Images of Animated Others: The Orientalization of Disneys Cartoon

Copyright В© 2(X)4. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Inc.
Images of Animated Others:
The Orientalization of Disney's Cartoon
Heroines From The Little Mermaid to
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Celeste Lacroix
College of Charleston
Because of Ihc success of thc lirsl six animated feature tllms produced in thc "new
era" of Disney anitiiation {The Little Mermaid. 1989; licmity auit thc Beast. 1991;
Aladdin. 1993: The Lion King. 1994; Pocah(mta.s. 1995; Thc Hunchback of Not re
Dame. 1996) and their mas.s merehandising. Disney animated characters became
ubiquilotis for children ofthe I9';()s. Although Bell. Haas, and Sells (199^) stiggestcd lliat Disitey films present a "sanitization nf violence, sexuality, and politieal
struggle concomitant with an erasure or repression of difference" (p. 7), an increasing emphasis on sexuality and Ihe exotic is evident in ihe construction of Ihe fetiiale
heroines in these ftltns. particularly in Ihe female charactersof color. This article analyzes what may be referred to in Said's (197^) terminology as the (n-iciualizafion of
women of eolorin live six Disney anitiialed fihns and posits how representations of gender and cultural differenee operate within Disney's consumerJst
frameuork. which provides "dreams and products througii forms of popular culture
in which kids are willing to materially and emotionally invest" (Giroux. 1999. p. 89).
Using a critical lens. 1 interrogate thc unity of images regarding gender and race that
these Disney lexts offer and the way.s in which these meanings operate within the
larger socio-historieal framework regarding women of color and the notion of Whitc-
On an early summer day in June 1994,1 sat in my local movie theater awaiting the
area's premier showing of the most recent Disney animated release at that time.
The Lion King. 1 was a bit stattled when, before the ftlm had even begun, before the
trailers had even heen shown, a toddler in the row in front of me hegan shouting
Requests lor reprints should he sent lo Celeste Laeroix, DepartmenI of Communication. College of
Charleston. Geori-e Street. Charleston. SC 29424. E-mail: lacroixcy'
with glee that she (and I, I suppose) was about "to get to see Timon!!" Had I known
who Timon was. I prohahly would have heen more bctnused than amused, but at
that time 1 was unaware of The Lion King ehataeters and their names. The young
audience memher in front of me, however, was all too aware. It heeame apparent
that she knew the major characters before ever having seen the film; she knew them
from seeing them pictured oti tie-in products in stores and from videocassette trailers, seeing them again and again in ihe months prior to The Lion King's opening in
all of Disney's prerelease advertising and merchandising. And she had gotten the
message. Not only the message that introduced the characters ofthe Him to her. but
the one that told her she would enjoy them. too. As a critic thinking buck on that
day, I became distressed at what I thought the child (who was prohahly three or
four) had already learned ahout her relationship with the Disney anitnatcd film.
Critical theorist Henry Giroux (1999) wrote that as a father of young boys, he
found himself beginning to question some accepted assumptions ahout the "innoeence" and "'wholesome" fun of animated films (p. S.^). He commented:
h became clear to me that the relevance of sueh fi!m.s exceeded the boundaries of entertainment. Needless to say. the significance of animated films operates on many
registers, but one ofthe most persuasive is the role they play as the new "teaching machines." (Giroux. 1996. p. 90)
Disney films, in partieular. "combine an ideology of enchantment and aui a of innocence in narrating stories that help children understand who they are, what societies are about." (p. 90) as well as equipping them to consume Disney films and
products appropriately. Giroux concluded that as he viewed Disney atiimation hoth
at the theater and on video he "became aware of how necessary it was to move beyond treating these tllms as transparent entertainment and to questioning the diverse representations and messages that constitute Disney's conservative view of
the world" (p. 91). I coticur. I too am concerned with the rcpresentatiotis in Disney
films, particularly those in the overwhelmingly popular, and now. "classic" animated films, like The Lion King, whose images and representations are marketed
to children through both the films themselves and the massive markeling of
spin-off products and merchandise.' and whose cultural legitimacy and authority
goes largely unquestioned. Whereas some authors suggest that thc Disney films'
"tradetnarked innocence operates on a systematic sanitization of violence, sexuality, and political struggle concomitant with an erasure or repression of differetice"
(Bell et al.. 1995, p. 7), I argue here that an increasing emphasis on sexuality atul
tiie exotic is evident in the construction of Ihe female heroines in thc films beginning with The Little Mermaid and culminating with Thc Hunchback of Notre
'A segmeni on National Publie Radio reported that spin-off toys and souvenirs from The tJon
alone accounted for SI billion in sales ("Tbe merehandising." 1995).
21 5
Dame, particularly in the female characters of color. As a feminist media eritie, I
am specifically interested in the representations of women in popular culture as a
whole, but because of the pervasive presence in children's culture ofthe characterizations and images from Disney animated films. I have chosen to focus on several
of that cotnpany's "blockhuster" feature-length animated fihns. This article, then.
analyzes what may be referred to in Said's (1978) terminology as the
orientalization of women of color in five of the six Disney animated films- produced frotn the late 1980s to the early 1990s and posits how these representations
of gender and cultural differenee operate within Disney's consumerist framework.
which provides "dreams and products through fotms of popular culture in which
kids are willing to materially and ctnotionally invest" (Giroux, 1999, p. 89). Following Williams (1994)-\ this article attempts to look
both at the text and beyond it: al it. in order to see bow it creates its own unity, to establisb the "class of trutli" which determines its meaning; beyotid it. because it is not
an isolated object, bul part, and produet, of a combination of soeio-historical forees.
(p. 482)
Thtough this lens. I conimetit on hoth the unity of images regarding gender and
race these Disney texts offer and the ways in which these meanings may operate
within the larger socio-historical framework regarding women of color and the notion of Whiteness.
Power belongs to .s/he who succeeds, in the rat (extermination) race, to consume most
before(/while) being consumed. (Minh-ha. 1989, p. 108)
In the summer of 1996. The Walt Disney Company released the Him. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was, then, the most recent addition to the company's
collection ofhiockbiistcranitnated features. Although it met with mixed critical review (Strauss. 1996). The Hunchback}O\ncii a scries of much baMyhooed and excessively merchandised and marketed Disney animated films for children. Sinee
-In tbis uriicle. I limil my analysis to those recent Disney animated films (from ihe Disney animation group under the leadership of Miehael Eisner) that feature himians as the central characters, as I am
concerned with the representation of women. For that reason. 1 have omitted Thc Lion Kiii^ from my
analysis. Although one couid make an argument for ineluding anthropomoiphized female animal characters like Nala. part of my analysis centers on the iconography physical characteristics of the lieroines.
and tluis. makes inclusion problematic.
-HVilliams (1994) grounded his theoretieal assumptions lor this approach on those posited by Pierre
Macherey in A Theory ofLileraiy Production (as eited in Wiiiiams. 1994).
1989. when the newly revitalized Disney animation division-' produced The Little
Mermaid, the company had seen huge profits in ticket sales and even greater profits through thc synergistic inarketing of related products.-"^ Because ofthe success
of these first six contemporary Disney animated features {The Little Mennaid,
1989: Beauty and the 1991; Aladdin, 1993: The Lion King. 1994;
Pocahontas. 1995; The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 1996), the Disney animated
cartoon became as ubiquitous for children of the !99()s as it was for those of us
who grew up at the height of classic Disney, in the day oi Snow White. Cinderella,
Pinocchio, and Sleeping Beauty. Furthennore, a whole new generation of young
children have become acquainted with the casts of characters and plots of these
"new classic" family films through their broadcast on cable television and. in some
cases, their re-release to theatres. But it is precisely thc pervasiveness of Disney's
presence as a purveyor of wholesome children's fare that has caused some film,
feminist, and cultural critics to view both the old and new Disney products with
greater scrutiny.
Bel! et al. (1995) critiqued the assumption that the Disney product is "safe for
children," arguing that it is the supposed innocence of the product that seems almost to repel scrutiny (p. 4). What might tiot be considered innocent, for instance,
is the way in which, as Snioodin (1994) explained. "'Disney constructs childhood
so as to make it entirely compatible with consutiierism" (p. 18). Giroux (1995.
1996, 1997, 1999) interrogated the consumerist framework that surrounds and pervades Disney texts and argued that "Disney's pretense to innocence is shattered under the weight of a promotional culture predicated on the virtues of ftin. innocence,
and, most importantly, consumption" (Giroux, 1995. p. 47). Following de Cordova
(as cited in Giroux, 1999), he pointed out how—by merchandising toys, video
games, soundtracks, books, clothes, bedding, pany supplies, children's dishes,
jewelry, and (literally) countless other tie-in products. Ono and Bueschcr (2001)
deseribed the experience of heing "satutated by a field of products" (p. 30) in their
analysis ofthe massive marketing and cross-marketing campaign that accompanied the release of Disney's Pocahontas. and. they argued, viewers hoth materially
and "metaphorically consume" the marketed products and images from thc film (p.
"'Flower (1991) and Johnston and Thomas (1993) provided accotints ofthe near-disastrous 20-ycar
"slump"" experienced by (he animation division from tbe 1966 death of Walt Disney until newly appointed CEO Michael Eisner brought produeer Jeffrey Katzenberg and othernew talent on board in the
-^Synergy is the marketing term for Ihe concept of total merchandishig tliat Walt Disney "invented"
(Anderson. 1994. p. 71; see also Wasko, 2001, p. 126). hi the 1950s Walt Disney used a deul with ABC
television to finanee the construction of Disneyland, his dream park. In return, Disney produced a
l-hour weekly television program aptly named Disneyland. This television program "'piovided Disney
with what amounted to an hour-long commercial for both die eompatiy's theatrical Illms and the parks"
(Flower. 1991. p. 19). In other woids, eaeh Disney product worked as advertising for olher Disney products. Beeause the television show foeiised on Disney films and the cotistrucdon of the park (and laler
28). Thereby, Disney successfully connects "the rituals of consumption and
movie-going" in their animated films so as to "provide a "marketplace of culture'"
(Giroux, 1996, p. 97). Children in this marketplace can buy (into), not only the fun
ofthe films themselves and the "fairytale" lives ofthe characters in them, but also
can come very close to. at least materially, recreating those "lives" in their own living rooms.
As Miller and Rode (1995) pointed out, "these cartoon visions"—and I would
add the hundreds of products that leproduce their imagery—"make crucial contributions to (children's) most inipottant discourses of the self (p. 86), and discourses regarding others. Giroux (1996) commented;
The role that Disney plays in shaping individual identities and controlling fields of
social meaning ihrough whieh ehildren negotiate the world is far too complex to be
simply set aside as a form of reactionary politics. If educators and other cultural
workers are 10 include the culture of ehiidren as an itiiportant site of contestation and
struggle, ihen it becomes imperative to analyze how Disney's animated filtns powerfully influence the way America's cultural landscape is imagined, (p. 96)
To accomplish this goal relative to the representation of women in The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas.. and The Hunchback of Notre
Dame. I focus my textual analysis on the eonstruction of their respective female
heroines: Ariel. Bel le. Jasmine. Pocahontas, and Esmeralda. As John Fiske (1987)
suggested, such characters warrant critical attention because they are not "just representations of individual people but are encodings of ideology, 'embodiments of
ideological values'" (p. 9). In particular, the representation of gender and race and
a pattern of increasing orientalization reveal themselves in the characters' physical
characteristics and this series of films' iconography, in the personality traits of
each heroine, and in the development ofeach character's love relationships in the
Walt Disney World in Florida), it served as a constant reminder lo the audienee of other Disney products. At the park, auractions were built as recreations of Disney tnovie sets, and Disney cartoon eharaeters populated the "Kingdom." As Flower explain.s. "each element—the parks, the movies, and Ihe felevision show—gained energy and interest and form from the other two. Il all tied together"" (p. 19).
Michael Eisner did recently revive The Wonderful World of Disney, but even more important. Disney now has the powerful marketing tool. The Disney Channel, an entire eable network hrojideastiiig 24
hours a ilay. 7 days a week.
The contemporary animated films are also aj;grc.ssively marketed synergislieally jirimarily with
produeis decorated with characters and scenes from the features (see. e.g.. Ono & Biiescher's. 2001.
disctissioii of the marketing campaign for Pocahontas). Fisher (1994) reported, as well, of the overwhelming success of the animated films and the related produets that contributed to the estimated $1.1
billion net ineome seen by Disney in 1994 (p. 4).
From "forget who you are and forget me not" to "know who you are and copy me
not." Ihe point of view is thc same: "Be like us." The goal pursued is the .spread ofa
hegemonic dis-ease. Don't be us, this self-explanatory motto warns. Just be like and
bear thc chameleon's faie. never infecting us but only yourself, spendiitg your days
muting, putting on/taking off glasses, trying to please all and always al odds with itiyselfwhoistioselfatall.(Minh-ha. 1989. p. 52)
In critiquing the representations of female characters in film, he they children's animated films or adult live-action features, one always contends with thc criticism
that that critic may be suggesting that there is one definitive reading of the text.
This analysis intends not to assign a singular meaning to the Disney texts discussed
here hut, rather, builds on Ciroux's (1996) view that "the dominant assumptions
that structure these films carry enormous weight in restricting the number of cultural meanings that can be brought to bear on them, especially when the intended
audience is tnostly children" (p. 100). In the case of Disney, the representations of
women have long been restricted. Numerous filtn and feminist critics have noted
the paucity of numbers of roles, the types of characters, and the limited agency of
Disney female charactei's in both past and recent Disney films.'' However, in these
animated features, a pattern is evident with regard to the settings and heroine characters that increasingly emphasizes the exotic, the foreign and the sexual.
Following Said (1978). Kray (1993) suggested that just as Europeans or men
construct themselves as civilized, rational, and objective, by "distancing and
'exoticising' the non-European other. American society constructs itself as objective, rational, and civilized hy its "orientalization' of tninority wotiicn" (p. 353).
Through this definition ofthe other, then. Whiteness is also revealed and defined as
the invisible hut all-too-poweiful center in relation to which thc margin is positioned. Nakayama and Krizek (1995) wrote that as a discursive space
White is a relatively uncharted territory that has remained invisible as it continues to
inlluence the identity of those both within and without its domain. Il affects the ev''Bell et al. Il99.*i) edited an excellent volume of critiques of Disney texts in t^rom to Mermaid: The t'olitics ofFitm, Gender, ami Ciillioe. In particular. BclTs article. "Somatexts at tbe Disney
Shop" offers a detailed look at the three primary female roles depicted in Disney animated tllms and the
palterns in physieal characteristics, personality, and iconography, which was exiremety helpful to this
article. {For other analyses of Disney's vision of women in the animated fdnis. see Aidman. 1999; Bird.
1999: Bucscher& Ono. 1996: Downey. 1996; Fdgerton & Jaekson. I99fi; Girotix. 1995. 1997. 1999;
Hasii. 1995; Henke & Umble. 1999: Henke. Umble. & Smilh, 1996: Hoeirner. 1996; Jeffords, 1995:
MuH'hy. 1995: O"Brien. 1996: Ono & Buescher. 200!: Saidar. 2002: Sells. 1995: Swan. 1999: Wasko.
eryday fabric of our live.s but resists, sometimes violently, any extensive characterization that would allow for the tiiapping of its contours, (p. 291)
Dyer (2003) also argued that, although there has been a significant focus on the
analysis of racial imagery' in media in past decades, there has not heen comparable
attcittion to the cotistruction of Whiteness, interrogating the invisibility of Whiteness and. further, exposing the construction of Whiteness, are necessary critical
enterprises. This task is to render the invisible visible.
Nakayama and Krizek (1999) argued that through the process of "patticularizing white experience." critics explore the "rhetorical character" of Whiteness (p.
91). Media images of White characters, including those of animated characters,
contribute to the centering of White experience as normal and natural. To de-center
Whiteness, critics must intetrogate those commonplace, take n-for-g ran ted constructions of Whiteness in media texts, especially those as ubiquitous as the Disney
animated films. In so doing, we can then "challenge whiteness hy calling attention
to its veiy specificity" (Projansky & Ono, 1999, p. 156). Thus, through a critical
textual analysis of both the White heroines and thc women of color with regard to
physical representation and iconography, character traits, and the development of
love relationships, this article explores the Disney construction of hoth Whiteness
and Color in five Disney animated fihns.
Physical Traits, Costuming, and Iconography
In ttacing the progression ofthe physical presentation of fetnale heroines in these
Disney fihns. one cati chart a movement toward increasingly physieal (and sexual)
tnaturity. The White characters. Ariel and Bel le, appear as teenagers; their youthful
appearance and personality (noted in the followingdiscussion) bespeak a relative innocence in their demeanor both socially and romantically. Bell (1995) recounted the
details of the Disney animators' use of live mode!. Sherri Stoner. Stoner's small
frame (5'2". 95 pounds) is reflected in the physique ofthe active, yet delicate young
women in the plotlincs of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and thc Although
we see Ariel shot as an active character in scenes in the land ofthe tner-peoplc. once
she makes it to land she is far less physically active. Belle remains, for thc most patt,
thc least active ofthe five characters. Both Ariel and Belle are physically presented as
slender and capable, but far less athletic than later characters, especially Pocahontas.
Although their physiques are similar in part from the use ofthe same model, a notable
differetice between Ariel and Belie is the way in which their hair is conslrttcted. Belle
sports a conservative hair fashion, tied back on her head, whereas several scenes etnphasizc the fullness and length of Ariel's loose mane. In sum. both characters., al'Dyer (200.1) used thc terms race and racial "in the most eommon although problematie sense, referring to supposedly visibly differentiable. supposedly discrete social groupings"' {p. 29).
though strong-willed, are constructed with the classic porcelain skin tone and delicate features of earlier Disney heroines like Snow White and Princess Aurora of
Sleeping Beauty and. despite a tnorc active physical presence than their early counterparts, continue to he drawn with tiny waists, small breasts, slender wrists, legs,
and arms, and still move with the fluidity and grace of thc hallet mode! used for the
older Disney animated films (Bell, 1995).
By contrast, Jasmine of Aladdin posed problems for the Disney animators.** Her
skin tone is appropriately darker for the Middle Eastern setting ofthe story. Yet.
she retains many White features, such as a delicate nose and small mouth. Jasmine
differs from Ariel and Belle in the size and shape of her eyes. Probably the most
notable physical feature of this character is the overly latge (for the rest ofthe face)
almond-shaped eyes. Other than skin tone, this feature appears to he the only
signifier of racial difference. In terms of the body. Jasmine, although still
small-waisted. is "filmed" in more active sequences and appears, through both the
physical presence and activity in scenes, more athletic.
The pattern of the small, delicate frame ends with Aladdin. Pocahontas generated a number of cntical responses'* among film critics. One of the mosl talked
about elements of this characterization was a physique that reflected a body structure comparable to that of a B^irbie Doll, or supermodel, that seemed wholly inconsistent with thc 12-year-old girl of historical fact (see Edgerton & Jcickson. 1996;
or Valdez. 1995). Again, PocahonttLv is drawn with large almond shaped eyes and
features that were actually modeled from an Asian Amencan actress'** (Wasko.
2001). But it is Pocahontas'hody that is the most compelling feature of her physical depiction. The Disney animators. Valdez (1995) reported, wanted to emphasize
Pocahontas' athleticism, and cettainly thc character is shot itt far more active
scenes than any of her three predecessors. She is seen running, moving always
nimbly through the forest, and, in one scene, diving from a cliff in perfect form. In
many ways, particularly when compared to Ariel and Belle, Pocahontas appears to
he almost an Amazon. She is tall, has long, strong legs, and a developed bust. She
retains, however, the slender waist like the others, which adds to the overall mature
and voluptuous look of the character. Hair plays an important roie in the iconography of Poeahontas as well. The stereotype of Native Americans' unique relation(1995) recounted how Disney animators argued over the "length of noses, color of the skin,
and sbape of eyes" of botb Jasmine and Aladdin (p. 122).
''A number ol" critical analyses (Aidman. 1999: Bird, 1999: Bueschcr & Ono, 1996; t^dgenon &
Jaekstin. 1996; Giroux. ! 997. 1999: Henke & Umble. 1999: Henke et al.. 1996: Ono & Uiiescher. 2001:
Sardar. 2002) have interrogated the construetion of Poeahonias and the image of Native American female idenlily thc Him presents.
'"AhhoLigh Edgerton and Jaekson (1996) reported thai the supervising animator for Pocahontas
drew on four different women for inspiration in rendering the character, ineluding supermodel Christy
Turlington, there is some eontroversy as lothis point. Aidman (1999) reported that it was supermodels
Iman and Kate Moss along with previous animated characters that were the inspiration.
ship with nature is evident in Pocahontas' relationship with animals, the trees, the
water, and the wind—which we see blowing frequently through thc character's
hair. Pocahontas. like Ariel, is frequently shot with her hair as a focal point.
Esmeralda, the darkest in skin tone of all the characters, reflects the trend toward increasing etnphasis on physical maturity and sexuality. Although smaller in
frame than Pocahontas. Esmeralda retains thc athleticism and strength ofthe previous character. She is also frequently shot in active sequences that emphasize the
physicai rather than the delicate frame that we sec particularly in Belle. Like
Pocahontas. Esmeralda appears voluptuous when compared to Ariel and Belle.
She. like Poeahontas. appeals to he a woman, not a girl. Her eyes and hair are highlighted in the shots as in the iconography of Pocahontas. Esmeralda's physique atid
activity appears to be the culmination ofa pattern toward increasing physical maturation and strength in the films that seems to position the characters on a spectrum
of activity and sexual/physical maturation where thc White women occupy the
least active and mature bodies, whereas the wotnen of color are represented as both
physically mature and athletic.
Costuming also adds to the differentiation between the White characters and the
women of color. The physical body is more greatly etnphasized hy thc costuming
ofthe women of color. Although Ariel is costumed as a mermaid with the seashell
brassiere, once she becomes a human woman, she is attired in the dress ofthe western romantic period of the late 1700s. with full-length dresses much the satne as
Belle wore in Beauty and the Beast. These costumes, taken with the delicate physical features of the characters, offer a tnore ttaditional iconog!"aphy of the Disney
heroine, in keeping with their fairytale predecessors tioted previously, and bespeak
more conservative and romantic images ofthe feminine heroine.
Jasmine's costuming emphasizes the Middle Eastern influence of the setting of
Aladdin and depicts Jasmine in a more sexualized light. The harem-esque look of
her off-the-shoulder, cut-at-the-midriff blouse calls to mind some of the iconography associated with thc orientalization of Middle Eastern women that Said (1978)
and Alloula (1986) noted. Although Jasmine's physique and physical activity work
less to promote an overt eroticization of the character, the costuming accentuates
the physical far more than does the costuming of thc two White chat"acters and
plays into Western cultural notions ofthe Orient through the referencing ofthe itnagery of the harem and the associated exotic, sexual stereotypes.
In Pocahontas. as well, the eostuming references the character's ethnicity, but is
ultimately constructed in such a way as to privilege physical characteristics. The dubious historical accuracy ofthe costuming and the fashioning of Pocahontas' dress
relative to other native dress in thcfilmlead one to believe the choices were strategic.
As in Jasmine's costume, the shoulders arc almost hare. and. although the dress doesn't reveal the midriff, the slit ofthe skirt shows much ofthe thigh, particulariy in the
active scenes. Unlike the rather detnure dressing of the White characters, both Jasmine and Pocahontas' dress draw attention to the physical hody.
Finally, the costuming in The Hunchback of Notre Dame offers what may he the
epitome of the exotic/sexual. Esmeralda. the gypsy daneer. is also attired in dresses
that rcfiect a stereotype of her ethnic background. These costumes, like those of
her two predecessors, hare her shoulders. Hers, howevet; also offers a plunging
bust line that emphasizes the cleavage. Additionally, her dance costume is drawn
with a skin-tight look that reveals the "cut" of her abdomen and her tiny waist.
Whereas thc physicai appearance differentiates thc characters of color from the
White heroines, the iconographic choices in the films also work to sexuaiize and
exoticize Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Esmeralda. As noted previously, the physique
is incteasingly emphasized through scenes of physical activity in the later fihns.
However, the most notable element in terms of the iconography is the increasing
use of the extreme close-up on the later charactcis. Jasmine—and especially
Pocahontas and Esmeraida—:ire shown frequentiy in extremely tight shots of their
faces. Beyond the emphasis that these shots place on the oversized eyes ofthe characters, this iconography promotes the gaze on them both by the viewer and the
other characters (particularly men) in thc filtns. The use of this technique is most
obvious in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which numerous shots show male
characters, paiticularly Phoebus and Frolio, looking at Esmeralda. She is the object of the gaze of both the audience and thc characters.
There appears here, much as in thc physical traits, to be an increasing focus
on the body in the characters of color. Whereas the costuming of these characters reflects stereotypical itnages of each woman's ethnicity, the overall effect.
taken with the increasing voluptuousness of the characters, works to represent
the White characters as more detnure and conservative, while associating the
women of color with the exotic and sexual. As Hoerrner (1996) pointed out. the
early characters (read White), Ariel and Belle, are weaker, more pristine, and
largely incapable of action, whereas the later heroines, ail women of color, are
depicted in such a way as to emphasize their hodies and physicality. The reader
is encouraged, through this privileging of the body and the physical in the rendering of thc physique and costuming, to look at Jasmine, Pocahontas, and
Esmeralda in different and more voyeuristic manner than thc White heroines.
They embody the exoticized Other woman—one whose sexualized presence is
privileged above all else.
By examining each of these elements ofthe character's construction, we can begin to draw sotne conclusions regarding the representation ofthe female leads in
these films. Each ofthe elements noted previously operates to locate the female
characters in very particular cultural positions. The elements of physique, costuming, and iconography construct a representation of the White women as rotnantic,
delicate, and demure, whereas the women of color are depicted as physical, ethnic,
and exotic/sexual. As Kray (1993), following Alloula (1986). pointed out. the female Other is frequently depicted "through the lens of a distorted sexuality" (p.
353). As we see in the followingdiscussion. these elements ofthe visual represen-
tation intersect with personality and plot elements to further distinguish the construction of the White heroines and the women of color.
Character Personality Traits and Love Relationships
Althougii the plots ofeach ofthe films with regard to the heroines are quite sitnilar.
there are a number of distinctions in terms of the piuticuUu" personality traits each
of thc women evidences. Each of the characters is portrayed as strong-willed and
indepetident. and for this reason the films have garnered popular critical pt"aise for
putatively providing more realistic portrayals for young woincn. But despite the
appearance of agency, some feminist critics have noted the continued positioning
of the characters as ultimately defined hy tnale standards and goals." As Wasko
(2001) commented, even these seemingly more contemporary and progressive
heroines such as Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle "still live in male-dominated worlds,
and ultimately find fulfillment through their romantic relationships with Prince
Chartnings" (p. 1 16). More itnportant for this analysis, however, are the ways in
which the supposedly independent spirit and agency are positioned relative to each
character's ethnicity. Once one considers the personality traits of the individual
heroines in light of their ethnic background, it becomes clear tiiat these traits Lire
defined within the confines of racial stereotypes that dichotomize White from
Each of the female heroines ean be said to exhibit strength of will and a relative
amount of independence, but it is important to consider these personality traits
within the hroader picture ofeach character's fuller representation. Although Ariel
may be seen as strong-willed and adventuresome, as Sells (1995) noted, she sees
her only outlet to freedom and autonomy in tbe (hu)man world. Her goals in the
film seem limited to "becoming part of (his) world," and in that regard her agency
seetns only a vehicle for her indoctrination, at whatever cost or sacrifice, itito another's world, or what Murphy (1995) interpreted as Prince Eric's colonialist "as.sitnilation" of her (p. 133). Belle, on the other hand, falls into the world of the
Beast through her strength and self-sacrifice, but is in pait enticed to remain there
by the potential for taming the Beast and the intellectual worid she sees there. Introduced in the opening scenes as "a strange girl" with her head in a book. Belle's
independence and will are sublimated when she brings culture and refinement to
thc Beast. Murphy suggested that in this film the nature/culture dichotomy is localized in the relationship of Belle and the Beast, allowing the stereotypic association
of women and nature to be played out. However, when viewed through the lens of
"See Bell etal.'s( 1995) edited collection for commentary on the continued lack of rea! agency for
the contemporary Disney heroines, as well as Giroux (1997. 1999) and Wasko (2001). although some
authors (e.g. Downey. 1996: Henke &. Umble. 1999: Henke et al.. \99(y. Sells. I99.'i) bave argued thai
thc lieroines of the Hlms eritiqued here demonstrate some increased ageney.
race with regard to the series of Disney films. Belle can he seen as a European who
prizes a cultured, rational existence and who leads the Beast toward that lifestyle
away from the natural world. It is in this de-nattn"ed world that Belle finds love with
tiie Beast. Ultimateiy. Jefibrds (1995) argued that for all Belle's independence atid
agency, her piaee in the narrative sadly amounts to being the "mechanism for solving the Beast's "dilemma'" (p. 167).
A final similarity hetween Ariel and Belle with regard to personality and race
moves us into our consideration of the remaining three characters. Although it is
quite clear frotn plotline that Ariel is Mer (alheit a fictional race) and Belle is
Erench, no overt connection hetween their race and their personality traits or behaviors is made. Their race is not connected to their choices in the narrative—Ariel
does not behave as the rchellious child hecause she is Mer nor does Belle save the
Beast because she is White. In tiie case of both characters, their choices in thc narratives are attributed to their personal idiosyncrasies. Thus, we see their behaviors
as devoid of racial construction or connections. In this way. as Nakayama and
Krizek (1995) have argued, thc qualities of Whiteness are rendered invisible. In the
case of the wotnen of color, however, several overt relationships hetween personality, behaviot". and race are implied, particularly with regard to Pocahontas and
As adventuresome and independent as Ariel and Belle, Jasmine attempts toescape thc confines of her predestiny by running away from the palace. She. like the
first two characters, ilnds thc culmination of her adventure in the relationship with
a man. Her race seetns less of a defining quality for her than her attractiveness to
the villain, Jafar. Aladdin offers the first plotline to include the nefarious sexual intentions ofthe villain, although that theme will resurface in a more virulent form in
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Perhaps it is less Jasmine's ethnicity than her exotic presence that allows for this plot twist that reveals a glitnpsc at the potential for
sexuai deception in her character. Although in tiie plot hci' ilirtation with Jafar is
shown as a ploy to help Aladdin escape, the stereotype of thc duplicitous sexuai
woman seems inconceivable in a character such as Belie. Perhaps this plot twist is
seen as believahie hy the Disney animators hecause they had constructed Jasmine's
character to be sexuaiiy enticing and because the ethnic stereotype of the harctn
would allow for such a reading to be plausible. Though this plot ttirn plays only a
minor role in this film, the connection between the ethtiicity of the two retnaining
characters and their personality and behavior is made tnuch more obviously.
Both Pocahontas and Esmeralda behave in certain ways that directly implicate
their ethnicity and background. Pocahontas presents herself as sttong-willed and
independent, but. when it comes down to it. she chooses her loyalty to and thc
needs of her own people over her own desires. That is not her Ilist sacrifice, however, for earlier in the film she tells her tribesmen, "Ifyou kill him [John Smith},
you'll have to kill me too." As Aleiss (1995) pointed out. "Her offer of sacrifice,
curvaceous figure and virginal stature have come to symbolize America's Indian
iieroine" (p. C5). By playing on this cultural image ofthe Native Ameriean, the stereotype of the noble savage—or as Bird (1999) described the iconic (and inherently racist) Indian Princess-—and the popular itnage of Native Americans as contiectcd to the eaith, Pocahontas' personality and behavior in the plot are directly
and clearly related to her ethnicity/Otherness atid enacted in contrast to John
Smith's Whiteness.
Likewise. Esmeralda's gypsy ethnicity serves as the defining feature of her
strength and independence as well. Unlike Ariel and Belle who can just be
strong-willed as an idiosyncratic part of their individuai persotialities, Esmeralda's
character is defined by her upbringing. Her strength and independence are couched
within thc stereotype of the resourceful (hy necessity), streetwise gypsy. And
tnuch like the contrast of personality in Pocahontas. Esmeralda's ethnicity and behavior are deployed against Phoebus' Whiteness. In this analysis, the
dichotomization of the construction of White characters (both male and female)
against that of the women of color is evident. The representation of Otherness
serves as a justification for behavior in the characters of coloi. whereas thc inlluetice of Whiteness remains invisible.
Finally, the culmination ofthe love relationships in eaeh ofthe films offers us a
last example ofthe differentiation ofthe orientalized heroines. As I have noted previously, some popular critics observed that the agency of the female heroines of
these films differed greatly (Vt)m their classic Disney counterparts. However, as
Bell et al. (1995) pointed out, many film and feminist critics have bemoaned the
continued positioning of the female characters in passive roles that eventuate in
marriage and thet"eby reinforce cuiturai logic regarding thc natural fulfillment ofa
young woman's dream as continually defined by men. Here, I note the differences
one notices if one differentiates these Disney fiitns with regaid lo white characters
and those of color. Although each ofthe iieroines is involved in a romantic relatiotiship, the outcomes of those relationships vary. Scholars have commented on the
implied racism in Pocahontas' falling in love with thc ftrst Wiiite tnan she sees
(Edgerton & Jackson. 1996) and the colonial overtones ofthe narrative in tenns of
John Smith's relationship with Pocahontas (Buescher & Ono, 1996). Indeed,
Ariel. Belle, and Jasmine all reach a (at least implied) tnarriage arrangement with
their respective hero. Pocahontas. on the other hand, opts to let her love. John
Smith, go back to England while she remains with her tribe because she's "needed
here" and will achieve her fulfillment through her dedication to her people. And
despite the fact that Esmeralda wins Phochus' heart in The Hunchback of Noire
Dame, there is no overt intimation of marriage in the future for the two characters
as tiiere had been in the three previous nims. Perhaps it is not coincidental that tiie
two biracial couples (Pocahontas and Esmeraida's Otherness to John Smith and
Phoebus' Whiteness) do not walk off into the fairytale sunset as husband and wife.
Perhaps it is no coincidence either that it is the more highiy exoticized characters
who suggest more sexual agency (particularly Hstneralda). who are not safely en-
sconced in the netof mauiage. Perhaps it is more than just race that makes it difficult to resolve these plotlines as easily as in the earlier films. The heightened sexuality and increased exoticization ofthe heroines poses a problem for thc animators
at Disney, who can no longer justify these women's convenient, easy ttansition into
male-dominated institutions and are thus left in a liminal place between the legitimate and safe and the illegitimate and transgressive.
Since thc mid-1990s. there has emerged a veritable cottage industry of criticism of
Disney texts and products. Early on, critics pointed to the dearth of serious critical
analysis of the seetningiy innocent animated fiim as a cultural product. As any informed review ofthe literature evidences, much insightful work is being produced
and much ofthe extant work focuses on the new animated classics produced since
the late 1980s hy the Disney animated division. Needless to say. I am not the first
critic to exatiiinc The Little Mermaid. Aladdin. Beauty and the BeasI, Pocahontas.
and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, this analysis ofthe orientalization of
heroines in contemporaty Disney films points to two major issues raised by examining these texts. Thc first concerns iiow ehiidren. who at"e bombarded wi til the images and representations in the films and thc related pioducts, may be aided in negotiating the race and gender messages in their symbolic environment, and the
second points to the importance of the interrogation of race in popular cuiturai
Critics and scholars reeognize the power of these cultural products and the niirratives they tell. We ask ourselves, what are children being taught? First and foremost, they arc taught to eonsume. Young people are imbricated into a material
practice of consuming these films and products and are taught from a young age
how they are to experience them. Ono and Buescher (2001) argued that thtough its
marketing, Pocahontas (both the film image and the marketed tie-in products)
"changes from simply being sotnething consumable to being something the sole
purpose of which is to be consumed" (p. 28). Certainly the ubiquitous marketing
campaigns that accompany each new animated feature attest to the targeting of
ehiidren a.s consumers. But we can as easiiy argue that children are also taught to
consume ideas. These films are "teaching machines" and "producers of culture"
(Giroux. 1997, p. 53). If we agree with Giroux (1999), we have an obligation, a.s
educators, to assist children in negotiating these images by providing what he
terms "pedagogical referents" (p. 98). In some ways, this article is a preliminary
step toward that end. 1 examine here what ideas children are heing taught to consume in terms of race. Taken as a group, these films communicate a number of
messages about both Whiteness and color. As we have seen in the previous discussion, these messages work on multiple levels through both construction of charac-
ter and the iconography ofthe films and can be read as representing whiteness and
color in very different ways. Furthermore, we look here at the intersection of race
and gender, to identify how the orientalization ofthe fetnale charactets of color
represents racist imagery of women of color as sexualized beings, whose bodies
are privileged as the sites of their power and agency.
Second, this analysis also suggests that Disney films work to maintain the invisibility ofthe construction of Whiteness. Levine (2003) wrote, "Whiteness purports
to he hoth nothing and everything. It is the race that need not speak its natne. Yet it
defines itself as no less than whatever it chooses to exclude" (p. 189). Analysis of
the characterization and iconography of these White heroines teaches much about
what it means to be a White wotnati in Disney's world. The White heroine is
largely asexual, focused on rotnance and marriage (much as in the days of classic
Disney), is detnure. although her world tolerates a contained ramhunctiousness or
tebelliousness. This critique adds to the gtowing hody of work on Disney texts by
tracing a progression of images of race and gender but, further, provides the first
specific inten'ogation of the construction of Whiteness in animated filtns. As
Nakayama and Krizek (1995) noted, the exposure of the naturalization of Whiteness is as necessary as the exploration ofthe construction of Otherness. This article
poses a preliminary assessment of some elements of Whiteness in contrast to a process of orientalization. Future exploration of the construction of Whiteness in the
Disney and other animated filtns is certainly warranted.
Finally, this article explores what I consider to be evidence of a pattern of increasing orientalization of women of color in Disney animated films. This is a
trend which I find disturbing for a number of rea.sons. the most compelling of
which is the continued use of sexual stereotypes of women of color to exoticize female characters in films. What is most alarming about this not unusual practice in
the history of women in filtn is that these images are heing tnarketed to, and consutned by. children. These images will lay a groundwork for young children's understanding of themselves and others that will most assuredly articulate with the
field of images of both women of color and White women in popular culture. This
analysis suggests how. when taken together, these animated features tell a story
about what it means to be a woman of color, understood ever more clearly when
seen relative to the newly exposed, historically invisible, center of Whiteness. Ultimately, I believe it is a sadly racist story—one that we must work hard to challenge.
My thanks to Roger Aden for his comments on an early draft of this article, and to
two anonytnous reviewers for their recotnmendations and insights.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the 1997 annual meeting ofthe
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