How Black Activists Changed Disney’s Mind About Princess Tiana’s Skin in ‘Wreck It Ralph 2’

Good example of positive activism and the receptivity to criticism, reflecting likely both openness as well as fears of a public backlash to the film:

This summer, Disney’s upcoming Wreck-It Ralph sequel created a good deal of buzz, thanks to a heavily teased princess sleepover scene. But while many fans went wild for the 2018 take on animated royalty, some were quick to point out that certain princesses were more noticeably “updated” than others. Princess Tiana, Disney’s first black princess, appeared to have had some work done. As The Root pointed out in August, “The newest iteration of Tiana seems to have traded in her dark skin and more African features for a seemingly more caramel hue and prototypical Pixar snub nose, complete with a mane of 3c curls.”

The internet didn’t take kindly to Disney tweaking Tiana’s appearance, underscoring that the shift toward more Eurocentric features and a lighter skin tone reinforced colorism and racist beauty standards. The racial justice organization Color of Change crystallized these sentiments in an online petition, writing that, “To re-create Princess Tiana with Eurocentric features sets a harmful precedent that Black features are considered less valuable than white features.”

“It is crucial that Princess Tiana remain the same as her original depiction,” the petition continued. “Disney must take responsibility for changing Tiana’s image and work to restore her to her original image.”

Rashad Robinson, the President of Color of Change, told The Daily Beast that the organization had been in the process of drafting an email to its over 1.4 million members when they first made contact with Disney. “We wanted to reach out to them first,” Robinson recalled. “We were very transparent on our end, by actually sharing with them the copy. We have well over a million members, and when we send out a petition like this, oftentimes news media will cover it before we even get a lot of signers, especially on an issue like this. We never had to send out that email.”

“We had that back and forth, and then on August 21 we had a phone meeting with Disney,” he explained. The group received a “verbal agreement” that changes would be made to restore Tiana to her original depiction. Next, they had a “series of text exchanges confirming the extensive changes that had been made,” and were invited to come to Burbank to walk through the alterations in person.

Color of Change’s campaigns span the government, technology, media, and culture sectors. As Robinson puts it, “We do everything from working on the written rules of policy to the unwritten rules of culture.” The Princess Tiana controversy was a natural fit for the organization, and an issue that members were extremely passionate about. “It wasn’t that I was sitting at home and saw the Wreck-It Ralph trailer,” Robinson joked. “It’s that people really reached out to us with this.”

“When Princess Tiana’s character came out, this princess who was from the Gulf Coast, from New Orleans, Louisiana, it was a character that we hadn’t seen before at that high level of a princess movie. And she represented the image that a lot of black girls could see in themselves, could see in their aunt or their cou sin or their mother. And then when the new representation was coming out, it just looked radically different, and the image of Tiana had become something that took away some of the features that made Tiana so unique in the first place for a Disney character. Doing that without a conversation felt, for us, deeply troubling.”

For Robinson, Disney’s willingness to re-draw Princess Tiana and reanimate portions of Ralph Breaks the Internet sends a strong statement—not just about Disney’s openness to critique, but about the community’s power to band together and effect real change. “I think Disney did the right thing here,” he told The Daily Beast. “Disney heard from the community, they recognized there was a problem, they sought to work with us as a racial justice organization, and they kept us informed. We wanted to let our people know that they spoke up and changes were made.”

He explained that, from the get-go, Disney “recognized that there was a problem, and they were willing to work on it… They explained various reasons for how the problem came about, but there did not seem to be any interest from them in saying that they just wanted to go forward, or hoping that we would be OK with that.” And, as Robinson pointed out, the redraw “certainly was not cheap.”

“Hollywood still has work to do,” Robinson stressed, noting that “this country had a black president before it had a black superhero.” Still, he continued, “I really want to celebrate the fact that this was not months of fighting with Disney. This was a conversation. If they didn’t make the changes, I would be here pushing hard at them for not doing that, but I think it’s important when folks do make the changes that you celebrate the fact that they were willing to listen, especially in this era when so often we are really closed off from listening, and from hearing concerns from communities that are not our own.”

Disney has been repeatedly criticized for whitewashing, from casting Johnny Depp as Tonto in 2013 to recently creating a new character just so they could cast a white person in Aladdin. The Ralph Breaks the Internet trailer actually set off multiple parallel controversies, with fans arguing that both Pocahontas and Mulan appeared to have lighter complexions and altered facial features. Asked how Disney was unable to recognize the potential pitfalls of Tiana’s redesign before unleashing it on the critical masses, Robinson replied, “I really can’t speak to it, but I’m assuming that Disney will be able to catch these in the future! I also hope that this opens up more space for black women and black folks who are animators to be in positions of power and positions of opportunity.”

On Instagram Anika Noni Rose, the voice of Tiana, shared that she also spoke with Disney about the Wreck-It Ralph alterations. “This summer new images were released where [Tiana] looked very different, with lighter skin and much sharper features,” Rose wrote. “My team and I immediately put in a call to the studio to talk about the visual changes.”

Through an in-person meeting, the actress explained, animators “explained how CGI animation did different things to the characters’ color tones in different light compared to hand drawn original characters, and I was able to express how important it is to the little girls (and let’s face it, grown women) who felt represented by her that her skin tone stay as rich as it had been, and that her nose continue to be the little round nose that [original animator Mark Henn] so beautifully rendered in the movie; the same nose on my very own face and on many other little brown faces around the world, that we so rarely get to see represented in fantasy.”

Rose concluded, “I also appreciate that this far into the process Disney had enough care and respect of all who love Princess Tiana and her legacy to spend the time and money to make the adjustments necessary.”

Source: How Black Activists Changed Disney’s Mind About Princess Tiana’s Skin in ‘Wreck It Ralph 2’

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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