As frustrating as I found the political discourse during the 2016 presidential election, I have found the a lot of discourse after the election very frustrating too. As part of the Democratic Party’s postmortem after their major loss this past November is that their platform didn’t do enough to address the economic issues of the working class and poor. I agree that Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t do enough to discuss those issues, but almost everyone that has brought up this criticism has mentioned it in opposition to the identity politics that the campaign did address. In fact, many of them have dismissed those identity politics issues as some sort of trivial “political correctness”. Goddammit, that’s wrong, wrong, wrong! Social issues relating to racial, gender, or sexual identity aren’t in opposition to economic issues so framing it that way is so wrong. They’re not even separate from each other; they’re deeply intertwined. It made me mad to see Clinton’s wealthy surrogates frame economics as a “white” issue in their criticisms of Bernie Sanders and it makes me mad to see other liberals offering hindsight critiques of Clinton’s campaign dismiss issues relating to identity as “political correctness”, especially because neither side forgot this point in their takedowns of the libertarian “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” philosophy years prior to the election.
I begin with this point to discuss how I think those of us concerned with more multicultural representation in media should approach our advocacy for it. I think we need to deepen the discussion about it, even if we’re just talking about some cartoon character rather than a particular politician or a specific policy. This will help us recognize all of the intersections in these issues.
It’s not only important for us to ask who is or isn’t (be it ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity) being represented on the TV or movie screen. We also have to ask who is doing the representation and why are/aren’t they representing who they are/aren’t representing. And when I say “who” and “why” in this context, I’m speaking in economic terms. We have to include which major conglomerate is behind whichever character is being represented and why this conglomerate is choosing to represent the character in question.
Let’s get more specific. Let’s talk about Disney.
If you take a look at the very first image I posted, it displays the fairly diverse range of Disney princesses over the company’s almost-century long history. Not included in the picture (it’s an old picture) is as of this writing, Disney’s most recent princess, Moana. Conversations about Moana have applauded Disney for creating a character and film that would introduce its wide audience to Polynesian indigenous culture. I agree that’s a great thing, but this is where the conversation always stops. Who is representing Moana? Well, the character is played by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho. Great! Most of the cast, which included the Rock, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, and more, are of Polynesian indigenous descent as well. Excellent! However, the directors John Musker and Ron Clements are not Polynesian. More importantly, neither is Disney’s CEO Bob Iger. This in no way inherently disqualifies any of these men from making a film about a culture outside of their own, but this should be noted nonetheless.
Now the next question. Why is Disney representing Moana? Ideally, because Disney wants to introduce their audience to a different but very rich culture they may not have been familiar with. However, to believe that is the only reason would be naive. Disney is a major corporation in a capitalist economy; it saw a financial benefit in producing a product like Moana. Advocates for more multicultural representation in media rightfully see this as a step up from a major corporation believing that producing any product not starring a white person, especially a white male, as too much of a financial risk to take a chance on. But what does it really mean when a particular culture is seen as marketable to the masses by a major corporation?
Disney took a chance on creating a film like Moana not only because they thought the film would be to their financial benefit, but also because they thought the merchandise spun off from the film would be financially successful. However, Disney got in some hot water over that when people saw one of their Halloween costumes as insensitive towards the Polynesian culture they’re representing. Should commodification be the end goal for those of us looking for multicultural representation in media? I’d say hell no. Commodification is all about turning a profit, not education. So when a culture get commodified, all of the history and the nuances of that culture get ignored for whatever parts of it are easier to turn into products (I already talked about the term “woke” in my last post). And the people of the culture being commodified almost never reaps the financial benefits from the sales of the products. And for those consumers of such products, buying those products does not necessarily mean they love or respect the people of the culture being commodified. As the Public Enemy frontman Chuck D has said, whenever fans approach him and talk about how much they love hip-hop, he asks them “do you love black people?”. He asks that because there are unfortunately a lot of hip-hop fans who are the first to admonish black activists groups like Black Lives Matter or send angry comments to hip-hop artists that speak out against racism, police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, etc.
I think this begs another question, what more does Disney plan to do for Polynesian people? Do they want to do more than sell little Polynesian girls Moana dolls? Although a little girl from an underrepresented ethnic group being able to have a doll that looks like her (if she’s from an economic background that could even afford one) can keep her from internalizing strictly Eurocentric beauty standards, at best that’s a very very small step towards progress. Does Disney plan on making any other films about Polynesian culture? Perhaps a Polynesian tribe different from Moana’s? Do they donate any of their profits to Polynesians groups or causes? Do they regularly hire Polynesian indigenous people for full-time jobs? If they do, do they promote them to executive and managerial positions? Are any of their directors Polynesian?
I’ve been talking about Moana, but that’s just one example. I think the same questions should be asked in regards to black people after The Princess and the Frog, Asians after Mulan, Native Americans after Pocahontas (and that’s just one particular tribe), or Arab people after Aladdin (especially considering the portrayals in Pocahontas and Aladdin were fairly racist). And don’t limit the conversation to their princess movies either; how about in regards to Hispanic people in regards to Sofia the First? Native Hawaiians in regards to Lilo and Stitch? Inuit people in regards to Brother Bear? Indians in regards to Sanjay’s Super Team? How about any other groups of people who haven’t had representation in Disney yet? There’s been a dearth of LGBT+ representation in their films and TV shows for example.
I make this point to highlight one form of representation that could be troubling. The people within all the aforementioned (and whichever I forgot to mention) ethnic groups are just as varied and diverse in culture, thought, and point of view as all of the white people represented in Disney’s/Pixar’s films. To use one Moana as your representation of Polynesian indigenous people or use one Tiana in your representation of black people, especially in comparison to Ariel, Belle, Rapunzel, Snow White, Aurora, Merida, Anna, and Elsa as representing different European cultures, is just tokenizing. This is still an assumption that whiteness is the norm and a person of color is a deviation from the norm. The liberal behavioral manifestation of this is to use one person from a particular underrepresented ethnic group as a trophy for their own inclusiveness (although Disney is a mostly conservative company, what they are doing here is what a lot of liberal-minded companies do). Princess Jasmine, Mulan, Tiana, and Pocahontas have served as little more than Arab, Chinese, African-American, and Native American trophies for highlighting the inclusivity of the product that they sell to the masses. Black representation in Disney movies has been minimal ever since The Princess and the Frog. Chinese, Arab, and Native American representation has been minimal since Mulan, Aladdin, and Pocahontas and those are much older than The Princess and the Frog. This isn’t even getting into how diverse their hiring and promoting practices behind the scenes are (which I admit I don’t know the answer to). If Disney feels Moana is all they need to do for representing Polynesian people, that’s a problem. They would never feel that one token European or white American film is good enough representation of white people.
But even if Disney did more justice to all of the different ethnic groups it seeks accolades for representing, where does all that profit they make from it go?
Very recently, the CEO of Disney Bob Iger had a meeting with President Trump as a financial incentive towards his company. Donald Trump is someone who ran his campaign and currently advocating policies that further marginalized already marginalized groups. It’s common knowledge that Trump’s administration courted white supremacists all throughout his campaign and has hired some, like former Breitbart editor-in-chief Steve Bannon, within his administration. What kind of look is this for a company that portrays itself as multicultural?
I’ll leave Disney alone for a little bit.
The Simpsons is well-known for its liberal political views. That might seem a little funny considering the owner of The Simpsons’ network Rupert Murdoch is known for his ultra-conservative views. His other channel Fox News is well known as a propaganda outlet for his views, which is funny because the programming on his main Fox channel is often ideologically opposed to the values asserted on Murdoch’s news channel. Fox’s first hit series, the cynical nuclear family satire Married With Children has values that are the opposite of the “family values” the Fox News anchors hammer home. Back in the 1990s, Fox helped elevate many black comedians and actors to stardom in their broadcast of shows like In Living Color, Martin, Living Single, The Sinbad Show, etc. while Fox News never hesitates to disparage black people and pander to racists. The anchors on Fox News bemoan the hyper-sexualization of our culture while Fox aired sexually charged programming like Temptation Island, Skin, or Coupled. Keep in mind Rupert Murdoch also owns a big part of VICE magazine. Murdoch gets to have his cake and eat it too. He gets to make a profit off of audiences his news channel wouldn’t attract and uses that money to grasp a stronger hold of our media so that he can continue to finance people and endeavors that promote his ultra-conservative agenda. So he can care less that The Simpsons mocks him and his news channel on a regular basis; he’s laughing all the way to the bank.
It seems like Disney is trying to do the same thing here in its collaboration with President Trump. Contradictions be damned.
All of these things I have brought up about Disney are questions that I feel need to be brought up when discussing representation in media. Like I said in the beginning, social issues relating to identity and economics are intertwined, so the economics have to be discussed along with the social issues in these discussions from now on. This makes the conversations much more complicated, perhaps too complicated for clickbaity online publications to engage in. But it’s absolutely necessary. We need to cut past the surface in these discussions. If we hope for absolute social and economic justice for all of these underrepresented groups, this is a part of how we get there. It’s much bigger than multicultural dolls and Halloween costumes.