Five Times Disney Race-Bent a Princess and Nobody Complained

With all the controversy over Halle Bailey getting cast as Ariel, I wondered why nobody made such a big deal out of all other times Disney race-bent a fairy tale princess. This is not intended to be another post about why we should support Halle but instead an analysis of all the other times this happened in a Disney production. This is such a hot button issue right now that people are talking about it when they don't even have all the facts. ABC's The View aired an episode in which Whoopi Goldberg claimed that Halle was voicing the character for an animated production, and other people are making videos where they claim that Ariel isn't a princess or that she had green skin in the original fairy tale. Let's take a moment to get our facts straight while we explore how this is something that Disney has been doing for over 20 years.

Cinderella - 1997


This is the one that people remember the most fondly, and for good reason. Whitney Houston's passion project to produce a color-blind casting of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella was embraced by Disney in 1997 when they agreed to air it as part of their Wonderful World of Disney segment in which they would broadcast a family-friendly movie on ABC every Sunday night. The production starred actress and singer Brandy in the leading role with a Filipino prince played by Paolo Montalban. It was a gorgeous, colorful, and highly entertaining remake of the original TV special that starred Julie Andrews in 1957. Prior to this version, the role of Cinderella had only been played by white women on stage and TV. Afterward, the stage version cast a few women of color, including a touring production in 2008 with Filipina Disney superstar Lea Salonga, who did the singing voices of Mulan and Jasmine, in the lead role.

Snow White - 2001

 

In 2001, Hallmark Entertainment did an adaptation of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" starring Kristin Kreuk, who was known at the time for playing Lana Lang in the Superman prequel Smallville. Her Asian background did not prevent her from having the one feature necessary to portray this princess's namesake, which is skin as white as snow. She brought a unique innocence to the character in this dark adaptation that drew elements from the Grimm version of the story as well as other classic fairy tales. Even though Hallmark was responsible for the international release of this movie, it wasn't until Disney bought the production to air on their Wonderful World of Disney block in 2002 that American audiences had an opportunity to watch it. Clearly, Disney was all for giving audiences a new version of the character they had animated in 1937.

Tiana - 2009


You're probably thinking "But Tiana was an original character!" You would be half right. The Princess and the Frog was Disney's original interpretation of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale "The Frog King," more commonly known as "The Frog Prince." Before this movie came out, the princess in most adaptations of this fairy tale was portrayed by a white actress. Some notable ones include Tales from Muppetland in 1971 and the Faerie Tale Theatre production in 1982. That's why I find it hilarious when people look at the casting for The Little Mermaid and say "How would you feel if Tiana was white?" She was white many times! Disney could easily do a new adaptation with a white actress, and I doubt many people would complain. Something interesting that I learned about Tiana recently is that her character was based on a real person named Leah Chase who opened a restaurant in New Orleans in the 1940s. In that aspect, Tiana's race was inspired by Leah's roots. If Disney were to do a biopic that focuses more on Leah Chase's life, they would need to cast an actress who looks like her. However, if we are looking at Tiana as a new interpretation of the spoiled princess from "The Frog Prince," she is a wonderful example of culturally diversifying a classic story.

Sleeping Beauty - 2015


With Descendants 3 just around the corner following the tragic death of actor Cameron Boyce, it's a good time to take a long at one of the few things this series did right. Descendants is about the offspring of various Disney heroes and villains in a weirdly modern setting. It's fully of poppy Disney Channel fluff, but it is very deliberate about diversifying its cast. Audrey, the daughter of Sleeping Beauty, is portrayed by actress Sarah Jeffery, who appears to be of mixed race. This is confirmed when Audrey's grandmother, is played by an African American woman, proving that this world's Princess Aurora is not the same pasty blonde-haired woman we see in the animated 1959 classic. The picture above is from an animated spin-off of shorts called Descendants: Wicked World that aired on Disney Channel in 2015. "Mal's Digi-Image Problem" portrays Mal, the daughter of Maleficent and series protagonist, doing a painting of Audrey as her mother. We see Aurora portrayed as a princess of color in the same gown and jewelry as the original Disney movie. When I read the comments on the YouTube page for this video, I can't find any outrage about how Aurora is supposed to be white.

Anna - 2018


Color-blind casting is nothing new for the Great White Way. Broadway has been casting actors and actresses based solely on their ability to sing and dance without paying attention to the color of their skin for decades. I chose Anna for this example because Frozen is still a massively popular hit for Disney. People who have not seen the Broadway version of the show might not realize that the opening cast's actor for Kristoff was Jelani Alladin, a performer of African American descent, and the understudy for Patti Murin, who played Princess Anna in the opening cast, was Aisha Jackson, an actress who is also of African American descent. Famous singer Toni Braxton was among the many lucky actresses to play Belle in Disney's long-running Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast in 1998. The musical Aida, which is about a Nubian princess, is also a Disney production that always casts a black actress in the lead.

Bonus: Once Upon a Time - 2011-2018


As a bonus, I am giving an honorable mention to ABC's Once Upon a Time, which portrayed many classic Disney characters under the guise of a primetime drama. These series had an ensemble cast with diverse actors portraying these famous fairy tale archetypes. In the seventh season, the show did a reboot of sorts in which it recast new versions of many of the characters we had already seen. Among these, there were two princesses that now had alternate counterparts in the show. Cinderella, who had previously been played by blonde actress Jessy Schram, was replaced by Latina actress Dania Ramirez, who took on the role of Henry's new love interest. Rapunzel was originally portrayed on the show by an actress of color named Alexandra Metz but was replaced in the seventh season by the more traditional-looking Meegan Warner along with a messy backstory.

Anyone who thinks it's a big deal that Disney is race-bending Ariel for their live-action adaptation simply has not been paying attention. This is something that Disney has been doing for many years, and they are unlikely to stop any time soon. It is especially prevalent in Broadway productions since they are constantly getting new actors for old roles. There is nothing wrong with showing the world that princesses come in all colors. I can't wait to see which princess Disney will bring to life next!

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