Oversexualization of Women of Colour in Disney Movies

By Mahnoor Nadir



Ask any girl you know what Disney Princess she is and she wouldn’t even have to think of an answer. I was Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She validated traits in my own personality and added elements that I wished I had. She was smart, she was pretty and she wasn’t afraid to jump into the middle of the fight. Well, to a certain extent. Yet as much as I identified as Belle, I found myself willing to relate to Jasmine, Esmerelda and Pocahontas; the only princesses that looked like me. I was awestruck by Jasmine. I wanted to be this fearless, tiger owning princess who wouldn’t let anyone control her.

​Yet, come moment of truth, seeing her in that high ponytail and red outfit allowing that scarf to cascade off her body as she attempted to seduce Jafaar, left me with a bad taste in my mouth. All that conviction, all that strength, and all that power, boiled down to a weaponization of female sexuality. While oversexualization of female characters is a concept not entirely new to Disney, it takes on more sinister and even deliberate tones when it comes to a portrayal of women of colour. ​ It doesn’t take more than a cursory Wikipedia search to see Esmerelda described in a fetishized manner. ​ “She constantly attracts men with her seductive dances, and is rarely seen without her clever goat Djali.” followed horrifyingly by, “She is around 16 years old and has a kind and generous heart.” ​ While Jasmine’s sexuality appears in a singular scene, Esmerelda is defined by it. Her sexuality, which is central to her character is a deliberate tool she uses to sway white men in the movie, her love interest and antagonist, Frollo. As I listen to ‘Hellfire’ now, it subtly reminds me of Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling; the Rosetta Stone of the colonial fetishization of women of colour. ​ Esmerelda’s character, as strong as it is, exists only through the perceptions of the male characters in the movie, including Quasimodo. It is only through his exultation of her at an altar that she finds redemption. ​ Pocahontas, who is only 14, had perhaps the most adult drawn body of all Disney princesses. In fact, one Disney executive, Glen Keane said, “We’re doing a mature story here, and we’ve got to draw her as such. She has to be sexy.” ​ I beg to differ. ​ Perhaps what makes these parallels more unfortunate is that while these characters are women of colour, there are really no other similarities to justify them. Jasmine could be an Arab princess, Esmerelda a French freedom fighter and Pocahontas a Powhatan chieftain’s daughter, yet they’re ultimately defined by their sexualities that are in service to the male, often white characters in the movies. ​ Beyond these obvious portrayals in their appearance and mannerisms, lies another sinister trait; the ‘wild’ aspect that all three share. One that must inexplicably be tamed or ‘calmed’ down. It suggests that women of colour are perhaps less ‘civilised’ than their lighter skinned counterparts. It also harkens to the sexist narratives of ‘Taming of the shrew’ and enforces the idea of female emotion being invalid and hysterical. One that follows us into our boardrooms today. ​ While I cannot discount that some progress has been made, I wish that we had come further along than we have. When Jasmine sang her power ballad in the remake, I wanted to see her in action but found her just ‘strongly’ imploring Hakim. I felt short-changed. ​ Almost 30 years later today, I wish I could have said that we’re past these issues. Yet when I was followed home by a white man on a bicycle telling me he’s always preferred brown women, I can’t help but wonder if this was a fantasy that was sold to him by Disney? A fantasy that exists at my expense. ​ ​#oversexualizationofwomen #disney #womenindisney

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