Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Disney, Princess Sofia and the real deal

It was a tempest in a cartoon teapot.

Mid October Disney started promoting its newest “princess” — Princess Sofia — who the company said was their first “Latina” princess. 

There was an instant hubbub, after all, Sofia was fair-skinned, auburn-haired, blue-eyed. Although some of the buzz centered around the fact that this Disney princess looked very European (which, it has to be said, a number of Latinas do) most of the daggers that were being thrown had to do — rightfully — with a Disney spokeperson’s assertion that they made Sofia look like she did so that kids would be able to easily identify with her. 

As if the darker-skinned among us were immediately off-putting to children .... 

“Lightwashing” isn’t exclusive to Disney, of course. Some telenovelas produced in Mexico and Venezuela do it — casting lighter-skinned Latinas as main characters, while their darker peers are relegated to secondary, and often subservient, roles. “Lightening” creams are big business in Latin America, and India, and plenty of other countries as well.

As the din around the announcement about Sofia got more insistent, Disney backtracked. 

Sofia’s mother was from some Spanish-speaking fairytale kingdom, they said, but Sofia ... well, she was multiethnic.

Someone misspoke, they added. She wasn’t intended to be the first Latina Disney princess at all.

O-o-kay then.

HuffPoLive programmed a segment soon after the buzz started, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to participate. There were a mix of opinions. Some people thought it was a silly argument. Another felt it should prod Disney to truly create a Latina princess, while a third defended Disney by pointing out Latino characters in the Disney Channel’s non-animated shows. One quietly regretted the fact her daughters would go more years without seeing a character that looked like them in a Disney movie.

In the days and weeks after that HuffPoLive program lots of people posted comments and blogs on the topic.

Ana Flores — author of “Bilingual is Better” and co-founder of — asked Latinas to send her photos of their daughters — most of them about the right age to be Disney consumers — to show what “Latina princesses” really look like. The Pinterest board Flores created ( is charming and reminds that, thankfully, in real life girls aren’t all of one type. 

My own “Latina princess” is a good ten or twelve years past Disney’s target audience. She could not care less whether Disney creates a Latina princess, or what that princess might look like. But I remember her as child asking whether the characters in stories had her same physical attributes (light skin, dark hair, eyes that are neither light nor dark) and on the rare occasion they did, they became her favorites. 

If there is a reason to pay attention to this Disney kerfuffle, it is because image, identity and expectation are so intrinsically tied together in the psyches of young girls. We like to think it is not so, that — because more girls are participating in sports and academic subjects that were once thought only the province of boys — we’ve put our daughters beyond the reach of feelings of erasure, underrepresentation or toxic self-doubt. 

We like to think that we’ve raised our girls to see beyond the big blue eyes, the tiny waistline and impossibly silken hair of all the “Princess Sofias” in American pop culture. 

We like to think we’ve taught them it’s great to look like, and think like, and strive like, a Soledad O’Brien or a Hilda Solis or a Julia Alvarez instead.

But the statistics tell us we’re not doing too well with this. 

According to the CDC, a full 21 percent of Latina girls between the ages of 12 and 17 have seriously considered suicide. And depending on whose statistics you use, 13.5 to 17 percent of them have attempted it. Forty-one percent of our daughters will fail to graduate from high school on time and with a standard diploma. Fifty-three percent will give birth to at least one child before the age of 20.

One in five of our daughters is in crisis. And while what underpins those troubling stats is tremendously complicated, we cannot ignore that around our daughters is a culture that doesn’t see them. A culture in which they have a hard time finding their own true reflections. A culture in which the visible role models for them are still few and far between.

Whether Disney’s Princess Sofia is Latina, or not, is pretty insignificant in the scheme of things. But what a lost opportunity! Because childhood is precisely the time when our daughters are forming images of themselves and how they fit into the world. Think not? Take a look at this then:

Now, there’s real Latina royalty for you.

1 comment:

  1. I always thought that the first African American princess and the first Arab princess from Disney were fairly light skinned. If you look at the picture of Tiana (or whatever-her-name-was) you can see she's not much darker than the rest of the Disney princesses . Heck, even Mulan and Jasmine and Pocahontas are fairly light skinned.


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