Disney, Children and Race

Images from Children's Movies

  (from left to right) Robert Lopez, Idina Menzel & Demi Levato; the talent behind “Elsa” of Frozen

I don’t pay much attention to the Academy Awards anymore for various reasons among them racial inequity, emphasis on commercialization, consumerism, and wealth, as well as the perpetuation of harmful normative stereotypes about practically everything from gender roles and sexual orientation, to class, culture and language. And of course I’m the mother of a young child and just don’t have time to watch movies. That said there was one win that especially caught my multiracial eye this year. Robert Lopez along with his wife nabbed Best Original Song for their wildly popular ballad “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. Significantly, the award catapulted multiracial Filipino Robert Lopez to rare status, the 12th and youngest EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner ever. I do pay attention to something like that because my mixed race Asian son has so, so, so few racial role models that hold a solid standing in the public image. As he grows up I want to be able to point out leaders to him and say, “See! YOU can be a songwriter, politician, Olympian, CEO, activist, author, actor, etc. too!” But that’s really hard to do right now when I can barely find children’s books that reflect his racial image.

Hadn’t heard the song yet, but certainly made a point to after that. Screened it on YouTube thinking for sure I’d show it to kiddo. But then some other uncomfortable things quickly caught my eye. For one, multiracial Asian Robert Lopez penned the song, it was voiced-over by Ashkenazi Jew Idina Menzel and rendered (for the credits) by Mexican-American pop star Demi Levato, but in the actual film? The tune is sung by the character “Elsa” who is drawn incredibly white. Not only that, but in the movie as the sequence progresses from her being depressed and constrained to enlightened and empowered, she magically morphs from wearing dark clothing (in the dark) to, as she becomes more “free,” wearing a bright-white-sky-blue snow royalty dress (at gleaming sunrise):

Then in subsequently watching Levato’s music video for her pop version of the same, I was deeply disturbed to see that the multiracial singer (yep she’s mixed too) had had her hair lightened to blonde and that the exact same clothing/lighting transition from dark-to-light is used again:

I’m sorry but no way in hell am I going to let my brown son, who has already shown strong signs of internalizing/normalizing white phenotype at the expense of rejecting his own (http://multiasianfamilies.blogspot.com/2013/05/mirror-mirror.html), watch these videos or become enchanted with them in any form. Nobody really has “white” or “black” skin – we are shades of browns, tans, pinks, peaches, etc. – nor do we have “white” or “black” souls. Yet these polarized colors supposedly signal not only a person’s race but also diametrically opposed measures of their inherent value and worth? This was a concept developed by English settlers of America 4 centuries ago to build a rational for the devastation of indigenous and dark-skinned peoples:

“[English colonists]…had the power to shape the everyday terminology used in interaction with one another and with those they oppressed. Increasingly, skin color was linked to older color meanings in English. In Old English, the word ‘black’ meant sooted, while the word ‘white’ meant to gleam brightly, as for a candle. In line with earlier Christian usage, the word ‘black’ was used by the English colonists to describe sin and the devil. Old images of darkness and blackness as sinister were transferred to the darker-skinned peoples exploited in the system of slavery” (Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, And Future Reparations by Joe Feagin, 2014, p. 68).

But unbelievably our kids still receive these same strong messages today about race and who does or does not matter. This stuff runs really, really deep. “White is right” is still all over the place in ways we adults have become so used to, we may not even notice. Take for instance Pixar’s 2009 film Up which featured Asian American Boy Scout “Russell,” one of very few animated films to ever feature an Asian character. Not only is Russell a total do-gooder-over-achiever (model minority), but he’s overweight (“unattractive”), has a speech impediment/accent (forever foreigner), looks nothing like his voice-over talent Jordan Nagai (invisible) AND ultimately is saved by a white man who acts as a surrogate-substitute father (China remains #1 source of internationally adopted US children) to replace his absent Asian father (Asian men = emasculated).

Children's movie stars

Jordon Nagai with “Russell” of Pixar’s Up

By contrast, consider some of the other white film children of Pixar (which was acquired by Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion): “Andy” of the Toy Story franchise is essentially the center of the movie’s universe and is completely idolized by his toys who would lay their lives down for him. “Boo” of Monsters, Inc and her laughter revolutionize Monster University’s approach to harnessing good energy. “Violet” of The Incredibles is a sullen tween/teen who can vanish, cast powerful force fields and discovers her astounding inner beauty throughout the course of the film. Also of The Incredibles, “Dash” can run really, really fast and see truths his family find difficult to see:

Pixar Children

(clockwise from upper left): “Andy” of Toy Story, “Boo” of  Monsters, Inc., “Dash” and “Violet” of The Incredibles)


And I’m only scratching the surface here. Where also are strong non-stereotypical depictions of Black, American Indian, Latina/o, mixed race, etc. children who identify as nonwhite? I do firmly believe all of us have an obligation to pay responsible, critical and intelligent attention to this disproportionate, skewed racial messaging still being spoon-fed younger generations. To be clear, I absolutely am not arguing that white children (or people) should be devalued. But I am arguing that no child should be elevated in a way that results in other children feeling less worthwhile. Here is the core truth folks, racism dehumanizes us all. Until we can see that every child/person has true, innate beauty that deserves recognition and support — we have a long way to go.


~ This post was written by Sharon H Chang and originally appeared at her blog MultiAsianFamilies.