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The White-Washing of Children’s Cartoons: Issa Problem

The White-Washing of Children’s Cartoons: Issa Problem

If you keep up with millennial pop culture (which sometimes includes children’s cartoons and media because nostalgia) at all, you might have seen the recent hype over the long-awaited sequel to Disney’s Wreck It Ralph.

Titled Ralph Breaks the Internet, it follows the rag-tag, loveable duo of Ralph and Vanellope on another tech-themed adventure. From the world of retro videogames, the two embark on a journey to the Internet, something viewers of all ages are eager to see. The real excitement came when a short trailer was released where Vanellope meets all the Disney princesses in one room.

In addition to seeing the famous princesses interacting together for the first time, later clips and photo leaks spoil us with cute “dressed-down” Disney royalty. Everyone has their own sleepover style: Anna’s in plaid, Mulan is rocking a cool dragon-print letterman and Tiana…looks totally different?

At least, that’s what Twitter and the rest of the Internet seem to think. While the other princesses received minimal changes beyond more casual-style clothing, Tiana’s appearance was changed almost completely from her original reveal in the trailers. She appears much lighter in skin tone (some critics think that all the princesses of color do) and has a thinner, more “European” nose. Most notably, her “natural hair” boasts a messily looser texture that, frankly, looks like an overbrushed beauty supply store wig.


You might question why such small differences matter. She’s still in the movie, and besides, it’s just a fictional character. But so is Starfire from Teen Titans, yet actress Anna Diop was notably slammed with hateful comments online for being “too dark” to play the alien princess. Even the role of Shuri from Black Panther was at one point offered to Amandla Stenberg, a popular mixed-race actress known for her part in The Hunger Games.  She received praise for turning down the role and acknowledging the colorism in the industry, something of a rare occurrence.

Oddly enough, lightening characters (known as white-washing) is scarcely met with as much criticism as the opposite. Originally, the term was used to refer to using white actors to play people of color. Overtime, it’s come to describe the leaning towards a lighter skin tone or appearance for major roles, even when minority races or ethnicities are involved. The token POC has to be light enough to be desired while still checking off the diversity box. There’s some ingrained ideal in Hollywood that audiences won’t be receptive to anyone who doesn’t pass the paper bag test.

The casting of Alexandra Shipp as Storm in X Men:  Apocalypse involved passing over darker-skinned actresses, despite the character’s native African descent.

Unfortunately, children’s movies and shows aren’t exempt from following this “rule.” In a remake of the Magic School Bus released last year on Netflix, most of the characters were updated to have a more modern look. While they looked generally the same…ding! You guessed it: dark skin was left in the 90’s. Black children Keesha and Tim were both lightened to appear to be of a more ambiguous race.

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Take another example: the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie, a cinematic failure that we all prefer to forget. Main characters Katara and Sokka, who are brown-skinned in the cartoon, were portrayed with white actors. The fire-benders (as in the “bad guys” for most of the series) were instead given a darker skin tone. The switch-up, besides being unnecessary, points to a reoccurring theme where the “heroes” are the ones that are lighter in appearance. Those can be damaging ideas to reinforce for kids growing up in with constant access to media entertainment.

As the push for representation across the board continues, major players in children’s media like Disney are being urged to take charge of producing content that reflects more diversity. After the backlash (including criticism from Tiana’s voice actress), they announced the princess would be restored to her original appearance. One can only hope they’ll continue to be responsive to audiences and help pave the way for much-needed changes.

Does it matter if characters of color are changed for remakes? Is it white-washing, or is it part of the process? Share your thoughts below!


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