It took 5000 dancers and 62 years before The Radio City Rockettes welcomed their first dancer of color in 1987. Why? Besides the obvious racism that did (and still does) permeate American society, it was an artistic choice. Formed during the era of post industrialization, uniformed showgirls were a physical, feminized manifestation of standardization and commercialization. It made the “revolution” more familiar, less scary, and now an aesthetic form. Concerned with keeping up a precise mass spectacle, Violet Homes, former director of the Rockettes, claimed, “one or two black girls in the line would definitely distract.” Diversity would prevent the audience from truly objectifying the dancers into a mass of aesthetic. One may even say that the modern dehumanizing objectification of the female form arose out of this new era of standardization, among other factors (like the modern fashion industry). This era hasn’t left us.
While staring at an image of Disney princesses, I noticed that the white princesses all look the same. I’m not going to argue about the sexism evident in older Disney films, but they too are part of this post-industrial period, this trend of objectifying female bodies for their aesthetic. The girls look the same, ambiguous. And so specificity, true character, stories about real girls aren’t present in the most iconic films we show little American girls. In the pursuit of sexist standardization of female protagonists, Disney was racist by deliberately not including women of color. An artistic choice, where any dark inconsistency in Disney film protagonists wouldn’t arise until the late twentieth century.
Caucasian Disney Princesses.
In a complex blend of racism and sexism, Disney’s initial array of only white princesses and modern representations of them, still with very little variance, takes a toll on all girls of all races – in different ways. Black girls don’t see themselves. White girls see only one kind of self, one that is objectified into standardization. Even with the modern personalities of the new 3-D animated films – Elsa, Anna, Rapunzel – the girls still look too much alike. Sure, they are white princesses (one queen) as per their country of origin; however, assuming these princesses’ are truly tied to the countries of their stories’ conceptions (even though they actually take place in fictional fantasy worlds), I’m rather confident that a Germanic girl locked up her whole life in a tower wouldn’t look so similar to isolated yet privileged Nordic siblings.
The Barbie Doll – the epitome of the American beauty standard for women.
The white princesses of Disney haven’t changed. They are impossibly slim, usually naturally blonde (a real genetic rarity, honestly), with high and defined cheekbones, large eyes, dainty pointy noses, and small pointy chins. Young white girls internalize these images into and through adulthood. It’s not only Disney that does this (let’s not forget Barbie); the media follows these girls as they grow and live, continuing to reinforce these ideals. Disney, however, is what children are exposed to.
For decades, young girls of color never had a princess to look up to, and that changed with Jasmine, Pocahontas, Tiana, and nonprincess characters like Lilo, her sister Nani, and Mulan. Still, the greater media lacks in this department. And so black Americans have created their own visions of beauty, not unaffected by mainstream media, but, in some ways, less so. It’s different. As a result, black women are less likely than their white counterparts to be affected mentally by mainstream images of beauty and frankly, less likely to be insecure about their bodies.
Don’t get me wrong. Just because the unattainable ideals of American beauty tend to be on the whiter side doesn’t mean that women of color are immune to its effects. Young black girls, too, internalize marketed white beauty, believing straight, long blonde hair to be the ideal (hair in black culture is an incredibly complicated cultural topic I won’t get into here, but I recommend Hair Story by Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps and Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair). Often, though not always the case, they have a cultural support system to help guide them through a media quite against them to find confidence in their bodies.
When I was a young girl, as an immigrant of color who lacked any sort of strong American cultural counter to the norm and thoroughly enjoyed classic Disney films, I always begged my mom to let me dye my hair lighter and vied for colored contacts. My fellow Indian American ladies constantly compare their physiques to the Blake Lively/Cinderella standard because that’s the cultural norm of the country in which they live. Although Caucasian women may internalize images of impossible beauty standards more than black women in their adult life, they are not alone. And black women certainly aren’t thoroughly “culturally protected” from the effects of standardization.
All caucasian characters in Disney’s ‘Frozen’ 2014
Beyond internalizing impossible standards of beauty, people of color have been virtually whitewashed out of modern representations of European fairytales and medieval culture. People often claim that Disney does not whitewash; since the stories are European, all the characters must be white for “historical accuracy.” After all, historically, Europe was always only white until modern times. Well, actually no. Frankly, this assumption is a result of a whitewashed history stemming from modern racism that ignores the incredible diversity of characters involved in European history. “Accuracy” is not a reason to see only white faces in Disney stories – it’s a faulty excuse. It’s not only incredibly dangerous for black women to not see themselves represented in the general media, but it’s perhaps even more dangerous to show our young children that only certain types of people belong in these adventures, fantasy worlds, and history, when in fact, this is not true.
Beauty standards – the key word: standards – present in film, most overtly in Disney, stem from the industrial era and promote a strange blend of sexism and racism. Still, the country’s increasing diversity is slowly penetrating the “all-American” blonde-haired, blue-eyed ideal. According to a poll conducted by Allure magazine, beauty standards have diversified since the 1990s, welcoming darker, curvier, however still mainly white, ideals. I’d say that the acceptance of Lupita N’yongo as a beauty, not just exotic and not an anglicized or “light-skinned” woman of color, is a step in the right direction. And for the white girls out there, Merida from Brave, although the result of Pixar’s quirky style and vision, offers a variation on the heart-faced princesses of the past with her more accurately depicted sixteen-year-old body, wild curly hair, and charming, makeup-less round head. Although the strong, unique personalities of Anna and Elsa from Frozen are commendable, I’d love to see Disney make animated movies that star diversity of all kinds – race, gender, class, hair, body-type – and break the still present standardization of Disney princesses and women.
Note from the author: This was largely inspired by a discussion between myself and one of my best friends, Helen Kramer.