Recently there has been a petition requesting Disney to “stop casting white people for roles that require real people of color”. As a BIPOC woman (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) following this topic for years, my immediate response was a passionate variation of “YES. Thank you, duh, of course.” But then I really got to thinking…why is this still something we need to convince a large corporation like Disney to do? A company that in the most recent years has spent mega bucks to conceptualize and market movies about unique cultures? That has heavily focused on stories of inclusion, learning about your historical backgrounds, and loving who you are? Everyone knows Disney is especially particular about keeping up with their heavy theming inside their parks, so why is there still a noticeable difference from fictional portrayal at home to live representation in the parks?
Having been a Disney loving Latina child with the yearly request of “let’s go to WDW for every vacation”, I consumed all things Disney. Truth be told, as a child I didn’t even really acknowledge that princesses didn’t look like me because hearing what they had to say was more important. To be fair, all I wanted to do was talk nature with Pocahontas, flying carpet maintenance with Aladdin, and trading books with Belle. Naturally, my parents did nothing to hide their excitement for characters such as Pocahontas, Jasmine, and Aladdin. They were thrilled about the characters that looked like me and that I could resonate with the beauty and importance of their stories.
Finally, I got my wish granted, a beloved WDW family trip and I could personally introduce my little sister to these amazing characters! They love nature! Music! The animals talk! Needless to say, we had been obsessing for months prior to the trip. Fast forward to waiting in multiple lines in the unforgiving Florida sun and much to my parents’ dismay, my eyes were getting bigger and bigger as I realized a crucial problem. Excuse me but… Pocahontas is not “copper skinned”? Why am I actually darker than Aladdin? I was crushed, disappointed and didn’t even fully understand why.
I’m saying this because while things have changed at Walt Disney World parks I think there is still room for improvement. I firmly believe it is the responsibility of the Disney Company to prioritize how BIPOC representation occurs when guests step onto any of their properties. Inclusion is important and spending millions to give the community a voice in the movie industry is fantastic. Truly it is. In addition to that, there is a followup and continuation of inclusion to consider. When the film marketing that the company pushes heavily influences children and young adults, and then that voice they chose to amplify becomes a meet and greet in the park, the portrayal of that character should not change tunes in the process.
Strong consistent theming within the parks is key to preserving the magic of Disney World, which is why you would never see a Tomorrowland Cast Member eating a turkey leg in Liberty Square. It ruins the story line that is being told upon entering the park. Similarly, the rugged Captain Jack Sparrow would not be having pirate escapades on the PeopleMover. Therefore, in keeping with the theme, as an example, Elena should be a proud outspoken Latina leader and Moana should be a Polynesian hero, both portrayed by people of color.
Amplifying these voices should not be limited because of scheduling conflicts, limited Cast Members for the role, or “one person hired for multiple characters”. A white person portraying a brown person and then talking about “loving yourself as you are” is not doing your due diligence, Disney. “Theming” and “keeping the magic alive” is a priority, right? It should be, which is why following through with that representation in real life is SO important. Also, before I get bombarded with “but there IS representation for people of color now” I realize the company has done better over time; but what I’m just requesting is to stay consistent.
Lastly, as consumers, we also have a legitimate responsibility to openly talk about the companies that say one thing but don’t always follow through successfully. True that I’ve gotten over the shock of my childhood, but the idea that it is still currently possible for another child to feel that disconnect I felt years ago is just heartbreaking. If the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything right now, it is that misrepresentation of the BIPOC community (or lack thereof) still exists everywhere. I don’t have all the answers, nor do I expect anyone to, but if something such as limited casting or not enough audition calls for these characters is part of the problem…then we must push them to do better.
The fan petition can be found here if you feel like this is even remotely relevant to you, want to hear their perspective or simply want to continue positive change and create dialogue. Whether or not you choose to sign it, I’m just glad you’ve gotten this far and given me a chance to express my thoughts.