Ethnicity in Disney

With the release of Moana, Walt Disney Animation Studios is creating a film with the main characters being of Polynesian descent. This caused me to start thinking about minority portrayals from the company in their lengthy canon. Disney has gotten a lot of heat over racism accusations, and while they have definitely not made it easy on themselves, I do not think they are racist in any sense. If anything, they are ignorant and kind of insensitive when it comes to the portrayal of these ethnic groups. I will go look at the films that consists of ethnic groups, and in this, I will not be looking at animals (another post will come from that), so Dumbo and The Jungle Book (at least when it comes to the monkeys) will not be included.


The first recollection where I recall there being a minority group being portrayed in a WDAS film is Peter Pan, and the infamous “What Makes the Red Man Red” song, with the crew being at the native tribe. What can I say about this……………….why are they so obnoxiously red? I get it that it kind of goes with the song, but it is still insensitive. I get it that it was the early 1950s, but the characterization of these characters should not just be these horrible stereotypes. It is all really unneeded as well, which makes it even more frustrating.


The Jungle Book is the next film to have a minority character in the Disney pantheon, but…… you can barely notice it. I have to say that there is not much to critique…. since Mowgli is such a bland character to begin with, he has never interacted with humans to know his Indian heritage, and is used as a prop more than anything else in the film. He is also voiced by a caucasian person, which is another point to add.


There is a gap within 3 decades, and over 10 films until we get to our next minority characters, which is………. Aladdin. A lot has been said about the portrayal of Arabs in this film, and I am not going to lie; they could have done better, and been a bit more sensitive. We know about the infamous lyrics in “Arabian Nights”, and the city structure of Agrabah has some Western touches in it. There has been the common complaint that the two main characters look a lot more Caucasian than the rest of the characters, who are either evil, or overly brash……. Personally, I have seen Arab people who look like Aladdin and Jasmine, and they do seem to have a similar skin tone as the other characters in the film, so they are not significantly lighter. There is also the fact that the entire cast is voiced by Caucasians instead of Middle Easterns. I hate how they completely Americanized every aspect in the film though.


The next film that represents minorities is Pocahontas, which many people see as problematic, but for the opposite reason compared to Aladdin. Native Americans are always a touchy subject to talk about, and to portray especially because what is known has been told through the colonizer’s view, and there is not many natives who currently reside in our Euro-centric society. From what I have seen, people have issues with the portrayal of natives in this film because it makes them seem obsessed with nature-like magic, and are perfect beings without any personality. The land geography of 1607 Virginia was heavily romanticized to make the landscape look “more interesting” compared to the realistic physical geography of the area. On the other hand of the spectrum, there have been complaints that the movie made the conflict seem like it was half their fault, when in reality, it wasn’t. I don’t think they were outright trying to be offensive, but the small details became huge issues.


Many people may not see this next group as a minority group, but I am including it. Esmeralda (and Quasimodo) represent the gypsies in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. There is some controversy about the film involving the accuracy compared to the book, and the portrayal of religion, but I have heard nothing about the portrayal of the Romani group in the film. I do not know if this is because a lot of people do not know much about them to make that critique, but it is never mentioned. Quasimodo is completely removed from his Romani heritage due to his mother being murdered, and being locked in Notre Dame, while Esmeralda embraces her culture with such strength and pride. From what we see of the gypsy culture, they are a very tight-knit group, who do have their own customs and beliefs, and while they are demonized, we do see some positive traits. Maybe there is not much discussion about this because the film portrays the group better than common knowledge.


I was debating about whether I should include Hercules in this, but I decided to because it was emphasized how different the ancient Greek setting of the film was different from what the company is used to regarding setting. What we know about this film regarding Ancient Greek history is that like Pocahontas, it was completely distorted and largely ignored to fit a more modern setting and perspective. It is interesting because much of the “Western” society is based off Ancient Greece, but a lot of the setting was upgraded so it could be more modern regarding the mythology and politics. I think most of this has to do with the need to add more humor, puns, and references into the film. I think it is fair to say that Megara does not act like a woman who would live in Ancient Greece. She is not domesticated in any sense, and while she is privatized, it is not because of her duty to become a wife or a mother, but to be a slave to Hades. Hercules was focused on being a superhero in the film, and being a superhero was seen as being a celebrity in the film. Usually, men were involved in politics or the military, so it would have been more interesting if he became a hero in that sense. His arc was a parody of Rocky, Superman, and Michael Jordan.
The Chinese are the main focus in Disney’s next film, which is Mulan. Looking at the poem Hua Mulan, research states that the era the legend takes place in is the Northern and Southern dynasty (420-589 A.D.). What I found was that this dynasty is seen as one that flourished Buddhism to what it is today, a lot of scripture writing took place, and the dress code seems accurate enough. The big inaccuracy is that the Imperial City did not come into existence until the 1400s, which was around a millennium after the era of Hua Mulan. Many people did not like how they did not delve deeper into the culture of China at the time, but they tried a lot more than their past efforts. There was a strong emphasis on honor and respecting your elders, and they did add the touch of ancestors, so it could have been a lot worse.
We skip 2 years to see our next minority representation in the form of Peruvians in The Emperors New Groove. I have yet to hear ANY complaints about the portrayals of Peruvians, and something tells me because the film is humorous, so it means they are allowed to get away with a lot more because it is funny. Outside of the main character being named Kuzco (based off the city Cusco in Peru), the strong presence of llamas, and the architecture, there is no mention whatsoever of the culture and minority group throughout the entire film. At the same time, there is a lack of american or Eurocentric references in regards to culture, hierarchical structure, character appearance, etc. None of the characters who are voiced in the film are not of Peruvian or Hispanic descent.
Lilo & Stitch covered the native Hawaiians in the island of Hawaii. There is not a lot to discuss with this because it seemed like the company learned their lesson from Pocahontas, and consulted with the Hawaiians that voiced the characters about the culture and traditions. It was a lot easier because the film was set in modern day Hawaii, so there was still a lot of modern day storytelling, references, and culture of America that was also infiltrated, so I think the film captured the culture as well as the modern day sanctions of North America well.
I almost forgot to include Brother Bear in this. One of the reasons are that our main characters barely spend any time in the film on their tribe. What we learn about the Inuit lifestyle is that they have rituals that are a rite of passage for them to grow up, the clothes they wear and the tools used are pretty accurate. We learn a lot more about the tribe and the cultural from a historical perspective than just magic, and they explain the spirits in this film. From what we see, this film takes place before the Europeans arrive, since there is no mention or sight of them anywhere in the film. We get the Eskimo kiss, and other signs that shows that they learned from Pocahontas, and did research on the culture.
The next film is The Princess and the Frog, which depicts African Americans in 1920s New Orleans. For obvious reasons they could not go in depth about the racial issues going on at the time, but they did not outright ignore it either. There is a few comments made towards Tiana that her background has some influence in the fate that has befallen on her. The main criticism I hear about the film regarding race is that the film does not focus enough on the racist implications of the time period. This one is dicey, but I think that as soon as they set the setting in the 1920s, it was only a matter of time for controversy to surface.
With Big Hero 6, there is not much to say at all, but the main family of the film has Japanese heritage. It is rare to have an inter-racial family (the Hamadas are half Japanese, and half Caucasian), so it would have been more interesting to dive into that aspect, but….. most of the family is dead, and the Aunt gets no focus. Like Lil0 & Stitch, since the film takes place in modern day, we learn little to nothing about the culture of the setting, or the culture of the ethnicity of the characters in the film. This is also the most diverse cast of the entire canon, which is neat.
In conclusion, I will say this. When portraying minority groups, or should I say the cultures of said minority groups, there are essential details that are missing compared to how things actually were for that time frame. Were some of these differences made so it will be easier to relate to Americans? Maybe. Is there anything blatantly racist or prejudice against these groups of people? Outside of the Peter Pan reference, I honestly do not see it.

11 thoughts on “Ethnicity in Disney

  1. Disney has actually way more diversity in the movies than any other animation studio, but it is also the biggest one, so it gets the most flag…I once did the math and figured out that if you remove the package movies and the movies which feature only animals, one third of the human lead characters Disney has created are PoCs and a high percentage of them are female.

    1. I’m gonna cover ethnicity/race in Pixar and DreamWorks in the next few weeks, but Disney does catch most of the blame. From what I’ve noticed, there is a lot more PoC females than males. Disney has covered a lot through the ages, and it’s always so interesting to look into.

      1. Yeah. I was thinking about the list, and most of them were traditionally animated. It is rare for humans to have a specific culture or ethnicity in their CGI films. Rarely gets any focus.

  2. Wow, didn’t realize all the different ethnicities they’ve done! I honestly don’t feel Aladdin and its characters represent Arabs. I feel they’re kinda a mix of Arabs and Indians, maybe somewhere in the middle, like Persian culture? That’s just me.

    And for us Caribbean people, we only have Sebastian the Crab, lol!

  3. I’ll always hate these discussions. Where’s the manual that says how an ethinicity is being potrayed well? We’re humans too. We do good and bad things. Sometimes we don’t have a “voice” that matches up with what you would expect from us. We don’t talk a lot in our normal life about how “ethnic” we are.
    I’m from south america and I give a shit of how much accurate the emperor’s new groove is to us. We want to be seen as normal people in animated movies, not as aliens that must be potrayed well or else we will invade your galaxy. I agree that most of these movies have done a good job of potraying other cultures. Mulan, Kuzco, Elsa, Mowgli, Alice, all fell relatable to me.
    I dream of a world where race doesn’t matter. A character with dark skin, asian eyes, red hair, and an european voice as the protagonist of a film set in current-day Canada is still as valid as anyone else.

    1. Hello.

      It would be nice if race doesn’t matter, but for some reason, it does, and many people feel a way about it. Personally, I am kind of neutral to the issue, but a lot of people really get in their feelings about how people are portrayed. As long as they are good characters who are relatable than that is what should matter.

  4. I love this post, because many people seem to forget that Disney is the animation studio that makes the most films about cultures of ethnic minorities in the US (I say US because if we’re talking worldwide, Chinese aren’t minorities).
    Also, if we’re going to include Hercules, you can also count in Beauty and the Beast, set in French, but not entirely accurate. Also, count in British in lots of animated films as well (Peter Pan, King Arthur, etc). Not sure if Frozen counts as well, since Frozen is culturally Scandinavian, especially Norway, and Kristoff is confirmed to be an ethnic minority that exists in Scandinavia.
    Anyway, I bet Moana will be the first one that they’ll nail the culture perfectly. And as a Chinese myself, I’m hoping they do complete historical accuracy in terms of architecture and fashion for the new live action of Mulan, because the original, while one of my favorites, is not entirely accurate. Her attire has becomes extremely Westernized when modified for the Disney Princess lineup also.

    1. Hey tt.

      I was very touchy with what to include for minority characters, but I included Hercules and not some of the others, since it is common for Disney to interpret French and British culture. I will probably do a post regarding how accurate the French and English culture was interpreted in those films as well. Honestly, I forgot about Frozen, but I will definitely cover it at some point. There were so many groups that I almost forgot to include some that I did, but clearly left out some others.

      I never knew you were Asian; that is very cool to know about. Her outfit for sure has become very westernized for the franchise. Honestly, all of the Disney Princesses were westernized in the merchandise.

  5. Disney did research for Pocahontas but ignored a lot of it because of what they wanted to do. This is similar what they do with their fairytale films that do have research to certain era behind them you can kind of see but mostly Disney did what they liked. The issue with Pocahontas is that she was a real person and the relationship with Native Americans is really kind of touchy already.

    There is also Atlantis but it does not oviously feature a real group. But I suppose it should be added since Disney could have made Atlanteans white and chose not to. But it is kind of problematic that they do need to be saved as well. And the film incudes the first latina charcater in Disney and first black guy who is also Native American. So the team is pretty unreasiticaly multicultural (and why did Audrey need to be so young?).

    I think other animated studios should be criticized more for lack of Diversity if Disney gets so much attention. And it is good that Disney never gave up on different cultures even if they got criticized and it would probably have been easier. If Disney had chosen bigger groups like Latinos and Indians maybe their efforts would be more noticed than with the gypsies and Arabs.

    1. I was going to include Atlantis, but there was no distinction about what group they resembled, since I know production went out of their way to create a new language for them. The closest was Meditteranean, but did not know which country. I wanted the post to focus on a group of people, and since Audrey and Dr. Sweet were barely referenced throughout the film, I left it out. Proud of Atlantis though for its multicultural cast.

      There are so many conflicting thoughts with Pocahontas. Apparently the Powhatan people reached out to the studio, but they declined, while the studio claimed that they did a lot of research, and did have some assistance. It was just a way too sensitive topic for them to not get away with the inaccuracies.

      There will be posts about some of the other studios and how they portray (or don’t portray) ethnicity in their films. It will be interesting to see what comes up. Thanks for the comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s