The list of Disney princesses is an exclusive, and predominantly white, club. Of the current lineup of eleven princesses, only four—Tiana, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan—are nonwhite. But Disney is finally admitting a Latina princess to the cabal: Elena of Avalor, the star of a Disney Channel series set to debut on July 22.
The New York Times’ Brooks Barnes, who reported on Elena’s significance earlier this week, notes that improving representation among Disney princesses is a tricky business and asks whether Elena will “run afoul of the princess police”—that is, people who care about the messages princess media send young viewers. “Few matters in entertainment are as fraught as the Disney princesses … Add race and ethnicity, as Disney is increasingly doing with its cartoon heroines, and this is a minefield, especially because animation by its nature deals in caricature,” Barnes writes.
Disney executive vice president Nancy Kanter told Barnes that Disney “wanted to do it right,” and Elena has the seal of approval of the executive director of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. But she’s not exactly revolutionizing the princess industry. Despite Kanter’s assertion that Disney “wanted to make sure that she didn’t have a doll-like appearance,” Elena is, by my estimation, about 40 percent slimmer than the thinnest human being. In light of a recent study showing a correlation between young girls’ interest in Disney princesses and poor body image, this isn’t great news. However, Elena is less passive than princesses of yesteryear: In a trailer for the series, she swordfights, rides horses and mythical winged cats, and proclaims “It’s my job to protect everyone!” when a male suitor complains that she’s not letting him protect her. Elena of Avalor, at the very least, passes the Bechdel test, unlike many other Disney princess stories.
Elena’s arrival on the scene might be more welcome if it didn’t come at the same time that the Disney Junior network is considering cancelling a beloved, and far more revolutionary, show about a nonwhite family, Doc McStuffins. The titular doc is a seven-year-old black girl, Dottie, who runs an imaginary medical clinic for her toys, which come to life when adults aren’t around. Dottie’s mother is a doctor, and her father is a stay-at-home dad; the family adopted a baby girl in a recent storyline. With its low-key representation of a family structure rarely seen on television, and its nonchalant message that of course black woman can be doctors, Doc McStuffins is a show parents love as much as their kids do. “As a parent it just feels like such a win when shows endorse your values without being righteous about it or too on the nose, which kids see through,” says a colleague whose son is a viewer.
When Disney failed to announce the renewal of Doc McStuffins, parents and fans of the show lobbied Disney on social media to keep it on the air. After comedian W. Kamau Bell got the ball rolling with the #RenewDocMcStuffins hashtag, luminaries like Audra McDonald and Roxane Gay voiced their support for the show, along with many other non-famous devotees. Season 4 is due to premiere on July 29 and, according to a statement Disney made to the Huffington Post, “will deliver new episodes through late 2017/early 2018, bringing us to a total of 120 episodes.” But whether Disney will renew Doc McStuffins for a fifth season remains unknown, despite the outcry on social media.
It would be nice if it didn’t feel like Disney devotes promotional resources to only one nonwhite character at a time. Barnes is absolutely right that this area is a “minefield”—but that’s because nonwhite kids’ characters are so rare, not because critics are too tough on them. When Disney already has seven white princesses, it’s inevitable that the first Latina princess will attract scrutiny; she represents the majority of Disney’s representation of Latino people. One show about a Latina princess is not enough. One show about a black girl is not enough. Disney will stop getting scrutinized for each individual character of color when it has dozens of nonwhite characters of all races, ages, genders, sizes, and professions (loosely defined to include princesses and imaginary doctors). No one bats an eye when Disney introduces a new white character—if it wants less flak, it needs to make characters of color just as unremarkable.