Next month, Disney’s newest princess will make her TV debut. Sofia the First is a cartoon for children that will air on the Disney Channel and Disney Junior, according to the original announcement in The New York Times. Sofia, played by Modern Family‘s Ariel Winter, is a little girl who lucks into the princess gig when her mother marries the king, and learns along the way that being a princess is not just about being pretty, but about being kind and brave and hear that, little girls? If you were a good and special person, you’d be a princess. Anyway, with all the criticism it’s faced over the whole princess image, Disney is apparently going out of its way to imbue this toy line — I mean show — with positive messages, among them diversity.
That’s right, diversity! You’ll be pleasantly surprised to hear that, according to Kaity Weaver’s article on Gawker.com, executive producer Jamie Mitchell has confirmed that Sofia is Latina. Don’t let her light auburn hair, translucent skin and blue eyes fool you. The terms “Latina” and “Latino” actually cover a broad aesthetic base, so even though she’s blindingly white in more ways than one and her heritage, says Disney Junior’s Joe D’Ambrosia, will never be acknowledged on the show . . . you know, PROGRESS.
I probably don’t even need to point out the problems with this. First of all, yes, before anyone accuses me of stereotyping, of course it is possible for a Latina to look like Sofia does. It is also possible for one not to look like pretty much every whitey-white princess Disney has ever trotted out. I, for one, am shocked that Disney went with the former option, aren’t you? Shocked.
Secondly, Sofia’s mother actually does have a notably darker complexion than her daughter does. Some might call this progress, and in a way it is, but it also strongly implies that aesthetic variety should be left to the less-glamorous supporting characters, while the actual one little girls will be looking up to must be whitewashed within an inch of her life, even when it makes little sense based on her obvious genetics. The fact that Sofia’s mother looks nothing like her daughter kind of detracts from the whole “but a lot of Latinas DO look like her, you racist” argument in this context, because, unless we get a flashback of Sofia’s father and see he was whiter than a Weasley, the show itself shows there’s no reason for Sofia to look as stubbornly Anglo-Saxon as she does. It’s also showing kids that a lot of Latinas don’t look like Belle or Enchanted‘s Giselle, yet the show still wanted one who did.
Third, if you’re not going to bother making the main character look any different from the Disney norm, why bother making her “Latina” at all? I say that not because Latinas need to look a certain way, but because the claim is simply meaningless in context. D’Ambrosia straight-up said Sofia’s heritage will never be addressed in canon, because, heck, how could it be? The show, as far as I can tell, is set in a fantasy kingdom called Enchancia. We can safely assume the Americas or any places we could name don’t even exist in this universe. If the nationalities we know of don’t exist in Enchancia, then Sofia is not Latina, European, American, zip. The sole point of making her “Latina” would be to give more little girls a princess who looks like them. And, well, Disney — you didn’t. So don’t try to pretend she represents a cultural minority just to pat yourselves on the backs. If you just wanted another white princess, that’s fine, but at least be upfront about it.
You might say I’m taking this cartoon for 2-7-year-olds too seriously, but there is no doubt little girls will swallow this show whole. Remember how important our cinematic heroes were to us as children? When I was little, my friends and I staked our claims as to what animated princess(es) we “were” based on which ones we most resembled. We actually felt vindicated by princesses who looked like us, resentful of and threatened by ones who didn’t (though we went by hair color, not skin). Watching movies in which there were no glamorously portrayed brunettes, I would even feel alienated as a little girl, like the movie was saying I wasn’t pretty or special. Don’t underestimate the effect the media has on even the youngest of children.
But the biggest problem here, clearly, is the name. Princess Sofia? Really? That name has been trademarked in our minds by How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Disney, and you’re selling this as a children’s show.