animators who can better represent their communities.