What are children's movies teaching about diversity?
Posted November 28, 2016
Amanda Walker has seen Disney “come a long way regarding diversity and inclusion.”
Walker, the mother of a 2-year-old girl, knows what impact children’s movies can have on the ideals and values of her family, including the importance of diversity.
“When you coexist with other cultural backgrounds, it provides interesting insight into your own cultural background — how we think, how we act, how we respond to situations, how we learn, and how we see other people,” Walker said in an interview with the Deseret News.
According to the Washington Post, Disney's new movie, "Moana," which hits theaters Nov. 23, is an example of a film that further encourages diversity.
The movie follows the adventures of a Hawaiian girl named Moana and a demigod named Maui as they embark on a quest to find a legendary Pacific island. According to the Washington Post, "Disney’s ‘Moana’ points the way forward for actor diversity in animated films." The Post says after an extensive casting search, young Hawaiian native Auli’i Cravalho was selected to provide the voice for Moana. Cravalho is one of several actors in the movie who have Hawaiian, Filipino, Maori or Samoan roots.
"(With) 'Moana,' (directors John) Musker and (Ron) Clements can help lead mainstream American animation ever toward more culturally sensitive casting," the article states.
A diverse world is “a wonderful gift,” wrote Christopher J. Metzler, associate dean of Human Resources for the Masters of Professional Studies at Georgetown University, in "Teaching Children About Diversity" on PBS.org.
“The challenge for parents is ensuring that children learn to accept and respect differences, thus making them more productive adults,” he wrote. “But, where do we start? Children don't come with instructions, but they do come with open minds.”
Metzer notes that just as parents teach their children "to brush their teeth, to comb their hair, to be responsible and to be successful," they also need to teach them to accept cultural differences.
According to Luis Armenta, student vice president over diversity and clubs at Utah State University, media, including movies, is one way parents can shine a light on a variety of cultures.
“It is by (movies) that you can learn about the profound importance of honor in the Asian culture through ‘Mulan,’" Armenta said in an interview with the Deseret News. "It is through ‘Glory Road’ where you learn about the adversity African Americans faced and the great courage that was needed to help shape our country.”
According to a Los Angeles Times article titled "Diversity can be seen and heard in animated films," Disney's push for greater diversity began two decades ago with the release of films such as "Pocahontas" in 1995, "Mulan" in 1998 and "Lilo & Stitch" in 2002.
The article also pointed to other recent examples such as 2009's Oscar-winning "Up," which featured a young Korean-American boy who befriends an older white male, and "Big Hero 6," which "featured a cast that included two women (one of them Latina), an African American and an Asian American."
Gabriela Alvarez, a student from Elon University, wrote an article as part of the school's Human Right's and Social Justice Writing Contest that also pointed to Jasmine from "Aladdin" and Tiana from "The Princess and the Frog" as multicultural characters with a “powerful message” for audiences, teaching lessons that extend beyond cultural and racial diversity.
“Mulan, a Chinese warrior … demonstrates an independent style of living that can inspire personal responsibility in young children,” Alvarez wrote. “Tiana, Disney’s first African American princess, stays true to her incredible work ethic, sense of faith and responsibility through all the trials of her life. … Jasmine, Disney’s Middle-Eastern princess, denies her father’s attempts at an arranged marriage for herself and instead looks for adventure and true love on her own, forming freedoms previously not available to her.”
Like many other critics, though, Alvarez also chided Disney for films in its canon that lack representation of "issues affecting contemporary families," such as divorce and unemployed parents, and other films that contain undertones of "female subordination."
Walker, however, feels that recent, more culturally diverse animated films are expanding to include the women in different roles.
“Not only (is Disney) including different ethnicities and cultures, but the stories and roles include so much more than a girl who falls in love,” Walker said. “These young girls are finding themselves and learning to be authentic to who they truly are. They don't need a Prince Charming to define them. This progression will help to teach young boys and girls that they are strong and independent.”
According to Time.com's article titled "Why Disney decided to make Moana the ultimate anti-princess," the directors of "Moana" intentially sought to make Moana a strong, independent woman and chose not to include romance in the plot.
“We saw this as a hero’s journey, a coming-of-age story, in a different tradition than the princess stories,” Clements said in the article.
“We thought it would be very appealing to do a female empowerment story that didn’t center on any sort of romance,” Musker added.
As for Armenta, he expressed appreciation for Disney’s recent efforts to increase diversity and hopes it will help him teach his future children the importance of it.
“As for my children, I hope they are able to have a profound respect for everyone when it comes to diversity,” Armenta said. “They may not agree with them but to still love them and treat them kindly. I want them to also have an open mind and take the best from all cultures.”
Although Walker’s daughter is just beginning to talk, Walker stressed the importance of raising children with “a clean slate” by teaching that “our culture isn't the right way, it's just different than others.”
"We live in a melting pot, giving us the opportunity to learn and practice cultural and racial acceptance," Walker said. "Diversity provides the opportunity to learn about other cultures and in turn learn more about ourselves.”