The Confined Magic of Disney

Distribution of Disney Princesses. Source: AP Human Geography. (Missing: Merida from Brave,Anna and Elsa from Frozen, Moana from Moana)

Fairy tales are a complicated beast. We tell the stories because they are filled with magic, and Disney has long given its female viewers some characters to look up to. If there’s no magic, there’s no tale. If we are not in awe of flying carpets or talking lions or biscuits that make you suddenly grow, they lack the only thing that sets them apart from any other story.

When you look at the map above, however, you can’t help but wonder what it must take for an audience to be inspired by certain magic. There must be so many tales, so many bedtime stories revolving magic, from places that are beyond Europe or America.

Of course, the above infograph doesn’t include all of the movies that Disney now owns the rights to (both because of their new merge with Pixar and because of the new films they’ve released). In the interest of a fair argument, I’ve included them below. The new map shows films like the Jungle Book, Tarzan, Moana, and the Emperor’s New Groove, which of course display a more diverse cast.

A more in-depth picture of all the Pixar/Disney films, and where they take place. Creator: theantilove on DeviantArt

Let’s just do a little bit of math here. Not counting the six floating bubbles at the bottom, because they’re impossible to place on the map, we have 57 bubbles. 21 come from Europe (36.8%), 10 alone come from England (17.5%). 22 come from America, including Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear, not including A Bug’s Life or the Little Mermaid (38.5%). Total that up, and while America itself might be pretty big, it just seems unfortunate that literally 3/4 of all Disney movies come from two pretty centralized places.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some diversity. I’ve yet to watch the Princess and the Frog, but I know it is based around the African American culture located in New Orleans. Lilo & Stitch likewise highlights a culture that, while technically a part of America, is distinct in its own right. Nor can we forget brilliant, much-loved films set in locations south of the equator, like The Emperor’s New Groove or The Lion King.

That said, there’s no denying the math. The setting of 75% of these Disney movies all come from essentially 3 powerhouse countries: America, England, and France. If there are so many stories in 3 countries alone, imagine how many Disney films we could get by looking at the mythos of the culturally diverse continents of South America and Africa, or the heavily populated countries like China and India.

So when people say “Disney can’t make an ethnically diverse cast in their films because those stories originated in places like England or France, and they’re just casting their characters the way the story implies they should,” I get a little angry. While I hesitate to stand by with diversity simply for diversity’s sake, and personally agree with keeping the character’s traits aligned to match their origin story, I also want to point out that there are so many stories just being left on the table. The point is not that straight white characters shouldn’t be straight white characters (or whatever else the point of contention may be). It’s the fact that only fairy tales centered around straight white characters are given the chance to be told.

It’s like what I’ve said about world-building on multiple occasions: a lot of the time, fantasy writers will stick with a Eurocentric monarchy, with kings and queens and dukes and the like. But when you’re making up a world and it could literally be anything, why stick with a “traditional” trope when there are so many other places to draw inspiration from? It requires research, yes, in order to do those places justice. They may say “write what you know,” but with Google and the ability to connect with so many people from so many different places, you can learn everything, know everything.

I want to know what magical stories other people are telling their kids at night. I want to know their versions of a fairy tale. It will improve the diversity of our Disney cast, and will inspire other creators to include respectful diversity in their own stories, finding new ways to revamp fairy tales and the fantasy genre as a whole.


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