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Castles in the Sky: Decolonizing Culture and Recoloring Fantasy

Elena of Avalor is Disney’s new princess. She has been branded as the “First Latina Princess,” and hailed as a milestone.

A young fan gets an arm painting of Elena of Avalor, the first Latina Disney Princess, at a screening event in Beverly Hills, California, on July 16, 2016. (Photo: Disney / ABC Television Group)

Elena of Avalor is Disney’s new princess. She has been branded as the “First Latina Princess,” and hailed as a milestone for diversifying the Disney brand, and also reaching out to one of the fastest-growing consumer markets (and youngest demographics) in the country. She’s basically a brown-tinted version of the generic template: sparkly dress with baroque-slash-victorian aesthetics, the hint of an hourglass shape without distracting cleavage, wavy brunette hair betraying no ethnic peculiarities, and of course, a tiara. There’s something comforting about seeing an underrepresented group grafted so seamlessly onto the quintessential icon of femininity. But as always, the pages of this fairy tale are slightly frayed around the edges.

We’re moving past the days when all fairy tales were festooned with lily-white virgins and virile patrarchs, and the oddball side characters aren’t encoded with vile ethnic caricatures masquerading as off-color animals — the cackling crow, the conniving Siamese cats. Now the heroine is a lady of color and in this royal family at least, there’s the lilt of a creole. In introducing a Latino fairyland family, Patricia Garcia at Vogue writes, the narrative:

presents a multitude of Latino traditions in a fun way, without ever falling into the trap of stereotypes. The opening song is a catchy merengue tune like the ones I grew up dancing to back in Venezuela. A few of the characters, such as Elena’s grandparents, have noticeable accents, similar to the ones my parents have. And most of the people who live in Avalor have Spanish names like Mateo, Luna, and Francisco.

But of course, queue the killjoy. The previews, aside from being visually dazzling, reveal some odd cultural elisions in the ahistorical Kingdom of Avalor. At the Guardian, Melissa Lozada-Oliva observes:

Elena isn’t indigenous or Afro-Latina or from a specific Latin-American country. She is a thin, light-brown Latina princess from Avalor, a made up Latin-American-esque kingdom that exists in a pre-colonial, pre-Columbian world. This, by the way, is baffling: how does one understand their Latino identity without acknowledging colonialism? While the backdrop of Elena is influenced by Mayan culture and Chilean folklore, her race and ethnicity is otherwise based in Disney fantasy.

In fact, the tricky subtext of Elena and other “precolonial” narratives is that the world they construct is like a sanitized, cartoonified version of what a postcolonial culture actually is. It’s the selective appropriation of the glory and glitter without the messy underbelly of the wars and plunder that yielded the treasure in the first place. The magic kingdoms emerge from fluffy clouds, not from the bloodlust of religious wars or genocidal land struggles or the displacement of indigenous peoples. Empire traded the wages of mass violence for the redemption of honor, chivalry, patrilineal inheritance and feudal titles.

But the New World wouldn’t allow for such historical erasure, primarily because it suddenly creted a world where both the wars and the glory existed simultaneously, but just in two different parts of the planet. On one side of the ocean was the plunder and slavery, on the other side were the spoils of colonization, the opulent metropole, and the peaceful fiefdoms that could be quieted as long as unruly criminal types were exported from the cities off to make mayhem or perish in far-flung colonial outposts.

The system, of course, didn’t hold, and when the castles collapsed amid revolution and civil war, we got something that looks a lot like, well, the post-colonial state depicted by Fanon and Naipaul. Their world wasn’t Disney, but there was something surreal about it, where the wretched of the earth somehow became the new masters, free to make their own gods and heroes, and chart the rise — and falls — of their own empires. We’re still writing that story, but our migrant diasporas speak to the ongoing chapter of the post-colonial project. The new art forms are fairy tales of a sort, but they embrace the bitter folklore that’s a product of both coercion and overcoming. The Latin American diaspora in many ways embodies this narrative arc, from magical realism to mambo to the Pink Tide to reggaeton.

Like the world of Disney, it’s a mash-up that defies easy temporal or cultural categorization. Unlike the world of Disney, some writers and artists aren’t afraid to confront the ugliness of the past and its harsh politics — not only to unearth the skeletons of history but to expose the historical erasures and self-induced amnesia that have been stifled and left to fester for generations. But there’s a beauty in it too, without apology:

Lozada-Oliva continues:

It’s almost romantic to think that Disney has taken so long to have a brown-skinned Latina Princess because we are just so hard to get right. Like Elena, I am a mixture of Latino cultures. Like Elena, I am a mixture of Latino cultures.

When speaking Spanish, my accent is some parts my father’s Colombian paisano, my mother’s Guatemala city, and whatever the hell contrived accent I learned in Spanish class. When people ask me which side of myself I identify with more, I can’t give them a definite answer. I understand my identity to be something that is sloppily mashed together — like the food my Abuelita sneaks over from her trips to Guatemala. I know what it is, and I know the way it is supposed to taste, but travel and time has made it kind of just look like a weird thing in a plastic container….

But every culture is hard to get right and define, and Disney has certainly mangled them before. I don’t think we can make progress by waiting for “everybody’s princess.” The only way we can get full, accurate representation is by shouting ourselves into existence and carving stories in places that were not meant for us.

The worlds of a migrant diaspora are those that families without the luxury of complete historical amnesia construct from deep wells of sorrow and loss. But they populate the spaces with stories that braid the suffering with the redemption. Characters like Elena cannot capture that, but she may captivate some children’s imaginations. According to one study, Disney princesses can actually provide powerful models to kids to influence behavioral development and gender identity. That could lead to the imposition of narrow cultural constraints, but the researchers’ findings also show that imagery can sow a deep influence on children’s psyches. The worlds we imagine as children are fantasies, but they inform our realities as adults, for better or worse.

Another angle on ethnicity-as-entertainment comes from the critical eye of performer Wile E. Filipino, after he had slogged through culturally tone-deaf productions of Miss Saigon and other “classics”:

I learned that it’s rather presumptuous for three White guys to get together and write a show about the experience of people of color set within the context of their culture, without major involvement of people from that culture. Almost as presumptuous as white producers (who are simply trying to cash in on a movie version of another musical by the same creative team) patting themselves on the back for “starting a conversation” when many of us, members of the same geographical community, have lived with the issues of racial discrimination, bias, and prejudice all our lives.

Whether we are writing or performing or making art, embedded in every hybrid cultural expression is an act of reinterpretation that flirts with exploitation.

Kids’ stories are by definition simple, so they may seem “easier” to play with. But whether we’re telling stories to our peers or to our youth or elders, the way we respond to the fantasy versions of our ethnic identities holds consequences for the next generation. The stories also attest to the ongoing project of reconciling history across generations.

Yes, Disney is an embarrassing hodge-podge of cultural revisionism. But so are we all, maybe with a different accent and a different inflection. Our heroes can diverge from convention too, however, whether they’re futuristic superheroes or Manga universes or rebranded Jane Bonds, or revisionist Broadway musical characters that play on stereotypes in order to subvert and explode them. Every artistic endeavor is the labor of historical trespass, inlaid with the winking magic of historical imagination. Why “start a conversation” when you can invent your own mythology?

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