Disney's Disembodied Black Characters
By Hope WabukeMarch 23, 2021
I knew even then that what we had was not usual; it was a privilege to experience what we experienced growing up in that tiny southern California town, miles and years away from the tiny black and white missionary TV screen in Uganda where my parents had first spied the Disney movies that had made them imagine America a wonderful, magical place.
What we had in Arcadia, home to one of the top public school districts in the state, were the perks that went along with that education. But what we also had to go along with it — being one of the first Black families to move to that city, and usually the only Black student in my class — was the racism: being followed in stores, ordered to pay before dining in restaurants, being told we were the color of “poop” by teachers, and never seeing anyone who looked like us in the books we read in school. This is the Black experience in America when your hardworking Black parents are determined to get you the best education they can. It’s an abundance of opportunity, but only if you learn to survive within the boundaries of acceptable racism.
My wealthy non-Black classmates loved wandering around the grounds of Disneyland, a place they were familiar with from regular family visits throughout the year. I was not. With the price tag at $100 per person, my family of eight people had been to Disneyland only once — with family friends from out of town when they came to visit. To prepare for the $1,000 excursion, my father had put our family on a budget for half a year, and we had packed backpacks full of lunch and dinner. We were warned there would be no souvenirs so we shouldn’t even try it.
As someone unaccustomed to its scope, Disneyland was big and overwhelming for me. But as performers in the student orchestra — both guests and employees, to some extent — we were privy to the back lots and back entrances of the park that regular visitors didn’t see — the backstage bones of the glossy stages and rides, the stacked up piles of recycled parts of shuttered amusements and worn-out characters. We were forbidden to take pictures here — it was not public Disney; it did not hold the myth of Disney perfection and magic. But I liked thinking that we alone had this secret knowledge of a place that was familiar to so many. We were part of the select few who saw what was denied public view.
Once, I was told this same story about the man himself, Walt Disney: the reason that most of the candid photos of Walt Disney throughout the park showed his fingers shaped in a V was because he smoked cigarettes and didn’t want to be seen doing so. But this private truth did not align with his desired public image; the cigarettes had to be airbrushed out.
In the middle of last summer, trying to understand the new balance of homeschooling and remote working in the pandemic, I gave in to my seven-year-old’s requests and let him have half an hour of screen time in the evenings. But being a Black parent who was once a Black girl and well aware of the horrific absence and equally horrific stereotypical and token representations of Blackness on television that I have seen, I told him that he could only watch a TV show if it had a main character who looked like him. Within that guideline, he could choose whatever age-appropriate show he wanted. He wanted cartoons, and so he began his search with those constraints. But within five minutes, he came to me in tears. We had subscriptions to Amazon Prime and Netflix, and he had searched both for Black characters in kids shows. He had found nothing.
I sat down, pulled him onto my lap and cuddled him until his tears eased. When he was soothed enough, I picked the remote up from the floor and typed in “Black kids cartoons” on Netflix. The only thing that came up was Motown Magic, which he had already seen. I tried “African American kids cartoons.” Nothing else. “Black kids shows,” “African American kids shows” had nothing else in his age range, but a couple of live action shows aimed at the tween and teenage crowd. I tried Amazon Prime, which was even more of a desert. Searches there brought up Orphan Black and Black Mirror instead.
My son was growing impatient. “Mommy, isn’t there anything?” he called, tears eased and now bouncing on his trampoline. “Not yet,” I called back, scrolling through endless titles of movies without any Black characters in them. And then I recalled a passing conversation about the launch of Disney Plus with a fellow mom friend.
“Doc McStuffins!” I exclaimed loudly, remembering the patron saint of Black parents everywhere, as I ordered Disney Plus. Among the little Black girl doctor and her talking toys, my son was happy for most of the year. I thanked God for Chris Nee, McStuffins’s wonderful creator, every day of 2020. And then, just in time for winter break, he asked for something else.
“Did you finish Doc McStuffins?” I asked.
“No, I just want to watch something else for a while,” he said. But we couldn’t find any other cartoon show on Disney Plus that featured Black kids as main characters. So we watched an episode of Vampirina, another of Nee’s creations, this one about a vampire family living amongst human neighbors in contemporary Philadelphia. But I was uneasy at the danger made cute, uneasy with Nee’s portrayal of the mythical bloodsucking vampire-as-monster-as-outsider equated to the outsiderness of the Black girl as outsider.
Networks are so proud of each of their few Black kids shows, it seems, that they forget two things:
- That kids will watch the show and then want to watch something else.
- That Black kids have a diversity of tastes, and, beyond that, they grow up. One show can’t appeal to all Black kids from age three to 16. And why should we expect it to, even if it could?
Searching further on Disney, we found Moana, which my son watched because Moana was brownish like him he said, and Elena of Avalor because she was also kind of brownish and went to school with a brownish kid who looked kind of like him.
But nothing else.
“What about these ones? I said, selecting the 2009 animated feature The Princess and The Frog and The Proud Family.
“I already looked, Mom. The girl isn’t really there; she’s a green frog most of the time,” he sighed. “The other show is kind of mean and too grown up for me.”
I searched and searched the network. Nothing. Finally, I had an idea.
“Animals!” I exclaimed. “You can watch a show if there are animals.”
My son’s face brightened. He returned to Netflix and selected Octonauts, a delightful show about animals from diverse regions of the world who work together to help other animals, teaching science along the way. Then there were Puffin Rock and Peppa Pig. And, of course, the entire Disney collection of talking animal content. The animal cartoons were fascinating and endless in their diversity and skillful edutainment. My son has yet to run out of new animal show options on the streaming services we have.
But I wonder: what does it say that it is so much easier for my son to find wonderfully crafted television shows and films featuring talking animals than it is to find shows about kids who look like him?
Last fall, when the studios and networks rolled out their kids holiday fare, it was more of the same: the absence of Blackness. The most promising of the offerings was Netflix’s Jingle Jangle, which is quite lovely and which my son enjoyed. He appreciated the live action musical magic in the tradition of Disney’s own Mary Poppins.
“But where are the cartoons, Mom?” he asked. “And why does the story have to be so sad with people dying?”
I thought about my son’s questions. I had no answers, only the same questions about entertainment for Black adults, and the saturation of images of Black pain rather than Black joy. The heaviness I feel in my soul when yet another studio markets its slave film (or other narrative of historical Black oppression) as the “Black movie” release of the year is the same heaviness in my son’s soul at these kid’s movies that traffic in Black sadness and Black death.
True, films like Netflix’s Jingle Jangle and Disney’s The Lion King and the Princess and the Frog are in line with the loss-of-parent narrative that’s part of the blueprint for this kind of children’s storytelling, harkening all the way back to Disney’s Golden Age. But the impact of that loss-of-parent narrative resonates much more loudly when looking at animated Disney films with Black content because of the very small number of animated films and television that feature Black protagonists at all.
You see, all animated Disney films featuring Black protagonists have either a dead parent or the death of the protagonist as a plot point; however, there are many animated Disney films with non-Black characters where parents and protagonists escape this deathly trope simply because of the sheer numbers of Disney films made with non-Black protagonists. This lack of representation creates a single story of Blackness, predicated on death and sadness.
And, because of history, because of the way race and power work in a society where we are already saturated with images of Black death and anti-Black violence — consider how many times the deaths of unarmed Black children like Tamir Rice and unarmed Black men like Eric Garner and George Floyd were replayed across media channels versus the genteel blurring out of the death of Ashli Babbitt, the white woman insurrectionist who died while storming the Capitol in January 2021 — the death of Black parents in Disney films operates in a much different way than the death of non-Black parents in Disney films. Simply put: for every death of non-Black parents depicted in Disney films like Frozen, there are many, many other Disney films with non-Black protagonists in which the parents do not die, in which death is not a major plot point; in which the non-Black characters are allowed happiness and joy. And when that death does occur, it is not amplified in the real world by the media’s disregard for the sanctity of Black life.
Where are the happy carefree storylines for young Black kids that white kids get? Where is the diversity of storyline and personality and genre representation that white kids get? Whiteness gets multiplicity — of storyline, genre, medium, a multiplicity of films and television shows that speak to a multiplicity of age ranges and interests — all represented by white characters. Snow White. Cinderella. Beauty and the Beast. 101 Dalmatians. The Flight of the Navigator. E.T.. How to Tame Your Dragon. My Little Pony: Equestria Girls. The Incredibles. Kim Possible. WildKrats. Toy Story. Frozen. Frozen II. Inside Out. Tangled. Brave. Sarah and Duck. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Peter Pan. Pete’s Dragon. Alice in Wonderland. Sleeping Beauty. The Little Mermaid. The Sword in the Stone. Robin Hood. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Pete’s Dragon. James and the Giant Peach. Hercules. Doug’s First Movie. Recess: School’s Out. Return to Neverland. Treasure Planet. Meet the Robinsons. Enchanted. Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue. The Cat in the Hat. Sofia the First. Boss Baby. Masha and the Bear. Johnny Test. The Lorax. Dennis the Menace. Ben and Charlie’s Little Kingdom. The Magic School Bus. And on and on.
Blackness gets Doc McStuffins.
My freshman year of high school, our annual performance at Disneyland coincided with a live recording session of a Disney film soundtrack. Because we were members of one of the best high school orchestras in the state, the staff said, we were to be given a special treat: a walk-through of the recording soundstages. Quiet, in the audience, we stood and watched the musicians’ bows rising and falling across their strings in unison. Onscreen, the young lion I would come to know as Simba was roaring his pain at the death of his father. I would, of course, also come to know the film as The Lion King, Disney’s first modern foray — however anthropomorphized — into engaging with Black culture on the big screen. The Disney orchestra soared. So did I.
The story, of course, since it engages with Blackness in some way, was about family disintegration and death. But still, I remember the crackling energy pervading my childhood home in the days preceding the film’s release, the excitement of going to see it in the theatre with my whole family, so starved for representations of Blackness, let alone Africa in film. I remember my African parents’ happiness and pride in seeing something like home shining across the screen.
The hunger for representations of Blackness in Disney films was not just felt in my family, but in families across the world. To date, The Lion King is the highest grossing traditionally animated Disney movie of all time. But back in 1994, Disney couldn’t imagine that this success could be repeated by making more Black stories, perhaps even with people, rather than animals. Instead, the studio just made more Lion King. We have seen The Lion King as Broadway musical, as a touring production, as a television show, as a live action remake starring the voices — but never the Black bodies of course — of the nation’s most iconic and brilliant Black performers.
Indeed, it would be another 15 years before Disney made another feature based on Black culture — and the first Disney film ostensibly to revolve around actual Black characters. But Tiana, Disney’s first Black animated protagonist, would be onscreen for just about 40 minutes. More shockingly, she would be drawn as a Black woman for just 17 of those minutes. Most of the time, as you probably know, Tiana is a frog.
Some of us, like I am, are old enough to remember the public call for a Black Disney princess throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s that pushed a reluctant Disney into making The Princess and The Frog in the first place. However, the representations of Blackness in Princess Tiana’s world were problematic from the beginning. Set in the 1920s South — the height of the Jazz Age, but also Jim Crow — Princess Tiana, accounts of that time report, was originally conceived as a servant character with strong echoes of slavery in characterization and naming. Indeed, her original name “Maddy” sounded very close to the Mammy slave stereotype applied to Black women.
Although Tiana’s character was rewritten as a waitress rather than a servant, this original vision is still evident in the opening scenes of the film, when Tiana’s mother pays little attention to her daughter and focuses all her attention and dialogue in caring for Tiana’s white girl friend. Here, too, in this opening, Tiana’s white girl friend is introduced before Tiana and dominates the first scenes of the film with verbosity and energy. Tiana is silent and ignored in the background.
The dynamic is clear: here is the centering of the white character and the depiction of Tiana’s mother acting as a mammy character to the white child, while ignoring her own — a stereotype of Black motherhood that was set during Jim Crow but has roots embedded in American slavery.
But it is not just the opening racial dynamics and cinematic choices of the film that sets Tiana’s portrayal differently than any of Disney’s other non-Black princesses, or even main characters. Nor, again, is it just the fact that the Black body of Princess Tiana appears so little in her film: 17 minutes out of the film’s 98 minute runtime.
It is that so much of Tiana’s film is created through a white gaze that looks to diminish, rather than celebrate the beauty of Black womanhood, or even Blackness in general. Instead of the expected cute and cuddly Disney animal character that always accompanies a Disney hero, there is only the worst of the buck-toothed minstrel stereotypes in the firefly that adopts Tiana; instead of a magical and charming fairy godmother there is only the worst stereotypes of the bugaboo African witch doctor; and everywhere, everywhere is the ridiculing of the Black body with the obsessive attention to all the characters’ overexaggerated buttocks, a stereotype used to portray Blackness since Saartje Bartmaan was kidnapped from South Africa and exhibited onstage in European zoos in order for white audiences to gawk at her physiology. It’s not just a question, in other words, of Tiana’s relative visibility as a Black princess; it’s about the whole swamp she’s got to wade through in order to be seen at all.
Soul, Disney’s ethnic animated kid’s film for this winter season, is unique among animated Disney movies in that the central characters are adults rather than children, with children sprinkled sparingly throughout the film. Also of note is the much more adult subject matter of the film: the inciting incident of the narrative is that the main character dies. Soul follows what happens after that death. More typical is the message of the film: the classic cinematic stereotype of the Black male character desperately trying to save the life of a white woman, the character 22 played by Tina Fey, to the point that the Black man sacrifices his “life” doing so. And the other message of Soul? Accept that you are going to die and don’t try to fight your fate. Yet neither of these themes seem particularly uplifting to children in the style of the Disney brand that exists when dealing with non-Black characters.
Like The Princess and The Frog, Soul begins as a promising premise showcasing some brilliant Black actors. However, like Princess Tiana, Soul’s Joe Gardner is immediately characterized by a burning desire to work. Even the character’s last name is a type of job. Tiana and Joe, unlike other non-Black Disney characters who are given other motivations — falling in love, self-discovery, or saving the world — are only represented by the labor their Black bodies can provide, another stereotype of Blackness.
But the most damaging representation is this: like The Princess and The Frog’s Black protagonist, Soul’s Black lead spends a good deal of the movie not in a Black body, but represented as a blue ghost object without the Black ethnic facial features that characterize the him when in his physical form. And then, Joe Gardner’s Black body is inhabited by 22, the spirit of the character voiced by white actress Tina Fey. Joe, on the other hand, is put in the body of a cat. In other words, the Black body is colonized by whiteness while the Black character’s “soul” is put into the body of an animal — because it’s Disney and Black people are only equal to animals — before eventually choosing to sacrifice his life for 22, the white woman.
I find it very telling that the first animated Disney movie featuring a Black woman main character and the first animated Disney movie to feature a Black man character as leads are written in such a way that both of these main characters spend a large part of their respective films in bodies that are neither Black nor even human.
Green, blue — Disney has no problem with characters that are different colors, it seems, as long as that color is not brown.
What does it say to Black kids watching when the world’s biggest children’s entertainment company cannot give them even one animated film that features a Black person that stays a Black person throughout? What does this say about Blackness to kids who are not Black? About whose life is being portrayed as mattering? And whose does not?
This is how bias and harmful stereotypes are created and perpetuated in society. This is how whiteness protects whiteness and thus a system of white supremacy through media representation: by normalizing itself as human and othering Blackness through erasure and dehumanization. Whether conscious or unconscious, this bias and adherence to white supremacy and Black erasure and dehumanization is real and damaging.
And no matter how much I try, I still cannot understand why Disney — a groundbreaking company predicated on reveling in the imagination, a company whose creative products are so well-known for their tremendous ability to invest animals with human characteristics and deep wells of pathos in order to center intimate storytelling against epic themes — does nothing but relegate Black characters to animals and objects, mining stories of Black suffering and death when Black kids deal with enough violence, often based on race, in the real world.
When will Disney make a film with Black characters played by Black characters? Why is this so damn hard?
In 1937, Walt Disney Animation Studios released its first full-length animated film: Snow White. As the film’s cost grew to $1.5 million over its three-year production period, Walt Disney mortgaged his house to put up the remaining financing. His financial gamble worked: Snow White was an artistic and commercial success. Disney’s groundbreaking form of storytelling captured the hearts and imagination of children and adults alike and grossed $8 million in revenue at the box office, the most money ever made by a film up to that time. Snow White was quickly followed by Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi, the films now known as Disney’s Golden Age.
One of the cornerstones of the Disney entertainment phenomenon is the understanding of how an irrepressible visual imagination and sonic landscape are vital in creating lush children’s entertainment that draws viewers in and has them humming songs from the films afterwards. By the mid 1940s, the Walt Disney team had perfected this structure, setting a bar that has led the industry for decades.
Simply put, Disney stories and Disney songs are iconic in our culture.
So as we think about questions of representation, this includes looking not just at how few films with Black characters are made by Disney, but also looking behind the camera at the creative team. Who are the creatives involved in these projects? The writers and composers trusted to create for the Disney brand?
For Soul, the sonic landscape of the film was created by the wonderfully talented Trent Reznor, best known for his band Nine Inch Nails, who, along with Atticus Ross, composed the score. Black American musician Jon Batiste was brought on to provide the singing “voice” of Joe Gardner’s piano, the same way the luminous Anika Noni Rose was the “voice” of Princess Tiana. This was considered progress from The Lion King’s casting of white American actor Jonathan Taylor Thomas to play the young version of the Simba, the African hero, and white American actor Mathew Broderick to play the adult version. White American actress Moira Kelly was the voice of Nala, the female African lion who is Simba’s love interest.
As with Soul, for The Princess and The Frog, Disney again tapped another white male composer to head the team in Randy Newman. And for The Lion King, we remember Elton John’s and Hans Zimmer’s glorious soundtrack, an art object in its own right.
These artists are brilliant. That is unquestionable.
The question is this: Despite the stunning reputations and work of these white composers, with all the Black jazz and soul musicians out there; with the invention of rock, country and jazz music by Black artists, the erasure of Blackness and co-option by whites of the first two art forms; with the financial imbalance in which white artists and labels took advantage of Black artists, whether predatory contracts in the 1960s and 1970s or Black soul musician Lady A getting her name stolen by the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum this past year; with this history of marginalization of Black creatives and in this political climate, doesn’t this sonic whitewashing just seem like there is so much potential for diverse representation, wasted?
Or does Disney’s refusal to create an animated movie with Black characters who stay Black characters go beyond these three films that traffic in stereotypes and erasure and speak to larger institutional issues regarding perceptions of Blackness that behoove attention?
One wonders: if the very accomplished white writing team of John Musker and Ron Clements, who after criticism about their treatment of race in the film, brought on the gifted Black writer Rob Edwards to help pen The Princess and The Frog, had also included a Black woman on the script about the first Black woman Disney protagonist, or an eye that valued Black woman the same way white women are valued in our society, would we perhaps have seen a less stereotypical representation of the first Black Disney princess that was more in line with the value and care shown to the other lighter-skinned Disney princesses in the Disney story canon, for example? Or, if the creators had thought as intentionally about Blackness before creating this story as they did with the creation of Moana’s Oceanic Story Trust, could there have been a different result as well? Or if a Black creator had been allowed to imagine Tiana and her world from the ground up, rather than slapping a Black perspective on the film as a hasty afterthought — a quick fix band-aid to solve the racist undertones of the film when the problems were not just skin deep?
And if Soul, too, had also begun with a Black writer creating a storyline rather than white screenwriters Pete Doctor and Mike Jones again bringing on a Black American writer (this time Kemp Powers) two years into the project to add authenticity and perspective of character to a fundamentally problematic idea, could Soul have been a more positive representation of Blackness without unconscious bias and stereotypes?
It matters, where imagination begins in the mind. It matters whether that mind can imagine full Black personhood, or if that imagination is still constrained by unconscious bias and internalized stereotypes.
“We quickly came across this idea of a story about a soul who doesn’t want to die meeting a soul that doesn’t want to live,” said Mike Jones in an interview with Awards Daily from February 2021. “I think the very first version, he was an actor, and he had gotten his big break on Broadway. He was going to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, and we thought that was just so clever but we just didn’t feel it. As soon as we came up with the idea that he should be a jazz musician, the idea of wrapping jazz and the improvisational nature of jazz was just so electric that we decided to make him a jazz musician. And let’s make him a middle school band teacher who aspires to something greater. That naturally led to the idea that he should be a middle-aged Black man, and that’s when we brought Kemp Powers in.”
Because of the complexity of the Black experience in America, stories that may read as neutral with a white main character can become, like Soul, problematic when the race of that character is changed from white to Black and the narrative is not rethought accordingly. For example, take Soul’s idea of putting a white character into the body of a Black man. Or Soul’s idea of a Black man’s soul being put into an animal. Where whiteness in America does not have a tradition of being violently colonized and enslaved, Blackness does. Where whiteness in America doesn’t have a racially loaded history of being compared to animals in a dehumanizing way, Blackness does. And suddenly, a plot point that seemed innocuous when envisioning the character as white, becomes part of a larger tradition of whiteness violating and dehumanizing the Black body, begun with American slavery.
It is not just enough to change a character’s race; when changing race, the narrative has to be re-envisioned accordingly in line with a character’s positioning in society. For Black folks in America, race informs so much of our experiences in life; to ignore this when creating a narrative of Black life is to practice a white-centered misconception of “colorblindness” that denies the full humanity of our personhood.
And nothing makes this misrepresentation clearer than Soul’s animation, which erases Joe Gardner’s Black ethnic features in the afterlife, effectively saying that the default representation of human, of a soul, is whiteness.
There are a few future things in the works that I am hopeful about. Disney is set to premiere Ironheart on Disney+ in the near future, and is creating a TV show featuring Princess Tiana in 2023 with (hopefully) an eye to a less stereotypical portrayal than the earlier film. The Disney partnership with South African film company Kugali to produce Iwaju in 2022 looks promising as long as it doesn’t turn into a repeat of the single representation story, and diasporic wars where African, Afro European, and Black American creatives are pitted against each other. Mama K’s Team 4, a Zimbabwean cartoon, is set to premier on Netflix in 2022. And our most promising discovery: the Kweli TV app, which curates Black content from around the world with shows like Bino & Fino, a cartoon featuring two kids from Nigeria who, my son says, look exactly like him.
In the meantime, my son has stopped asking to watch television. He told me the other day that he understands why I have always avoided TV and read to him instead. It is not just the wonder of imagination and language that books rather than TV provide. It is not just the vibrant storylines that inspire his own creations. As my Black son looks at his bookshelves he can see row after row of books whose covers shine with characters who look like him, whose pages are full of joyful stories about characters who look like him living their lives in full Black joy instead of the shapeshifting and death embedded into so much of mainstream American television entertainment engaging with Blackness for kids.
My son knows now, like many Black kids in America do, that if you try to look for yourself onscreen all you will see is erasure, sometimes stereotype. He knows to look for himself on the page instead. You can find some beautiful things there, if you try.
My son’s basket of to-read books contain his current four favorites: Dragons in a Bag, Hi-Lo, Obi & Titi, and The Adventures of Mia Mayhem. In these books, like the others on his bookshelf, Black joy and Black life are embraced. And any of these would make amazing television or cinematic content.
Take Dragons in a Bag, the first book in a series about Black kids and dragons in Brooklyn written by the wonderful Zetta Elliot. Or Hi-Lo, Judd Winick’s alien robot who saves the world with his best friends — a Black girl with magical powers and an Asian boy who breaks gender stereotypes to spread love rather than violence. Or Obi & Titi, O.T. Begho’s tales of a Black boy and girl racing through magical adventures in Nigeria. Or the Mia Mayhem series, Kara West’s thrilling adventures of a Black girl superhero in a long lineage of superheroes. These books are amazing, well written stories with nuanced representations of character. And guess what?
No one Black dies in these books. And no one Black turns into a frog, a ghostly blue object, or anything else that is not Black for some corporation’s bizarre mindset that still believes that seeing Black faces onscreen for 120 minutes is too much.
They stay Black kids the whole time.
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