Written by: Giselle Casteel
Disney+ articulated a beautiful comedy-drama in 2020 called Soul, highlighting various intellectual and intuitive questions that help one find not their purpose in life, but more so the reason they want to live. Despite this eye-opening message that Disney developed through the two leading characters, Joe Gardner and 22, a serious issue underlies their success.
Joe is represented as an African-American piano player and middle school teacher, voiced by Jamie Foxx. Taking this opportunity to include more diversity into Disney’s mass media is great...so what’s the problem?
Let’s take a look at previous Disney films that incorporate representation of people of color (POC). In 2000, Disney came out with a movie based around the Inca Empire that has developed into modern day Peru, known as The Emperor’s New Groove. The Incan King is made to be a llama for a major portion of the film. Next, we get to watch Brother Bear, an adorable production for the year 2003--however the main Inuit character is--again--morphed into a personified character--a grizzly bear. More recently in 2019, Will Smith’s character in Spies in Disguise is transmuted to a pigeon. Lastly, one of the more common Disney movies, The Princess and the Frog. Our beloved Tiana and Prince Naveen have to unfortunately play most of the film as frogs, not in their racially identified bodies. Not to mention the stereotype showcased in Tiana’s friendship with Charlotte “Lottie” La Bouff, where Tiana as a POC has to hustle and work excessively to earn the money for her dreams of opening a restaurant while her white companion grows into her already rich and royal family.
There's clearly a common theme here. Soul only adds to this theme since Joe Gardner only voices his actual body for approximately 20 minutes throughout the whole movie. For the duration of the movie, he's a blue-green like character. For another portion of the movie he voices a cat while 22, voiced by a white woman, gets to speak in his African-American body. This adds a “white savior” phenomenon that enforces a major racial microaggression towards POC. Disney received backlash from many viewers that argued 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) should have been casted as a POC. It’s clear that to the community that deserves the voice, many of these elements are racially insensitive.
Overall, Disney reached another milestone in the progression of representation in their brand--but there is still work to be done and conversations needed to be had.