How Sofia's Controversy Created Elena of Avalor

With the Realm of the Jaquins special coming up this weekend, now is a good time to discuss the origins of Elena of Avalor. It started last year as a spin-off of Sofa the First, and thus far, it's proven to be little more than a mere shadow of its predecessor. Elena's premiere was celebrated with an elaborate coronation ceremony at the Disney theme parks, viewing parties, and shout-outs all over the media. Sofia got none of these things. Why? You may not like my answer. Nearly all of the attention focuses on Elena's heritage as a Latina princess, not the quality of the show or the character. I am in no way denying the importance of diversity and representation in the media, but let's take a quick look at how Elena of Avalor came to be.

In 2012, Sofia the First premiered with a special entitled Once Upon a Princess. It went on to become a regular television series airing on Disney Junior in 2013. Princess fans watched the series with great anticipation, and they were not disappointed. Sofia the First was a fresh and clever take on what it means to become a fairy tale princess. She became a princess overnight through marriage, but not her own. Her mother, a peasant who sold shoes in the village, married King Roland, giving Sofia a new title and a new family. Not only did Sofia have to acclimate to all of this, but she quickly found herself with the responsibility of bearing a magical amulet that gave her many mysterious powers. including the ability talk to animals, shrink, become a mermaid, and later, have access to a magical library with the ability to change the stories within it. The show was every little girl's dream, and it's no wonder that it is now in its third season with no signs of slowing down. Sofia herself is a fantastic role model, who encourages little girls to put others before themselves and not to be afraid to break out of social norms. In many ways, it was the "first" of its kind (no pun intended).

Shortly before Sofia the First premiered, a Disney representative made the blunder of claiming that Sofia was Latina, due to her mother, Queen Miranda, showing traits of Hispanic heritage in her character design. The remark was quickly rescinded for receiving backlash over Sofia's pale skin and blue eyes, which didn't give Latina girls an opportunity to see themselves in her, at least physically. Now, while Sofia clearly was meant to be a mixed race due to her mother's appearance and her entirely absent biological father, executive producer Jamie Mitchell had polarized the series by making such a blanket statement and then taking it back. They looked bad now, and something needed to be done about it.

In early 2015, Elena of Avalor was announced as an upcoming spin-off to Sofia the First, and the internet rejoiced. Here was a brand new Disney Princess who was undeniably Latina. The show drew from Aztec myths and Spanish traditions, revolving around giving Latina girls a princess to call their own. Success! Disney had corrected Mitchell's blunder. Unfortunately, that seemed to be the only thing the series was focused on. While Sofia was facing dragons, winning races, and reforming sorcerers, Elena dealt with such exciting adventures as entertaining political ambassadors from the next kingdom over. The show had a lot of potential, featuring an older princess who lived in the same world as Sofia, but the writers had no idea what direction they wanted to take it after that.

Contrary to the show's misleading opening sequence, in which Elena drives a carriage while engaging in a sword fight at the same time and wins, Elena of Avalor has very little to offer that Sofia the First fans have not already seen. As a character, Elena comes off as little more than a politician who's mostly talk, with a design that is eerily similar to Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. If it were up to me, I would much rather watch a show about her little sister, Isabel, a budding inventor, who is smart, fun, flawed, and in many ways, a more interesting character than Elena. If Elena used her magic staff as much as Sofia made use of Amulet of Avalor, the show would stand out a lot more as a fantasy/adventure series. Even though the staff was heavily featured in promotions and merchandise, it took Elena multiple episodes just to figure out how it worked. When she finally managed to defeat a villain with its brilliant light, she passed out for a week! So much for having a strong new princess role model.

Elena owes her entire existence to Sofia in more ways than one. Her premiere movie, Elena and the Secret of Avalor, got delayed and aired several months after the show had already launched. In it, Sofia learns that Elena had been trapped in her magical amulet for forty years and immediately goes on a quest to Avalor to free her. Even though the special is featured as an Elena episode and includes Elena's iconic song, "My Time," which premiered long before it, Sofia is the one who does the bulk of the heroics. It is Sofia who convinces her entire family to go to Avalor, Sofia who sneaks into a magical cave, uses her powers to free Elena, and later Sofia who convinces Elena to accept her people's help in initiating a revolution. Elena's one attempt to stand up against the evil sorceress Shuriki ends in total failure, when she realizes that she can't use Shuriki's own wand against her and probably should have thought this plan through before barging into battle. It's no wonder Elena gives Sofia such a big grateful hug when she frees her.


Even though Sofia had the Amulet of Avalor since the very beginning, the writers of her show were very vague about Avalor's origins, giving them free reign to turn it into a fantasy Spanish kingdom later, saving their own butts from the media's backlash. The diversity and representation that Elena gives the Disney Princess line is terrific, and I hope that they continue to move in this direction. However, Sofia the First was created with a simple idea to give little girls a character they could imagine with and live out their fantasies. Elena, on the other hand, was created primarily for marketing purposes, and because of that, her show lacks the same heart and soul as its predecessor.

Comments

Anonymous said…
This is the dumbest and most anti-princess viewpoint possible. I can tell you've never truly understood the lessons taught by any Disney princess. You should feel bad!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the article! I totally agree with you - when I went back and watched both Sofia the First and Elena of Avalor, the former definitely had way more appeal and elements that were endearing. Though I appreciated Disney's efforts to create a more diverse princess, I definitely enjoyed Sofia's adventures more because that show seemed to have more sincerity in it. I noticed how Elena's songs always had a sort of Spanish or Mexican musical style involved, which was great, but they didn't have the catchiness or fun sing-along aspect of Sofia's songs.
i always liked sofia the first more than elena of avalor, since i felt that cragi put a bit more of effort on develop her than in elena.
Lisa Dawn said…
I thought so too, but it's not a very popular opinion.
Jenai Rothnie said…
I love Sophia's series, as she is sweet and sincere. My one critique with it is that she's massively overpowered by the end with quite a handful of different special roles and superpowers. But, it isn't too big of a deal since she's a Disney Princess and it feels like she earns most of those powers and roles honestly.

Whereas for Elena's series, I have very mixed feelings. Some of the episodes are clever and fun, while some fall flat using the common trope trope of making a character act over the top or stupidly out of character to drum up drama and put everyone in peril. Elena herself is hot headed, often rushes in without a plan, and picks on her sister and friends at times. Yet while Elena *sometimes* learns slight lessons she's almost always reset as the plot needs back to hotheaded, while simultaneously treated as a role model.

The songs also feel less varied - almost every holiday is boiled down to 'family,' and almost every inspirational song follows the format that 'wow we really messed up but hope and we'll do better.' There are some exceptions that are really nice, but overall the music seems like filler. (Which does lead to one of the funniest moments in the series when little sister Isabel tries to do 'what Elena would do' and sings a few bars of a pithy inspirational song to her wizard friend. 😂)

I still found Elena's series enjoyable, especially in the later seasons that got more adventurous. I didn't mind the politics too much, other than the suspicious plot glossing over that nearly every time there was a diplomatic event everyone would end up in mortal peril. I don't think people would be coming to hang out in the kingdom after that. 😂

But if I'd give Sophia a 9/10 as a role model, Elena's more like a 6/10.
Lisa Dawn said…
Hi Jenai,

What a fantastic critique! I agree with pretty much everything you said. While Sofia does essentially reach goddess status by the end of the show in terms of power, it still makes it a fun world to fantasize about because that level of power means you'd never really be in danger. Plus, it does feel like she is worthy of her abilities even though some of them don't always make sense.

I also agree that Elena of Avalor was inconsistent and got better as it went on. The show's opening was rather misleading about what kind of show it was, focusing on a scene of her swordfighting a bandit on a carriage, which turned out to be from a random short and not even a real episode. The opening made her look like a brave "warrior princess" type who was never afraid to take on bad guys with a bladder or staff. Yet, the show itself portrayed her as more of a diplomat who works behind the scenes to recruit soldiers and maintain peace as much as necessary. There was only one episode about how she wanted to be a great fencer like her mother, but this seemed of place because she never used that skill outside of the one competition, and most of the show turned out to be about learning the powers of her staff until she received the more character-appropriate emotion-based powers closer to the end. So yeah, it really felt like they didn't know what kind of show they wanted it to be when they wrote the first season, whereas Sofia's show was pretty consistent throughout.

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