Most Disney performers play multiple characters, which leads to white performers playing characters of color | © Disney Parks Blog
In the fall of 2016, I was one of the thousands of Disney College Program students to live their dream working to make magic at the Disney Parks. I spent most of my days crammed up against about a dozen performers working on one of their many stage shows, presetting costumes, helping with quick changes, and generally making sure all the characters went out looking their best.
One day, I overheard one of my costumer friends chatting with one of the performers. She, like many cast members on property, wanted to become a performer at Disneyland. And why not? For many, it’s a dream job: to become the representation of our childhood, to get glammed up for work every day instead of wearing an uncomfortable, hot, and/or unflattering costume, and to be a part of what is seen as the “crown jewel” of all the departments. The cast member she was talking to was a long time performer, generally very friendly, and had spent the last few weeks talking excitedly about how he was getting ready to lead his first Traditions, the training orientation all the new Disney cast members go through. But the part of the conversation I caught chilled me and has stuck with me to this day.
“If there’s one thing I learned here,” the performer said, “never say no to Disney. Always do what they ask and they’ll reward you for it.”
“But what if they ask you to be, like, Jasmine? And you’re really white?” my friend asked. The performer smirked. “Never say no.”
We’ve all seen it: the photos of an Aladdin with bright blue eyes, girls who are proud ‘friends with’ (another term for performing as) both Belle and Jasmine, Moana’s and Pocahontas’s hands which don’t quite match their face. Every once in a while, a small social media storm will occur as people dissect the photos, but nothing ever seems to really stick. And people have many excuses to wish this away.
“There aren’t as many characters of color, so it’s just to save money.”
“Frozen in Disney California Adventure has black Elsa. How is this different?”
“The performers don’t have a choice, so we shouldn’t shame them for it.”
Like I said before, Disney entertainment is a major life goal for many people. The esteem that comes with it is immense and getting into the club is incredibly competitive. Imagine getting your lifelong dream job, after going through countless auditions and open calls, and then being told they want you, a white woman, to play a Native American or a Middle Eastern woman. Most of us would like to say we’d turn up our noses in disgust and walk away from Disney. But time and time again, we see performers quietly, or in some cases, loudly and proudly, take up the role. When the culture both in and outside the parks is that only the best of the best get these positions and an intense fear of slighting in the company and being terminated or blacklisted, the idea of righteously walking away from a role due to something as silly and trivial as putting on a black wig and darkening your skin a bit can be a difficult choice. And let me be clear, they do have a choice. Understandably, a very difficult choice to make for some people, but no one is forcing these performers into it. But why should a billion-dollar company with the resources to hire any performer of any skin tone or cultural background they need even force people to make that choice?
While Disney has made large strides in the animation world in terms of representation, with films featuring Polynesian culture, Chinese legends, and dipping into the Black American experience. But when it comes to ‘real life,’ in either their parks or their films, they seem to consistently struggle. In 2019’s Aladdin, film extra Kaushal Odedra claimed to have witnessed many ‘fair skinned’ performers being darkened with makeup to ‘blend into’ scenes, allegedly including one white actor who was featured as a palace guard. Disney admitted to this practice but defended themselves by saying it was only used in a ‘handful of instances’ for the crew, animal handlers, and actors with ‘specialty skills.’ In a he said-billion dollar corporation-said situation, it’s hard to truly know how extensively the practice went on. But we do know skin darkening is a daily practice in Disney parks, so it is not a stretch to assume that Disney would have no problem doing it in their films. Odedra said it best: “Disney [is] sending out a message that your skin colour, your identity, your life experiences amount to nothing that can’t be powdered on and washed off.”
Extra Kaushal Odera alleges a white actor was darkened to play a palace guard in Aladdin | © Disney
As a white woman, I know I will never fully understand what a person of color goes through. But how have we as a society normalized brown face so much that one of the largest corporations on earth can do it day in and day out and it’s barely a blip on our radar? While we decry the blackface of early Hollywood, cases like Natalie Wood in West Side Story quietly get a pass. How many community theater productions have we all seen where a spray tan, a wig, and a thick accent is quickly accepted as the norm for a quick race change? Perhaps because there is less of a volatile and disturbing history behind brown face as there is blackface, we don’t register it in the same way. Or maybe we’re afraid that if we do, it will upend too much of the status quo. Isn’t it easier to just accept a white Jasmine or Elena than to completely retool the casting process? Isn’t it easier to not make performers uncomfortable by questioning Disney’s methods than to just congratulate them for their exciting opportunities? As the Black Lives Matter movement has emboldened black folks and people of color to share stories of their working conditions and experiences, including those in the Disney parks (such as this profound account from Cooper Howell as he details the discriminations he faced as a black Disney performer) and as we have finally come to a point in time where we can finally loudly and unashamedly discuss injustices brought on by race, how long do you think people will tolerate white Jasmine?