When I was younger, I wanted nothing more than to be blonde. In fact, it was so desirable that my mother would convince me to eat bananas with it. "You'll be blonde soon after this!" she would say. Now, I can look back and say it was a silly wish, but the reality of it was that I had internalized racism.
Growing up, I always felt my features were inadequate and ugly, simply because I was Asian. Part of this was due to the lack of representation I saw, especially in films with pretty princesses who, more or less, had the same features. That's why I'm excited to see that Disney is branching out with representation, such as with their hit movie Encanto! But why is it important for Disney specifically to represent a diverse array of cultures?
Why Representation is Important
Moana was a Disney film released in 2016, centering around Moana and her love of voyaging.
Representation contributes to the creation of safe spaces for minorities. It allows people of all ages to see themselves in the media, and they can have characters they resonate with and make them feel as if they are seen and valid. Safe spaces allow people to feel included and intrinsically connected to those of their identities, as well as provide opportunities to develop friendships and have open discussions about trauma and identity. It's even more important that a huge studio like Disney is adding representation, as the company is so widespread and popular.
Showing representation, especially on a platform catered to young audiences, can help promote awareness and educate people about different cultures. This type of education can combat racism, stereotypes, and xenophobia. When I was younger, I was constantly asked if I was Chinese— another harmful comment often made towards Southeast and East Asian individuals. Representation of different Asian ethnicities in the media could have played a part in preventing this type of situation and allowed others to understand that Asia has several distinct ethnicities with totally different cultures. Media representation allows them to know that people aren't their stereotypes and that they are diverse and have all sorts of traits not based solely on their identity. It's incredibly important that people are aware of and understand other cultures.
Underrepresentation can create negative viewpoints of a certain group and may even isolate people socially and emotionally. Growing up, I personally felt the lack of Asian/Vietnamese characters impact me. But representation in Disney can help build self-esteem and a positive viewpoint. It allows people to explore their identities freely without needing to conform to any stereotype depicted in a particular movie or show. Representation can help minorities realize that they are more than the stereotypes that surround them.
Disney's Encanto is a movie following the Madrigal family and their gifts!
But Why is Representation Important for Disney, Specifically?
It's precisely Disney's audience that makes it a prime and crucial point for representation. Disney shows and films are catered to young children, who are extremely impressionable. It's necessary that we teach the succeeding generations cultural awareness and other important values through the media. It's necessary to show them that there are both children like them out there and children that are different from them– and both are alright. Representation lays a foundation for anti-racist behavior and beliefs, as well as understanding and empathy for others.
It Doesn't End Here
There is still work to be done towards representation in the media. One issue is tokenism, where characters are put in solely for the sake of "diversity". These types of characters shouldn't be taken as representation, and the media needs to work on including characters who are diverse and nontokenized. However, it can definitely be said that progress is being made, and as future generations grow up surrounded by diversity and culture, it'll create a world where diversity is seen as beautiful and valued.