Commentary: Disney's newest princess and the meaning of 'ethnic enough'

The Kansas City StarOctober 27, 2012 

Another day, another Disney princess.

At first glance, Sofia looks like every other Disney leading lady — small lips, button nose, big doe eyes. But she’s different. She’s Disney’s first little girl princess, tailor made for the 2- to 7-year-old set. More than that, she’s the first Latina to join the clique.

Disney will debut “Sofia the First: Once Upon a Princess,” a made-for-TV movie, at 6 p.m. Nov. 18 on the Disney Channel. Next year, there will be a “Sofia the First” television series.

It seems like a landmark occasion, but with her blue eyes and golden brown hair, there’s been backlash. Some say Sofia isn’t Latina enough. Excuse me? Have these critics met blue-eyed Cameron Diaz? Or green-eyed La La Anthony? Not every Latina looks like Selma Hayek or Jennifer Lopez.

I grew up with a multitude of Latinas in my northern Virginia hometown outside of Washington, D.C. Their diversity is vast. Too often, Americans think Latina or Hispanic and think Mexican. But it’s so much more than that. There are Puerto Ricans, Hondurans, Panamanians, Cubans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Colombians and more. Sometimes their roots are European. Others are African.

It reminds me of when critics cried foul over Disney’s first African-American princess, Tiana. They said she wasn’t black enough.

I understand the desire to see darker princesses in the Disney bunch, but what does being ethnic “enough” mean? I get tired of hearing that phrase. As if a certain gesture or look dictates your identity. That’s just not the case.

Tasha Francois, 28, is petite. Her hair is dark. Her skin is pale. The Kansas City saleswoman’s eyes are a striking blue and almond-shaped. People think she’s Asian.

“They are often surprised to find out I am Honduran,” she says. “We all look very different,” she says of Latinos.

To her, Sofia looks Spanish. Tasha says it’s important to recognize the culture beyond its stereotypes. She’s excited to see the new Disney movie and series.

Loren Ochoa Walsh of Bonner Springs says it’s very cool of Disney to diversify its royalty. But she also thinks it’s important that little girls see princesses who actually look like them. Loren, 31, is Mexican and white. She doesn’t see herself in the tiny princess.

“I don’t see much difference between Sofia and Belle,” she says of the “Beauty and the Beast” character. “I know there are Latinas with light eyes and hair, but Sofia doesn’t look like any of the women in my family. Maybe her hair could be darker and they could have taken the step to specify where she is from.”

Disney doesn’t give Sofia’s actual Hispanic roots. Instead, she is from fictitious places. Sofia is “half Enchancian and half Galdizian,” according to Disney. And though the company says she is Latina, the show’s focus is more on her age than her culture.

“We never actually call it out,” Joe D’Ambrosia, vice president of Disney Junior original programming, told Entertainment Weekly. “When we go into schools … what I find fascinating is that every girl thinks that they’re Sofia.”

Why isn’t it at the forefront? Hispanics are the largest minority group, yet they are sadly underrepresented in the media. Others trust in Disney to get it right.

Trinessa Fisk, a 34-year-old Kansas City mother of three, says how Sofia looks will not dictate who she is. Her storyline will do that.

“As a mother of children who are of mixed race and culture, I believe Disney does very well with providing diversity,” Trinessa said. “Our world is a mixed culture right now, and we need to realize that not everyone looks the same, no matter your heritage. If we all looked the same, there would be no beauty in any of us.”

Her children are half white and half Chamorro, people from the Mariana Islands. But people don’t know that by simply looking at them.

“If you look at my sons, they have an olive complexion, and you can tell they are a mixed race. But my daughter is very pale. That doesn’t change that she is part Chamorro,” she says.

As much as I would love to see Sofia’s culture brought into the Disney storyline, there is something slightly refreshing about the focus being connected to Sofia the person and not the ethnicity. When it comes to an America where we’re all equal and can appreciate our differences, isn’t getting to know our character the point?

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