Disney is introducing Sofia, who is supposed to be its first Latina princess, in a television special, Sofia the First: Once Upon a Princess, that will air November 18 on the Disney Channel. The problem—or depending on how you see it, upside of the character—though, is that the only indication that we have that Sofia is Hispanic is that Disney is telling us that she is:
Now, certainly it’s possible to be Latina or Hispanic and be light-skinned and have fair hair as people like half-Cuban Cameron Diaz are a constant reminder. And I can see an argument that it’s good for Disney to remind viewers that Latino is a label that encompasses people of many different origins and who look many different ways.
And so it strikes me as less of a problem that Sofia looks the way she looks and more that Disney was dull enough to set another princess story in the European fairy tale tradition. When Disney’s put stories about women who aren’t white on the big screen, it’s often done so in ways that draw drama and detail from their racial and ethnic backgrounds, and that expand the definition of princess to cover all kinds of brave, enterprising young women. Aladdin was one of the first Disney movies to juxtapose the horrors of arranged marriages with the appeal of a love match, rather than pretending that its characters were simply free to marry who they chose. In Mulan, the titular character has to cope with the intersection of gender expectations and Confucian values to carve out a place for herself and her aspirations in ancient China. Pocahontas got to save a man, rather than the other way around, in a break from Disney’s generally traditional past, and to do so as an advocate for cross-cultural understanding. And in The Princess and the Frog, Tiana is an entrepreneur driven by her love of New Orleans cuisine.
Sofia, by contrast, gets absorbed into a blended royal family, goes to school where she’s taught by the tree good fairies from Sleeping Beauty and gets an amulet that puts her in communion with Disney princesses past. The whole project looks less like an original story and much more like an opportunity for marketing. Disney may have denied some little girls an opportunity to see a princess who looks like them on screen. But it’s also punted on giving viewers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds an innovative, engaging story about a young woman’s adventures.