Is the Lack of Diversity in Cartoon Villains Sending the Wrong Message?
Truth be told, I’m a hardcore Disney princess fan… and I kind of hate myself for it. Logically, I know all the Disney movies up to, let’s say, Pocahontas is just garbage in terms of the messages they send to little girls and boys. Sure, Mulan, Tiana, and Merida have some redeeming qualities, but still not enough in my book. So my love for Disney princesses continues to be something I’m totally ashamed of but just can’t get over. Chalk it up to the magic.
I’ve literally been known to sing “Someday My Prince Will Come” while washing the car or changing its brake fluid or balancing my checkbook until my inner feminist is repulsed and berating me. That’s how bad it is.
You would think, given my own love-hate relationship, I would spare my daughter. But somehow, I managed to pass it on. Just like you give them a taste of their first ice cream or chocolate, you know it’s not good for them, but what would childhood be without it? So as all good addicts do, I made a bunch of arguments to rationalize it….
Disney princesses have changed since Jasmine, I would tell myself. She has some spunk, right? She was defiant! Or maybe it was Pocahontas... She didn’t even marry John Smith! What about Mulan?!? She totally played by her own rules in a man’s world. And Tiana – she dreams of owning a restaurant, not marrying a prince! Not to mention, Merida... Total bada$$.
Plus, plus, PLUS… and this one is a biggie for me… the diversity! Disney is celebrating diversity. There are princesses that look like my daughter as well as her friends and that’s HUGE!
Soon, diversity became a big factor in picking what shows we watch…even beyond Disney features. Ni Hao Kai-Lan, Dora the Explorer and her cousin in Go Diego Go!, Doc McStuffins, The Magic School Bus, Hey Arnold, Wild Kratts… I loved them all. I applauded them for their positive characters of all races and cultures (and I still do).
I was feeling pretty good about the mix of onscreen heroes and heroines my daughter had to look up to: princesses with smarts and skills who weren’t looking to marry just anybody sitting on a throne, little girls who solved problems, boys who saved animals, doctors, vets, conservationists… A little bit of everything and from all walks of life.
Lots of great positive role models, I thought. Until I realized the big problem…
One day, my daughter had her best girlfriend over for a play date. They went through their usual range of role-playing games (hooray for imagination!). The girls were sleuths solving the Case of the Missing Tabby Cat. They were adventurers looking for the black pearl in the thick of the Amazon. They played bodega and some 6-year old version of Fixer Upper (yes, HGTV is also a guilty pleasure).
All this before they settled into their favorite game of all: Princesses. They played every princess game you could imagine. Princess tea time, princess ballerinas, and princess besties roaming the enchanted garden were all on the schedule.
The thing is, though, for proper princess play, you need conflict. So enter: The evil witch.
At this moment in the game, my fair-haired daughter, well-versed in culturally diverse heroes and heroines, turns to her friend and says:
“I’ll be the princess and you can be the evil queen because the bad guy is never blonde.”
I’m crushed. I thought I had raised her to appreciate diversity and to know heroes come from all races and backgrounds. And I guess she did learn just that. She has no problem when her Asian, African-American, or Hispanic friends play the hero role, when there is more than one hero. But what got totally overlooked in the whole diversity conversation is the villain. The blonde cannot be the villain. The fair-haired, fair-skinned character must always be good.
Disney movies that are applauded for a Chinese heroine or African-American one, keep the world pretty limited to a single racial or ethnic group. So bad or good, they’re all the same minority. But you never see a blonde and beautiful evil queen.
Sure, I admit, there are fair-haired mean girls in children’s TV shows. But they’re mostly too-pretty-for-their-own-good popular girls – little brats or misunderstood children who aren’t actually evil. And don’t get me started on Elsa. What was originally Hans-Christian Andersen’s cold-hearted, villainous Snow Queen became a sensitive and conflicted little girl fearful of the pain she caused her sister. She is still pure of heart and there is no evil at her core.
So, am I actually advocating for blonde villains? Well, I guess I am. I mean, IF we’re going to have good vs. evil stories, then we ought to have diversity on both sides of the equation, right? Evil shouldn’t be typecast as a certain look. That’s just ridiculous.
For generations, film and TV has provided us with a visual language. We know the battle of good vs. evil is also one that’s light vs. dark. If there is a conflict between a blonde and a brunette, a white cowboy and a black one, we’ve been indoctrinated to read those visual cues and know immediately who to side with. Sure, that language has been updated a bit so that good guys comes in all shapes and colors… as long as the bad ones are still dark.
You may find it trite. But aren't these little things – the little kids who so innocently say, “the bad guy is never blonde” and what's implicit in that – that then leads to the bigger prejudices we grow up with?
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