Sunday, March 23, 2014

In Kids Movies, White Still Seems to Be Right

(from left to right) Robert Lopez, Idina Menzel, Demi Levato, "Elsa" from Frozen

by Sharon H Chang

I don't pay much attention to the Academy Awards anymore for various reasons among them racial inequity, emphasis on commercialization, consumerism, and wealth, as well as the perpetuation of harmful normative stereotypes about practically everything from gender, gender roles and sexual orientation, to class, culture and language. And of course I'm the mother of a young child and just don't have time to watch movies. That said, there was one win that especially caught my multiracial eye this year. Robert Lopez along with his wife nabbed Best Original Song for their wildly popular ballad "Let It Go" from Disney's Frozen. Significantly, the award catapulted multiracial Filipino Robert Lopez to rare status, the 12th and youngest EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner ever. You know I pay attention to this stuff because my mixed race Asian son has so, so, so few racial role models that hold a solid standing in the public image. As he grows up I want to be able to point out leaders to him and say, "See! YOU can be a songwriter, politician, Olympian, CEO, activist, author, actor, etc. too!" But that's really hard to do right now when I can barely find children's books that reflect his racial image.

Anyway. So Robert Lopez. YES. Hadn't heard the song yet, but certainly made a point to after that. I screened it on YouTube thinking for sure I'd show it to kiddo. But then something else quickly caught my eye...

Multiracial Asian Robert Lopez penned the song, it was voiced-over by Ashkenazi Jew Idina Menzel and rendered (for the credits) by Mexican-American pop star Demi Levato, but in the actual film? The tune is sung by the character "Elsa" who is drawn incredibly white. Not only that, but as the sequence progresses from her being depressed and constrained to enlightened and empowered, she magically morphs from wearing dark clothing (in the dark) to, as she becomes more "free," wearing a bright-white-sky-blue snow royalty dress (at gleaming sunrise):

Then in subsequently watching Levato's music video for her pop version of the same, I was deeply disturbed to see not only that multiracial Mexican-American Levato's hair had been lightened to blonde, but that the exact same clothing transition from dark-to-light is used on her too as she sings through lyrics that move thematically from restraint-to-freedom:

I'm sorry but no way in hell am I going to let my brown son, who has already shown strong signs of internalizing/normalizing white phenotype at the expense of rejecting his own, watch these videos or become enchanted with them in any form. If I can help it, that is. I threw out a query to Twitter, "How did award-winning 'Let It Go,' penned by Fil Am, sung by Ashkenazi Jew & Mexican Am, end up drawn so white??" and predictably got back (from presumably a white user), "We're really complaining that a person in a movie based on a Danish fairy tale who has snow powers was white?"

You bet I am.

Nobody really has "white" or "black" skin. We are all shades and variations of browns, tans, pinks, peaches, etc. So how did such polarized and completely unrealistic colors become the names of people's races and representative of such powerfully opposed measures of worth? When America was colonized by English settlers and a rational needed to be built for the devastation of indigenous and dark-skinned peoples:

"[English colonists]...had the power to shape the everyday terminology used in interaction with one another and with those they oppressed. Increasingly, skin color was linked to older color meanings in English. In Old English, the word 'black' meant sooted, while the word 'white' meant to gleam brightly, as for a candle. In line with earlier Christian usage, the word 'black' was used by the English colonists to describe sin and the devil. Old images of darkness and blackness as sinister were transferred to the darker-skinned peoples exploited in the system of slavery" (Racist America by Joe Feagin, 2014, p. 68).

Our kids receive these strong, if subtly delivered, messages even today about race and who does or does not matter. This stuff runs really, really deep. "White is right" is still all over the place in ways we adults have become so used to, we may not even notice. Take for instance Pixar's 2009 film Up which featured Asian American Boy Scout "Russell," one of very few animated films to ever feature an Asian character. Not only is Russell a total do-gooder-over-achiever (model minority), but he's overweight (unattractive), has a speech impediment (forever foreigner), looks nothing like his voice-over talent Jordan Nagai (invisible) AND ultimately is saved by a white man who acts as a surrogate-substitue father (transracial & international adoption) to replace his absent Asian father (Asian men = emasculated).

Jordan Nagai and "Russell" from Pixar's Up [image source]

By contrast, consider some of the other film children of Pixar (which was acquired by Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion): "Andy" of the Toy Story franchise is essentially the Center of the movie's Universe and is completely idolized by his toys who would lay their lives down for him. "Boo" of Monsters, Inc and her laughter revolutionize Monster University's approach to harnessing good energy. "Violet" of The Incredibles is a sullen Tween/Teen who can vanish, cast powerful force fields and discovers her astounding inner beauty throughout the course of the film. Also of The Incredibles, "Dash" can run really, really fast and see truths his family find difficult to see: 

"Andy" from Pixar's Toy Story [image from]

"Boo" from Pixar's Monsters Inc. [image source]
"Violet" from The Incredibles [image from Pixar Wiki]

"Dash" from The Incredibles [image from Beard Reel]

And I'm only scratching the surface here. Where also are strong non-stereotypical depictions of Black, American Indian, Latina/o, mixed race and children who identify as racially/ethnically other than white? I do strongly believe all of us have an obligation to pay responsible, critical and intelligent attention to this disproportionate, skewed racial messaging still being spoon-fed younger generations. To be clear, I absolutely am not arguing that white children (or people) should be devalued. But I am arguing that no child should be elevated in a way that results in other children feeling less worthwhile. Here is the core truth folks, racism dehumanizes us all. Until we can see that every child/person has true, innate beauty that deserves recognition and support -- we have a long way to go.


  1. This was a very thought-provoking piece. Thank you for writing it! My daughter is half South Asian and half-white and at 2 we pretty much just stick to books with animals. I'm dreading having to explain why we never see girls that look like her in them.

  2. Fat kids have almost NO positive role models in media. Russell may not have been a perfect character, but that he was fat and it was never made a big deal in the movie, or treated with the usual anti-fat stereotypes, is one of the things "Up" did right.

  3. Thank you for articulating so well (as you always do) my problems with Disney and bringing attention to the fact the the issues run very deep and only start with poor role models for non-white kids. The dominant imagery and framework of these movies also perpetuate a racial hierarchy where white is equated with goodness. My daughter's have recently become obsessed with Frozen, despite my not letting them see it, since all their friends at school are into it. I keep hearing it is a better Disney movie than others but I have remained skeptical. Your review confirmed why I should be. Keep up your great writing and analyses- I always enjoy them!

  4. I always thought Boo was an asian little girl actually...

  5. Your insight blessed me tremendously - I am white and your article provided me with much wisdom.