Alex Barnett thinks it’s time for Disney to “let go” of institutional biases against people of color and embrace the rising number of minority and multiracial people.
My wife and I have a 3 year-old son. This means we have watched Frozen a lot. We’ve watched it so often that I now become very passionate when I describe the differences in the versions of “Let It Go” sung by Idina Menzel and Demi Lovato.
Interestingly, sometime during one of our many viewings of Frozen, I noticed that there aren’t any people of color in the movie. I think there may be one (there’s a character in an early scene at the coronation ball, but the character’s face is unseen, so it’s hard to tell).
Why did I notice? Maybe – probably — it’s because we are an interracial family (my wife is Black, I’m White, and our son is Biracial), and I’m sensitized to issues of race. In fact, I’m sure that’s it. As the White dad of a boy who some (or many) do or will consider to be Black (even though he is light-skinned), I think about issues of race quite a bit. In particular, I wonder often whether I, as a White person, will ever be able to help my son navigate issues of race and racism that may be awaiting him in the future.
So, I start from a point of at least some heightened sensitivity. I grant you that. Still, even without that, I think I might have had the same reaction, which was simply this: “Hey, am I imagining things, or is every character in this movie White, except maybe Sven the Reindeer? Even Olaf the Snowman is White (though for obvious reasons, snow almost always being White, except for the kind that gathers curbside in New York City, several days after a snowstorm).”
Now, again, I grant you that my perspective is that of a person who’s interested and concerned about race and how depictions of race in popular culture may affect my child. So I have some skin in this game, if you’ll excuse the expression. And, I thought, “well how come they don’t have characters of color in the movie?”
But, then I thought I was being silly. I thought to myself: “this is a movie based on a story by Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen, about a land in Scandinavia where people are basically all White. Of course the characters are White.” Within moments though, I remembered the age-old criticism of Disney that it does not adequately represent people of color in its kids’ movies, and I thought: “You know what – the movie has a talking snowman, a giant snow monster, rock trolls who talk, and a lead character who can shoot ice from her fingers. They’re taking liberties with reality already, so could it really hurt to throw in a Biracial kid or a Black kid or an Asian kid or a Hispanic kid or how about a few of them? It’s not a documentary. I don’t think having a Black citizen of the City of Arendelle is really going to be the thing that keeps the picture from being nominated for an award by the Danish Historical Society for best depiction of the actual realities of Danish life.”
Out of curiosity, I did a Google search about characters of color in Frozen. And, guess what? Turns out, I’m not the only one who had questions or concerns about the lack of color in the movie. There were quite a few posts with lengthy analyses. And, then voilà — I stumbled upon a rendering of Elsa, done by a fan of the film, in which the character Elsa (the Snow Queen) is depicted as a Black woman. It was awesome (think Halle Berry as Storm in X-Men, but with long hair and the prototypical Disney female character doe-eyes).
Having found this, I was curious to see what others thought about all this. So I posted about all the issue on my Facebook page with a comment saying I was disappointed that there weren’t more characters of color in Frozen. Now, mind you, I didn’t say I was enraged that Elsa or Anna weren’t depicted as Black girls or that Disney should be ashamed for not portraying interracial love. I just said, with a hint of sarcasm, that I was amazed by the number of characters of color in the movie.
The post went viral. As of the writing of this, the post has reached 3.7 million people. And, it’s received more than fifty thousand likes, more than seven thousand comments and more than five thousand shares. I like to think that I have a fan base for my stand-up comedy and writing career, but my usual posts do not garner numbers like those.
More important than the metrics, though, were the reactions engendered. With more than seven thousand comments, I cannot possibly summarize all of them here for you. But, in very broad categories, there seemed to be four general themes: (1) people of color (usually Black or mixed-race) who agreed that portrayals of characters of color in children’s media is important because kids like and need to see people who look like themselves in popular culture and Disney continues to lag and disturbingly so in meeting this need; (2) people of color (usually Black) who felt that too much was being made of this and that bringing up issues of race really did more to pit people against one another than do any good; (3) people of all races who seemed annoyed that I would make this observation considering the fact that it was historically accurate to have only White characters in the movie (to which I would say “and was it historically accurate to have a talking snowman and rock trolls?); and (4) White people (unaware, apparently, of our country’s history) who felt like this was another instance of Black people getting carried away about race without cause and that they (Black people) ought to quit making such a fuss already (of course, these people seemed to forget that the Facebook post was by me, a White guy).
I have to say I was a little surprised by the number of people who fell into category two. And, I was amused by the people who fell into category three, the ones who seemed unaware of the inconsistency in their own reactions. But, mostly I was really disappointed by the number of people who fell into category four. And, I was horrified by the vitriol spewed by some. I saw enough hate speech and N-Word usage to actually make me wonder whether I had traveled back in time to the Deep South of the early 20th Century.
So, what does all this mean? Well, for one thing, it means there are TON of people who care deeply about the movie Frozen. It also means that I probably need to find a better way to use my spare time. Googling and Facebooking about Frozen just really aren’t a great use of time for the middle-aged dad of a toddler who already doesn’t get enough sleep. But, most importantly (and, most disturbingly) it means that racism really is still a big problem in society (as if recent events in this country weren’t reminder enough of that).
I used to wonder sometimes if my concerns about race and whether I, a White guy, can properly equip my Biracial son for what may lie in store for him in matters dealing with race, were overblown. Now, I’m not wondering that. Race may be a man-made artificial construct, but the reactions I saw online tell me one thing – racism is sure enough a real thing. So, excuse me if I spend some time worrying about that and whether as a White dad I have the necessary tools to help my Biracial son cope with all the various situations and emotions he may soon have to deal with.
And, finally, it means one more thing: Disney, if you’re listening, it means you really do need to put some more characters of color in your movies. I know you’re not a civil rights organization, but the world is changing and doing the same old thing is not okay. You need to let go of institutional biases against people of color and embrace the rising number of minority and multiracial people. You need to “Let it go. Let it go. Can’t hold it back anymore.”