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Issue 17 Out Now

Dehumanization of People of Color in Disney Movies: How Did We Get Here?

© Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

“In my own little corner in my own little chair. I can be whatever I want to be.”

I would sing so loudly in my room, twirling around, trying to gather material to add to a makeshift ball gown because “the prince was having a ball” and I was most definitely invited. It didn’t matter if I was a little black girl with no money, I’m a princess. Those words called out to me as clear as ever-growing up, inspiring me to dream bigger. Even now re-watching Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997) recently added to Disney+ as of February 12th, it still rings true. No matter what circumstances are bestowed upon me, I can still be whatever I want to be. The excitement of watching this movie never leaves my body with each viewing. Yet, that can’t be said for the more recent Disney movies that promise to expand on black representation in their lead characters but rarely do.

Cinderella played by Brandy, a singer with a voice like warm honey, who became a superstar actress starting with the UPN-produced sitcom Moesha, blessed the masses with a full depiction of a black princess way before Princess Tiana in The Princess and the Frog (2009) did. Although originally intended to be played by the late Whitney Houston. Houston felt she aged out of the role and passed the baton, opting to play the Fairy Godmother.

This movie was filled to the brim with diversity, starring Whoopi Goldberg as Queen Constantina, Natalie Desselle as Minerva, Paolo Montalban as Prince Christopher and the multiracial mosaic doesn’t end there. Even the extras showcased a world of different cultures that inhabited the town they lived. Many people especially black girls were able to see themselves represented even down to their hair. Brandy made a point to keep her box braids, Whoopy adorned her locks, and Whitney brought the curly afro sharing the message that from head to toe you are beautiful. This was the result of “colorblind” casting which has its downsides like the lack of exploring how a character navigates in a world that mirrors reality but it sure is a step further than where we are now.

So how did we get from this empowering representation to a falsified version? In 2009 when The Princess and the Frog were released this was to be Disney’s first real black princess and not just a black adaptation. Tiana, voiced by Anika Rose, was an aspiring young chef living in New Orleans in the late 1920s. However, instead of exploring the culture or possible racial dynamic and gender inequality, they turned Tiana into a frog 30 minutes into the movie. Only after hopping around, eating bugs, and singing for an hour is she returned to her human form after true love’s froggy kiss. The reality is our first real black princess was a frog. At first glance this may seem like an innocent mistake and that Disney didn’t truly intend to depict stereotypes that dehumanized people of color but this keeps happening.

Movies like The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Brother Bear (2003), Coco (2017), Soul (2020), and, even outside of Disney, the 20th Century Studios film Spies in Disguise (2019) does the same. There seems to be this need to portray people of color as other than human. Anthropomorphizing non-white characters only to return to themselves at the end of the film. This transformation trope takes away from real representation, real depth, and real storytelling. It’s a way to avoid the issues and challenges tied to the identities of these non-white characters.

When characters of color are turned into animals it brings the not-so-distant trauma of minstrel shows to the forefront. The act of attributing animal-like characteristics to black or brown people is a known cruel way of distinguishing non-whites as inferior, and that having different human qualities is a bad thing. This agenda isn’t something you would think continues to be projected today in a kid's movie, but it happens too often not to call it out.

However, even in the midst, there is hope. With movies like Sony’s Spiderman: Into the Spider Verse (2018), that centers on teenage Miles Morales that becomes the Spiderman of his reality and eventually cross paths with others from different dimensions. The movie’s action-packed nature doesn’t take away from the opportunity to explore who Miles Morales is and his background as a Black and Puerto Rican man growing up in New York.

Other examples like Moana (2016) a Polynesian princess or soon-to-be-released Raya and The Last Dragon (2021) a Southeast Asian heroine creates an opportunity for the representation of people of color to change, but that doesn’t mean we just sit back and wait. As consumers we have power and it’s up to us to use that power to influence what is being produced to force companies like Disney, 20th Century Studios, Pixar, and the myriad of other properties to listen. It is bigger than now, it is about the future. If these companies continue to dehumanize underrepresented communities by constantly classifying people of color as other, how will future generations feel empowered and see themselves in the world they live in?


Tejada, Andrew et al. “Representation Without Transformation: Can Hollywood Stop Changing Cartoon Characters Of Color?”. Tor.Com, 2020, Accessed 24 Feb 2021.

“Brandy On ‘Cinderella’ Finally Coming To Disney Plus: ‘It’S Divine Timing’”. MSN, 2021, Accessed 24 Feb 2021.

“It’S Time We Talked About Animalization Of Black People And Its Severe Repercussions”. Affinity Magazine, 2017, Accessed 24 Feb 2021.

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