Months ago, Disney announced that a new Disney Channel cartoon, Sofia the First, would be released this year, targeting girls ages 2 to 7. With the title character a little girl, rather than a teenager, Disney promised that Sofia the First would be “age-appropriate” for preschoolers. The cartoon would feature not just “plenty of pretty dresses and sparkly shoes,” but also lessons relevant to little ones.
The original announcement caused savvy critics of girls’ princess culture to raise a collective eyebrow. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, was incredulous. She accused Disney of trying to have it both ways: claiming that their princess-themed feature films are harmless fun for young girls while also claiming that Sofia would address some of the problems found in princess-themed feature films.
What a contradiction.
This week, Disney was again caught trying to have it both ways–but this time, it’s not about whether Disney’s princess culture is healthy for girls.
This time, it’s about diversity.
When Disney announced a few days ago that Sofia would be Disney’s first Latina princess, this sounded promising: It’s important for girls of all backgrounds to see characters who resemble themselves on screen, to feel included in the media culture they so cherish. Considering how incredibly popular princesses are among preschool girls, it’s high time that a Latina princess join Disney’s franchise.
And the statement sounded pretty definitive: “She is Latina,” said Sofia the First’s executive producer Jamie Mitchell.
But the announcement prompted many people to take a closer look at Sofia, and a few things came to light:
- Sofia is pale skinned and blue eyed. While some Latinas are in fact white, Sofia doesn’t look like the majority of people hailing from Latin America do.
- Sofia speaks unaccented English and is voiced by a white girl (Ariel Winter from Modern Family).
- Sofia does not appear to be bilingual: there is no evidence so far that she speaks Spanish or another Latin-American language.
So, where is the evidence that Disney’s “first Latina princess” is actually Latina? Any one of those three elements might have given the claim some credibility. But if neither her appearance nor her voicing nor her dialogue testify to a Latina identity, how does Sofia improve the diversity of the Disney Princess brand and serve to represent Latina culture?
The answer: she doesn’t. It was just lip service, betraying a misunderstanding of why parents, educators, and critics want to see racially and ethnically diverse princess characters. It’s not to fill quotas; rather, it’s to provide support for countless young girls who struggle with their identities when characters like them are systematically stereotyped in or excluded from the media. Inclusion is important.
In claiming Sofia as a Latina, Disney was trying to have it both ways–seeking praise for adding diversity to its princess lineup without actually giving Sofia any significant markers of diversity.
Facing criticism for their handling of Sofia’s Latina identity, a Disney spokesperson explained:
“The range of characters in ‘Sofia the First’ — and the actors who play them — are a reflection of Disney’s commitment to diverse, multicultural and inclusive storytelling, and the wonderful early reaction to ‘Sofia’ affirms that commitment. In the story, Sofia’s mother, Queen Miranda, was born in a fictitious land, Galdiz, a place with Latin influences. Miranda met Sofia’s father, Birk Balthazar, who hailed from the kingdom of Freezenberg, and together they moved to Enchancia, where Sofia was born.”
So, wait–Sofia isn’t Latina, after all–she’s a multicultural girl, half Latina at best. Right?
Actually, it turns out that Sofia should not even be called half Latina. As controversy stirred, Disney execs began backpeddling, clarifying her background further:
“Princess Sofia is a mixed-heritage princess in a fairy-tale world,” explained [co-executive producer/writer] Gerber. “Her mother is originally from an enchanted kingdom inspired by Spain (Galdiz) and her birth father hailed from an enchanted kingdom inspired by Scandinavia.”
Gerber also noted that Enchancia is modeled after the British Isles. So this is an entirely Euro-centric fantasy world they’ve created for Sofia.
If Sofia’s dad is basically Scandinavian, and her mom is basically Spanish... well, that never made her Latina at all. It made her half Spanish(-esque) and half Scandinavian(-esque). A person of Spanish birth or descent would not categorize herself as a Latina, as Spain is not part of Latin America: In standard U.S. usage, “Latino” and “Latina” describe people who were born in or have family heritage from Latin America and speak a romance language (usually Spanish or Portuguese).
Sounds like some folks at Disney were unaware of what “Latina” means! How embarrassing.
So, Disney, in the future please remember: Diversity is not about quotas; it’s about meaningful representation. If you want your characters to be diverse, that’s great! Just do your homework and give them real markers of diversity–ones inspired by the actual children in your viewing audience, not by your limited Euro-centric imaginations.