Last week, Disney announced the animated character of Princess Elena of Avalor as its newest princess to join its well known roster of young female royalty adored by millions of young girls worldwide. Disney’s press release described the 16-year-old fairytale heiress as “bold, caring, funny and clever”; living in a kingdom “INSPIRED by diverse Latin cultures and folklore”.
For many, this announcement has been greeted with joyous enthusiasm and the fulfillment of a long delayed dream come true. Finally, legions of young Latina children, who’s bedroom blankets, school backpacks, lunch boxes and much more for decades have borne the multi-cultural images of Cinderella, Pocahontas, Snow White, Mulan, Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, Princess Tiana and even Princess Ariel, a mermaid… would, at long last, have a Disney Princess that they could embrace as their own.
Finally, they would have a Latina “Disney Princess”. Or, would they, truly ?
A closer look at Princess Elena’s rollout announcement should, perhaps, lead one to reassess whether this celebration of what others, not Disney itself, have deemed as the company’s “First Latina Disney Princess” is truly deserved, or even accurate. If one measures Princess Elena’s recent unveiling by the same comparative yardstick as her royal companions in the Disney fairytale universe; such a celebration over the public coronation of Elena as “Disney’s First Latina Princess” might be a little bit premature.
Before writing this article, I wanted to be completely fair and not jump the gun on which Disney characters the company considers worthy of the title of Princess – with a capital “P”. Why ? Because I’m an artist / cartoonist, who also happens to be Latino, and I love all things Disney and their characters. Disney has been the joyous, colorful and immensely imaginative part of many a childhood, including my own as a then aspiring illustrator. Each week, large numbers of young Latina children now ask me to draw them dressed as their favorite princess at a local Boston-area hospital. For them, the ability to emulate and identify with a Disney Princess is something truly wonderful, extraordinarily marvelous and almost magical to see.
So, I checked Disney’s own Wikia page at Disney.Wikia.com/Disney_Princess to verify how the company itself decides who is part of their official Disney Princess line-up. The main common denominator was that each Princess had their own animated, big-budget feature film.
All the familiar names, plus a few more, quickly came into view on the webpage. There was Cinderella, Belle, Aurora, Snow White, Merida, Rapunzel; all of implicitly European heritage and ethnicity. There was Jasmine, described on the site as a “spunky, independent Arabian Princess” and Tiana, which the webpage describes as the “first ( Disney ) Princess of African-American descent”.
The official Disney Princess site also refers to Rapunzel as being based on a German character, Merida as Scottish, Belle as French and new “Frozen” princesses Elsa and Anna as Norwegian. Pocahontas and Mulan are also designated on the page as “official” Princesses. Their ethnic background should appear quite obvious to film audiences.
Princess Elena was nowhere to be found on this official Disney Princess webpage.
So, why is Princess Elena only vaguely and ambiguously described as being – quote – “influenced by culture and traditions that are familiar to the worldwide population of Hispanic and Latino families?” One might expect, or hope, Elena deserves as definitive an ethnicity or country of origin as her other animated royal sisters, right?
More so, why is this Latin influenced princess being unveiled on “Disney Junior” ( A daily program block on the much larger Disney Channel ) with programming targeted for children 2 to 7 years-old, according to it’s online press release? What about the millions of Latina pre-teens and teenagers, who are too mature to watch the “Disney Junior” programming; yet, who also want to regularly see a Disney Princess that directly represents who they are culturally, physically and with pride?
Why does every other “official” Disney Princess get her own full-length feature film to cement her position into the bedrock of Disney iconography and animated female royalty; while Elena gets a cable TV show?
A feature film Disney Princess lasts forever. Snow White has been around since her debut in 1937.
A TV show inevitably gets cancelled for new and fresher programming at some point. It’s characters sidelined or largely forgotten thereafter.
Why Disney gives the appearance, at the very least, of being ambivalent to explicitly unveil Elena ( or someone ) as its “First Latina Disney Princess” with the feature-length film treatment that all its other top tier Princesses have been given is puzzling. The studio certainly wishes to celebrate Hispanic culture in a positive way by virtue of at least creating Elena in the first place. Also, in coming weeks, Disney Pictures will debut a live action film, “McFarlandUSA” which wonderfully explores Hispanic culture, family and pride via a true life success story.
Still, in the eyes of a little Latina girl, such adult nuances in entertainment matter little. Save for the pre-teen children who’s families can afford premium cable TV to watch Princess Elena on Disney Junior; millions of other Latina little girls will still be waiting and hoping to someday see a bonafide Latina Disney Princess on the big silver screen, and later on DVDs, that they can enjoy over and over again with glee.
If you’re not a parent, or just young at heart; you might ask why is this a big deal? After all, it’s just a animated Disney character.
It’s a big deal because it represents cultural and ethnic inclusion into a uniquely American institution that our children want to see reflects them and who they are. It’s a big deal for a little girl with magical dreams to see someone wearing a crown on the big screen that looks like them or their mom or any Latina woman they respect. The new Princess Elena may not make the cut to be part of the elite Disney Princess group. However, at some point, a young Latina female most assuredly should be, must be added to this already culturally and ethnically diverse group of Disney icons.
Someday, like Snow White’s royal prince, that day will come. But, not right away. The Disney Princess website updated January 31st says the studio is slated to release the musical film “Moana” in November, 2016.
That film will feature a spirited teenager who will be – quote – “Disney’s first Polynesian Princess.”
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Tim Estiloz is an Emmy winning entertainment journalist and member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association.
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