A Middle Ground for Disney: South Asian Princesses in European Fairytales

Western animation doesn’t seem to like us.

That sounds harsh, but the last time South Asians were depicted in an American animated film, it was The Jungle Book (1967). Yeah, of all the rich Indian stories to be told, Disney chose to make a film based on a collection of short stories written by Indian-born, but British author Rudyard Kipling, who also wrote the poem “The White Man’s Burden.” Plus, most of the characters’ names weren’t even pronounced correctly in the film.

This movie is like a child-accessible advert for "It's okay to be racist if you sing and dance and try to culturally appropriate by donning xyz-face!!"

This movie is like a child-accessible advert for “It’s okay to be racist if you sing and dance and try to culturally appropriate by donning xyz-face!!”

It’s interesting that, growing up as an Indian American in the 1990s, I’d been called both Pocahontas and Jasmine. While those Disney princesses are awesome despite the films’ flaws in depicting people of color, I’m neither Native American nor Middle Eastern. (Disney’s Aladdin takes place in Agrabah, which is actually completely fictionalized and thus was an attempt to erase any responsibility in actually making a film based on an Arab folktale.)

There were rumors of a Disney Ramayana film, but that either was just rumors or the project got shelved and isn’t looking to come out soon. Since The Princess and the Frog released in 2009, Walt Disney Animated Studios put out three more White Princess movies: Brave, Tangled, and Frozen. The company’s upcoming projects include movies about planes (spin-off to the Cars franchise), dinosaurs, and fish (Finding Dory). I’ll give kudos to for Big Hero 6, which will feature a Japanese protagonist based on the Marvel Comics superhero team. But I’m still talking about princesses!

Now, since Disney doesn’t really go beyond European folktales for their princess films, I think it’d be cool to see a South Asian princess in a reinterpretation of a popular fairy tale of that nature. It’s a good compromise, and Disney won’t inevitably screw up by entirely disrespecting Indian mythology in the process.

Already, reinterpretations of popular Western fairytales have made their rounds in being racebent for South Asian protagonists through independent artists. And the reimaginings actually work!

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Rapunzel:

Art by Sam Schechter. This depiction was actually inspired by Ramayana, a Hindu epic.

Forget the loose blond mane. Trade it in for dark hair braided into a mile long plait.

In many parts of India, it’s still popular to maintain long hair for women. So, not only would an Rapunzel-inspired Indian princess be aesthetically pleasing, it’d also be culturally accurate.

“Rapunzel” by the Brothers’ Grimm shares similar characteristics to the 10th century Persian tale of Rudaba, who let down her long hair as a rope to meet with her lover Zal. 

Snow White:

Art by Ana

Art by Ana

Trading the poisoned apple for a poisoned pomegranate, a Snow White fairytale set during the Mughal Empire (pre-British colonialism) would be breathtaking. Not only could the film explore the issues of skin tone and color that still deeply affects South Asians today, but it could also address standard of beauty mess women struggle with their whole lives in a way the 1937 film never could.

Thumbelina:

First of all, how incredibly cute would this be?! This tale might be more influenced by Hindu mythology, since the lotus flower (India’s national flower) is such a darling idea!

Struggling with her self-identity (being a small human amongst other animals), Thumbelina explores the rich forests and villages of India in her misadventures. As the story progresses, she gains confidence, grace, and her inner beauty shines through.

Sleeping Beauty:

Set in the Middles Ages, or not, the Giambattista Basile version tale of Sleeping Beauty is insane. However, its involvement of prophesies and astrology make it a better candidate for an Indian setting than Charles Perrault’s retelling. If the film chooses Hindu protagonists, other elements such as divine intervention (the fairies as Hindu gods and goddess instead) and mythology could make cameos.

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See? It can be done! So, whichever fairy tale Disney chooses to reimagine next, there really is no excuse for choosing to depict another white protagonist. America is changing its racial and ethnic landscape more than ever now, and Disney reaches a global audience bursting to be represented. Of course cultural consultants should be employed in the making of any film depicting people of color. But just imagine how much creativity and empowerment would be achieved if Disney actually tried.

Jennifer Babu

Jennifer Babu is the editor-in-chief of Videshi Magazine. She's a film & TV addict, and suffers from sleep deprivation (self-inflicted). Follow her on twitter @jenibabu.

5 Comments

  • Reply February 16, 2014

    Kirala

    One novel series that I love actually has mixed Snow White with South Asia – the Snow White figure is the daughter of an English doctor and an Indian woman, trying to earn recognition and respect as a biracial female doctor in Edwardian London. The novel is The Serpent’s Shadow by Mercedes Lackey. There are no dwarves, but she does have seven “pets” inherited from her mother who turn out to have … let’s say surprisingly strong connections to various Hindu gods/goddesses. (This is a fantasy novel, so a large part of the plot revolves around the way her mother, Brahmin and revered priestess and magician, had left a legacy of magic which the heroine is forced to interpret through a Western matrix, with a certain amount of difficulty. And the wicked stepmother is instead a wicked aunt who was jealous of her sister.)

    I would love to know whether this comes across as good representation or ugly appropriation to someone with personal and/or strong connections to Indian culture. My own familiarity extends to various fairytale retellings of Hindu myths and one reading of the Mahabharata – not the best yardstick.

    • Reply February 17, 2014

      Jennifer Babu

      I’ve never read the series, but the story sounds interesting! I’ll have to look into it…

      I’m always hesitant when non-Hindus write about or retell mythology, because while some of it IS storytelling, a lot of it is still respected as religious beliefs. There’s always that fine line between reinterpreting rich stories or twisting another culture/religion to fit your own needs. The former is what could be called “good representation,” while the other is just lazy writing with cultural appropriation throw in there for kicks. I’m currently thinking of Joss Whedon’s Firefly….

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  • Reply May 12, 2016

    Anonymous

    Actually in our mythology, there’s a story very similar to the sleeping beauty, of prince Lakshman and his wife Urmila, she who slept for 14 years!!! The share of sleep of her husband so he can remain awake, and as soon as her beloved stepped into the palace, she woke up, thus goes the tale.

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