Disney’s ‘Frozen’ Left Out Little Girls of Color…Again

Elsa-magicMy family went to see Disney’s hit movie Frozen this weekend. It was really amazing. And by amazing I mean the little four-year-old girl inside of me put on a princess dress and crown, grabbed a magic wand, danced around in circles and swooned for an hour and a half. It was that good from start to finish. But, at some point, I glanced around the theater and noticed the two other brown or black families. Then I became an adult again. And I got sad.

The movie’s powerful messages of self-acceptance, overcoming bullying, succeeding in the face of stigmatization, and remaining true to one’s self seemed to fit almost perfectly with the conversations us brown and black mothers have to have with our little girls almost daily. I think Disney may have missed an opportunity to really make a difference with this film. Or, they just chose not to touch it. Either way, little black and brown girls continue to exist on the periphery of the American fairytale.

During the movie, my two-year old tuned in an out. At times she was fully engrossed in the popcorn rather than in the giant screen in front of us. But, whenever the singing geared up, she was at full attention. She was wide-eyed and absorbing every moment of it.

The signature ballad for the Snow Queen, performed by Wicked‘s Idina Menzel, was gorgeous, instilled hope and wonder, and was sung flawlessly. During the song, there was a moment when I could see the same youthful exuberance and inspiration in my little one’s eyes that I must have had when I first saw Cinderella a quarter of a century ago. Like me, she was seeing not just the animation but the messages of hope it imbued. Those messages, however, were coming from a gorgeous blonde character surrounded by other sparkly-eyed white figures. None of them looked like us. So, was the message really for us too?

Part of me just wanted the character struggling with this burdensome existence to be brown or black. Not only for the little girls of color out there but also because it was hard to see how someone with literally one (really cool) flaw could carry such a heavy message and really sell it. All it took was a new hairstyle, a dress, and a smidgen of love to fix Elsa’s problems. It just isn’t that simple for little girls of color. When Elsa sings “the perfect girl is gone,” it really doesn’t translate given the fact that she embodies all of the standards of perfect beauty even with her awesome malady. While Elsa’s plight likely resonated with young white girls, I imagine that Elsa’s stark differences from brown and black girls would leave many of them chasing a unicorn.

Parallel this with Sesame Street’s head on confrontation with the black hair saga. Their “I Love My Hair” song received criticism but the overwhelming response was positive. My daughter and I watched it recently. She saw cornrows like her own, braids like her mommy’s, and the same kind of afro puff she wears right after her hair gets washed. She saw some of herself in this jolly little brown puppet. The message of self-love seemed that much more powerful when relayed by a brown character.

Her social identity justified her declaration to love her hair. And, the song itself acknowledged a known struggle for little girls of color.

Disney really could have challenged some social norms with this film and ballad. I know they are in the business of telling stories but wouldn’t it be awesome if that story could align with real, lived experiences? If the royal family had been an interracial family or perhaps black or Hispanic, the messages would have been that much more powerful. A lot was left unrequited after Princess Tiana’s epic debut was marred by like an hour of froggy-ness. Because Disney owns the market on children’s entertainment, they also set the tone for the media imagery our kids soak up. They have done a great job diversifying on their networks. But, Frozen proves that there is still work Disney can do for people of color and representation in their films.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

8 Responses

  1. Shawna says:

    My 11 year old daughter, 6 year old niece, and I loved the movie, Frozen, also. I definitely related to the story-line and thought the music was spectacular. The animation was top notch so it was technically a very sound film.

    I wasn’t affected by the fact there were no black characters because I think social conditioning tells blacks not to expect black characters in most films. Most of the time if they’re added to the cast it’s a pleasant and welcome surprise! Sometimes, it’s a buffoon-like character that doesn’t seem to add value and goes unappreciated.

    In the case of Frozen, I did notice quite a diverse audience in Chino, CA – whites, blacks, latinos and asians, and even more to my surprise quite a few people in the millenial generation were there without children….So, if it were a black cast, or black main character, I honestly don’t think it would have drawn the crowds or the $$$$ Disney knew they wanted to make on it…

  2. Yardyspice says:

    The problem is that despite all the gains we’ve made, we are still underrepresented behind the scenes in Hollywood so in order for us to be given equal screen time, we need to be the ones writing the scripts, producing, etc.

    I’ve also been wondering if we need to protect our children from media that is not diverse just as we would violent movies/shows. I wonder about its long term effects :-/

  3. Sarah says:

    I’ve been worried about this too with lots of animation companies. I think they don’t make characters only white (which seems to be diversities like American, Canadian, Swedish, German and so on people) on purpose (for the most part) but that’s the problem. Discrimination is not always a conscious action. It happens among women and men, too–for example, a man may be picked for a job instead of a woman. Discrimination also happens if someone has a “foreign” sounding name, rather than an “English” or “white” sounding one.
    That’s why I agree with you that it’d be great for animation companies to make characters of several diversities and sexes and even sexual orientations “just because”. It’s important to have lots of different types of people, and it makes lives more enriching because of the cultures I can learn about. If Disney had a movie where there would only be light-skinned people, then they could work diverse characters in there somehow and explain it (like, a person from Sweden is a transfer student in Haiti, or a person from India is a transfer student in North Africa). Even in the old days, lots of people traveled all around the world.

    I don’t always think about this, but light-skinned people are diverse and can be minorities (First-Nations, for example) and it’s important to remember that. There is a big problem with First Nation women in Canada being domestically abused because for some reason authorities turn a blind eye to those issues on purpose. It happens with people of color, too (I don’t want to say African-American, since not all dark-skinned people are African, or American. They could be Canadian-Swedish or something. I try to be careful. What do you think is the best term to use?).

    Anyway, though, sorry–I went off on a tangent. I’m glad you mentioned “brown” and “black” people, which probably would be people who were First-Nations, Hawaiian, Middle-Eastern, Indian, Thai, Taiwanese, Spanish, Mexican, Puerto-Rican, South-American, African or Jamaican (among others; I could go on), and also British, since there is a large population of people of color in Great Britain like I said earlier. Unfortunately, Great Britain has a problem with discrimination even today. I heard about it on the radio recently and got pretty bummed out about it. I’ve also been doing research to help me with writing diverse characters so I don’t make any ignorant comments. The sites talk about how to describe skin colors and how to do proper research if I wanted to write a fictional story about a family from Mumbai, or something. I’m glad I checked it out because there are things I could have been saying that I didn’t think were offensive but would be to someone else. I’m Caucasian, so sometimes I could have trouble with understanding how minorities’ lives are without knowing it, so doing research and reading lots of kinds of literature is a great thing for me to do so I don’t say insensitive things.

    Well, I sure rambled. I really hope that in the future, Disney (as well as other animation companies) will become more accepting and will have lots of diverse characters “just because” it will make the world better and safer.

    I hear in the near future (within the next five or ten years) that minorities won’t be minorities anymore, so that’s great! It’ll mean things like wage gaps and discrimination could go away pretty soon if people work at it. I just heard a couple stories on the news about how lots of people think there isn’t a wage gap for women, and it was pretty dang ridiculous.

  4. maxpain7 says:

    To be honest, I did not feel the need to have Asian character representation in this movie. The movie is based on an old story book for children by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen.The message is powerful enough for me regardless whom ever delivered it.

    I wouldn’t want to have a Mulan’s character played by Merida from Brave, or Tiana from Princess and the Frog, or Pocahontas. It’s fine the way it is.

    It’s a movie. There’s a story, characters and plots. Get the message regardless who deliver it.

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