Following a flurry of criticism from cultural groups, the Walt Disney Company (NYSE: DIS) has denied reports that its newest blue-eyed, fair-skinned princess is meant to be Hispanic.
Nancy Kanter, general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, posted a statement on the Facebook page for Sofia the First, a new character set to premiere on Disney Junior on Nov. 18. Kanter posted that, despite reports touting Sofia as Disney’s “first Hispanic princess,” the character is not meant to hail from any specific culture.
“The writers have wisely chosen to write stories that include elements that will be familiar and relatable to kids from many different backgrounds including Spain and Latin America,” Kanter wrote. “For example, Sofia’s mom comes from a fictitious land, Galdiz, which was inspired by Spain.”
Criticism of Disney began earlier this month after Entertainment Weekly posted a story in which executive producer Jamie Mitchell is quoted as describing Sofia’s mother -- who has a darker complexion than her daughter -- as “Latina.”
Cultural groups such as the Mexican Heritage Corporation took issue with that description, complaining that describing the auburn-haired princess as Latina is “not an accurate use of the term as many in our community understand its meaning.”
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But Kanter, in her Facebook post, denied that Disney Co. had intended for Sofia to be associated with any one ethnicity. "Some of you may have seen the recent news stories on whether Sofia is or isn't a "Latina princess,” she wrote. "What’s important to know is that Sofia is a fairy-tale girl who lives in a fairy-tale world. All our characters come from fantasy lands that may reflect elements of various cultures and ethnicities, but none are meant to specifically represent those real-world cultures.”
The notion that every Disney character is an acultural allegory counters earlier efforts by Disney Co. to be more culturally inclusive in its animated offerings. In 2009, when Disney first introduced Princess Tiana for the animated film “Princess and the Frog,” the company took great pains to play up Tiana’s African-American heritage. Similarly, no one at Disney has argued that Mulan is not Chinese or that Pocahontas is not Native-American. That’s because, in each of those cases, critics gave high marks to a company that has long deflected charges of cultural insensitivity and outright racism.
And while Disney may never live down such racially tinged depictions as the Crows in “Dumbo” or the Siamese cats in “Lady and the Tramp,” the company has, in more recent decades, been far less clumsy in its attempts to make amends for such era-specific transgressions. In 1992, the studio released “Aladdin” to a barrage of criticism from Arab-American groups who pointed out skin-tone differences between the lighter good guys and the darker bad guys. Twenty years later, however, Disney’s “Doc McStuffins,” which centers on a young black girl who wants to be a doctor, evoked no criticism at all.
And yet, as the brouhaha surrounding “Sofia the First” points out, Disney execs still have to consider themselves lucky when they release a new character that doesn’t spur controversy. Few media companies stir cultural groups to anger as quickly as the Mouse House -- and not just over race. Just this month, an online petition was launched on Change.org urging the luxury retailer Barneys New York to scrap a new window campaign featuring Minnie Mouse as a super-skinny runway model. The petition, “Leave Minnie Mouse Alone,” has been signed by more than 130,000 people.
Perhaps the criticism -- like the fanfare -- goes with the territory of being one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. Disney can choose to whitewash a princess, but it can’t expect that people won’t notice.