Danielle Gabriel

I can still recall my first cinematic experience: the overwhelming enthusiasm of seeing the big screen, the smell of hot buttery popcorn, and the explosive intensity of hearing surround sound for the first time.  Yet, despite all this nostalgia, it’s what was actually behind the big screen that years later I’ve realized left me with a haunting aftertaste.


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Now, I’m no movie critic, nor do I study film in school, but it doesn’t take an expert to acknowledge all of the troubling tropes Hollywood has historically perpetuated, i.e.—hiring a white actor to play a racially offensive Asian(ish) character like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  But at least an adult audience can discern whether or not the portrayal of an Asian caricature is appropriate or inappropriate.  However, I do believe for younger audiences, harmful stereotypes concerning villains are more dangerous, because young minds are much more subconsciously absorbent to information presented in front of them.  That is why movies intended for younger audiences have the power to be either extremely influential and constructive or detrimental to the malleable minds of children.

I don’t mean to pick on Disney movies since they already deal with a lot of scrutiny, but for the sake of theme let’s focus on them, considering their notoriety in children’s animations.  A lot of young people like myself grew up on villains like Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Scar from The Lion King, and  Shan Yu from Mulan. Aside from all of these characters being unanimously evil, there is a deeper problematic similarity that these characters share beyond first glance: Their physical appearance were all darkened or altered to emphasized their villainy.  

For example:

1) Ursula from The Little Mermaid is the darkest character under the sea—literally and figuratively.

2) If you look closely, Scar from The Lion King is substantially darker than all of the other lions.  He is even darker than his own brother who also happens to be king and the most righteous character of the plot.

3) Shan Yu from Mulan has copper tone skin and dark beady eyes despite his northern Asian origins, where natives typically had lighter skin because of the colder climates.

Okay, so colorism in Hollywood is nothing new and definitely extends beyond the realm of Disney.  But what else is problematic about these harmless coming of age animations? The stuff beyond the movie itself.  Let’s take a closer look at Ursula for example.  Did you know that her character was based off the real Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as the famous drag queen Divine?  The method of utilizing queer identities as a marker of villainy is also a device that is used quite frequently in Hollywood, and surprisingly enough, even more frequent in children’s animations with given characters like, ‘Him’ from Powerpuff Girls and arguably the ‘Joker’ from many Batman adaptations.

It's unclear whether devices like colorism and queer-coding are merely cheap gimmicks used for the sake of easy-characterization because people of color and queer identities are often villainized in society; or whether people of color and queer-identifying people are often villainized  in society because they are villainized in movies.  Either way, the most important takeaway is what message about villains and ‘bad’ people in general are we conveying to our children.  Yes, there are lessons to be learned about being cautious towards greedy people who do not have your best interest in mind like Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Scar from The Lion King, but this can be done without adding skin-tone variation and queer coding.  There is also a lesson in being weary of people who may look harmful like Shan Yu from Mulan. Again, this can also be done without the darkening of his skin, as his large stature, aggressive demeanor, and fangs for teeth relay that message alone.

It’s not enough to redefine what it takes to be a princess; we have to redefine what is means to be a person, friend, companion, and even a villain.

However, Disney as of late has been making some pretty incredible strides in terms of inclusivity of minorities in their animations. Movies like The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, and Moana have all challenged the norms of what it means to be a Disney princess without falling into the stereotypes surrounding the ‘damsel in distress.’  But it’s not enough to redefine what it takes to be a princess; we have to redefine what is means to be a person, a friend, a companion, and even a villain—all of whom should encompass a range full of complexity, truth, and compassion.  I know it’s easier said than done,  but I can only imagine what it might have felt like in that big comfy seat, with a tub of buttery popcorn, watching a character like myself being represented, not as a stereotype, but as a multi-faceted character full of wonder, depth and awe.  Because after all, that is the experience that every child deserves when they see their first movie.


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