Sofia is Disney’s latest princess who was originally identified as Latina, but Disney clarified that she is a mixed-heritage princess in a fairy-tale world. Her mother is from a Spain-inspired kingdom, and her birth father is from a realm inspired by Scandinavia.
Disney has released a new princess, but not without controversy.
Sofia is the star of the television movie Sofia the First: Once Upon a Princess, which premiered on Nov. 18 on the Disney Channel. At first, many were thrilled to finally see a Latina princess join the ranks.
During a recent press tour, someone asked the show’s executive producer, Jamie Mitchell, about Sofia’s mother’s darker complexion.
“She is Latina,” he said, acknowledging that this makes Sofia the first Latina Disney princess.
Then people took a closer look. Tiny Sofia, while convincingly adorable, has ivory skin, auburn hair and exceedingly blue eyes. Some Latinas started to say, “Wait. Sofia is supposed to be Latina? She doesn’t look anything like me.”
Is ethnocentricity an issue here? University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill senior David Gahary said he thinks our culture has a very one-sided view of what “Latino” means.
“If you check the box that says, ‘I’m Hispanic,’ you’re expected to look a certain way,” he said.
“Sofia looks white,” said 19-year-old Andrea Becerra of Wake Technical Community College. “The majority of Hispanics don’t [look like her].”
“I just hope Disney decided on Sofia’s skin color simply because that’s what the artist wanted, not because that was the only appearance that would sell to a white-majority America,” said Maria Arulraja, a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“What if Barack Obama was the same man with the same beliefs,” Arulraja said, “but he looked more like Samuel L. Jackson, with darker skin and more prominent ‘African’ features? Would he have been accepted? Lighter skin is still seen as ‘better,’” she added, referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Arulraja’s own Sri Lankan culture.
But Maria Pia Rodriguez, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, said those complaining about Sofia’s physical appearance overlook the fact that many Latinos actually are fair-skinned.
“People who are truly insulted by a Hispanic Disney princess that does not look like the ‘stereotypical’ Hispanic — but who does look like many fair-skinned Hispanics I know — are only further implementing the stereotype,” she said.
Since Mitchell made the statement that Sofia is Latina, Disney has backpedaled, emphasizing that the character’s ethnicity is not of importance. The show’s producers stressed that this entire ordeal is all make-believe; Sofia’s mother is from a fictional land inspired by Spain, while her father’s birthplace was inspired by Scandinavia.
Disney’s senior vice president of original programming and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, Nancy Kanter, posted on the “Sofia the First” Facebook page: “Some of you may have seen the recent news stories on whether Sofia is or isn’t a ‘Latina princess.’ What’s important to know is that Sofia is a fairytale girl who lives in a fairytale world.” A Sofia the First a television series will follow last night’s premiere starting in 2013.
Disney has a strong history of ethnic princesses like Mulan, Tiana, Jasmine and Pocahontas — all of whom Disney happily touted as examples of their strong commitment to diversity. By comparison, Sofia’s presentation was unobtrusive.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 25% of children younger than 5 years old in the United States in 2008 were Latino. Since they are the fastest growing minority, UNC-Chapel Hill senior Rena Avramidis said she thinks Latinos should be represented fairly. A Latina girl should be able to see a Latina character on television, she said, but adding that she dislikes clumping all Latinos together.
“Cool, you’re making new princesses, but you need to make more, too,” she said. “Especially for Latinos. That’s like saying you have a black princess, and that’s now representative of all blacks.”
But Americans should not be relying on Disney to accurately portray or define our ever-changing culture, Gahary said.
“We have more autonomy than we think,” he said. “We shouldn’t put our racial issues into the hands of corporate executives.”
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