Why is it that Disney turns characters of color into nonhumans? In recent decades, a pattern has emerged in Disney’s productions — as viewers have noted, most storylines with a lead of color follow a degrading transformation trope. Much too often in Disney’s works, non-white characters transform into animals, ghosts or other nonhuman creatures for the majority of their screen time. This is seen in popular animations like “The Emperor’s New Groove” (2000), “The Princess and the Frog” (2009) and “Coco” (2017). At first notice, watchers may not assume these plots are forms of racial suppression that promote a whitewashed hierarchy — the plots are innocent and coincidental. However, the transformation plot line does not end with just one or two films.
It is rather important to note that racial ignorance through this specific trope was not always prominent. In the 1997 version of “Cinderella,” the audience cheered on a well-portrayed ethnic representation in the musical. Additionally, the 2016 film “Hidden Figures” captures the frustration of Black women in a white-dominated workplace, labeling itself one of the most powerful films for ethnic representation of all time. However, Disney Animation continued to use the transformation trope in the following years. So, why is the representation of people of color moving backward in the Disney world, specifically in animated films?
The dehumanization of people of color in Disney films derive from racist roots in white supremacy. I’d like to address the irrational and racist belief that people of color do not feel pain or feel pain less severely than white people. This assumption is referred to as the racial empathy gap. The degrading theory affects the criminal justice system, medicine and the media. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca gathered a fully white subject pool, testing their reactions to pain inflicted on those of different races. Some participants had physical reactions that proved their contribution to the racial empathy gap, proving a subconscious racist approach that subjects doubted before the tests were run. This is one example of the privileged objectifying of the bodies and feelings of people of color. Not only does this demonstrate the normalization of white supremacy that desensitize white communities, but it also highlights the lack of awareness of blatant dehumanization toward people of color. The terrifying belief that those of non-white ethnicities are “less human” than whites is so prominent that it carries over to the big screen, and mass media companies strip humanity from characters of color. Disney takes advantage of animation to do so in the most literal way possible — by transforming people of color into animals or nonhumans.
Obliviousness is not the only excuse the film world uses in terms of Disney’s transformation trope. Author Andrew Tejada mentions that people of color are more frequently side characters instead of the lead role. Perhaps the Walt Disney Company assumes a lead role portrayed as a person of color would suffice to promote both representation and the media company’s diverse image. However, the ignorant attempt did the opposite several times. Tejada continues, “After waiting for nearly 20 years, I was finally going to see a Black person take the lead in a major studio cartoon on the big screen … and then they turned her into a frog.”
The last origin of the transformation trope I’d like to address is avoidance. Writer Kayla Williams claims the trope is “a way to avoid the issues and challenges tied to the identities of these non-white characters.” Disney Animation’s racist pattern implies that the company does not want to address the deeper struggles faced by people of color. This is especially true in more recent years as movements against racism, police brutality and other advocacies were in the spotlight. Being a white-dominated company, Disney has access to resources to learn about and dismantle the challenges of being in a predominately white culture as a person of color, rather than living with these hurdles contently. However, Disney chooses to remain silent to avoid starting potential controversy and losing money.
Yet, their target audience consists of mainly children. If the films shown to children only praise white characters and degrade people of color, the next generation will continue to be racist, and the pattern will never break. Disney, with young watchers across the globe, prioritizes money over teaching the world about racial equality. They have skewed and destroyed the image of ethnic representation, earning fame for manipulating viewers. Casting a person of color as the lead role should be normalized. The company is praised for doing the bare minimum in terms of racial representation, clouding the dehumanization of colored characters within the plot.
With basic context of the transformation trope’s roots, I’d like to introduce some examples. One of the most known is “The Princess and the Frog” (2009), in which the lead role, a Black woman, turns into a frog for the majority of her screen time. Another case transforms an Incan Emperor into a llama in “The Emperor’s New Groove” (2000). Again, in 2003, “Brother Bear” features an Inuit boy in the main role and he transforms into a bear. In 2017, “Coco” stars a young Mexican boy, ends up as a ghost. Even as late as 2020, Disney released the film “Soul”, in which the non-white main character undergoes a transformation.
Whether or not the transformation trope is intentionally avoiding issues that do not apply to the privileged, the pattern must come to an end. Not only does it strip the identity of cultures these characters represent, but it compares people of color to animals or nonhuman entities. Additionally, the characters often hold their nonhuman forms for the majority of their screen time, restricting the representation of people of color even further. In order to admit to the degrading approach they have taken, the Walt Disney Company must recognize where the racism stems from, why its severity has been forgotten and how it is projected into public entertainment for impressionable children.
Alexis Fischer is a senior double-majoring in English and environmental studies.