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Disney has responsibility to be progressive leader

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Disney has garnered much attention, both positive and negative, in response to the company’s recent series of more-or-less progressive choices.

Undoubtedly the most pervasive of these choices has been their latest film, Frozen. With its feel-good, cutesy storyline and arguably brilliant score, it’s no surprise that the movie has surpassed $350 million in box office sales — the most for any Disney movie since The Lion King 19 years ago — and that its album has held the number one spot on iTunes for weeks since its release.

Beyond the movie’s enormous commercial success, the question of its cultural significance has been a source of intense debate among critics. Much of mainstream media has rightly praised Frozen for feminist themes and motifs. For example, the movie prioritizes the love between two sisters over romantic love, as the latter reveals itself to be little more than a subplot. Also, it abandons the princess-as-victim trope in favor of the princess who makes the sacrificial play and saves the day.

Though these feminist divergences from Disney norm will likely inspire young girls everywhere that they can be the hero, these divergences do not excuse some of the company’s more questionable actions. Critics of Frozen have attacked it, not primarily for any fault of the story itself, but for being whitewashed.

Whitewashing is a social justice term for Hollywood’s and media’s tendency to make everyone white. It refers to a gross lack of representation for people of color in media, where about 50 percent of television’s main characters are white men, compared to only 31 percent in today’s United States, according to thinkprogress.org. Whitewashing also refers to making characters that would, or reasonably could, be non-white, white.

Whitewashing is obviously a huge problem in the media, and critics have latched onto Frozen as a prime example of it. Frozen, despite its impressive feminist strides, fails to feature a single minority character. The sisters, villains, love interests, and even the crowds are all as white as paper, and even this choice wouldn’t be of much cultural significance if it weren’t the third in a series of similarly monochrome Disney films.

It almost seems like Disney figured that it had met its people-of-color quota with 17 years of minority princesses — from Aladdin’s Jasmine in 1992 to Mulan in 1998 to The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana in 2009.

It seems like Disney felt free to follow up with Brave’s Merida, Tangled’s Rapunzel, and Frozen’s Elsa and Anna — adding another four white princesses for a grand total of nine out of 14 in all of Disney’s history.

For many, Frozen felt like the last straw of disappointment. Though the counterargument has been made that Disney’s last three movies have all been set in historically white locations and, therefore, to include people of color would have been unrealistic, this claim is frankly and undeniably ridiculous.

Not only is history a lot less white than people make it out to be, Disney makes the choice to produce the movies that it does. Rather than exploring the endless storytelling potential of more diverse backgrounds, it chooses over and over again to focus on locations that, in the eyes of many, excuse the domination of white characters. That’s not to mention that Disney, with its magic, talking animals and anthropomorphic furniture, does not set much store by realism.

Disney has a long way to go in order to be considered representative. Beyond race and ethnicity, Disney could also serve to expand its ranks to include non-conventionally attractive and thin characters, as well as non-traditional family structures.

Frozen may have inched toward this ideal with what could only be considered an “Easter Egg” gay character — the giant shop owner who refers to his family, including a man presumed to be his husband.

However, this character was entirely secondary to Disney’s recent daring move of featuring the first canonically gay characters in its history.

Last week’s episode of Good Luck Charlie introduced canonically — in a refreshingly blasé, non-sensationalist manner — Susan and Cheryl, a perfectly ordinary same-sex couple setting their daughter up on a play-date. Disney aired the episode, despite outspoken conservative opposition, to largely positive reception, according to The Huffington Post.

People are hopeful, as they should be, that Disney will continue to make strides into the 21st century. Indeed, the company has a responsibility to be progressive. Disney leads, if not dominates, the market for children’s programming. More than that, Disney has shaped childhoods and beliefs for generations, and that cultural role is not likely to change anytime soon.

Disney, and the other programming it influences, is responsible for defining children’s perception of normal. Imagine a future in which little girls and boys can watch the curvy princess slay the dragon to win the non-white Queen’s heart. Disney has the power to make that future less far off than it seems.

Children are a whole lot more perceptive and more accepting than people give them credit for. Certainly, conservative naysayers will continue to stubbornly cover their children’ eyes and ears against the evils of open-mindedness. Disney must counter this by showing kids the diverse world that is reality, and instilling in them values for a more progressive future.