Perhaps nothing captures the Disney fandom’s call for racial diversity better than StormyHale’s Elemental!Elsa series.
One of the (many) great things about fan fiction, fan art and the blogosphere in general is that is offers audiences the opportunity to comment on the television shows, books and movies they love. Disney’s runaway success, Frozen, is proof of that. One particularly interesting sentiment expressed in Frozen’s fan works (in addition to the need for a “Do You Want to Build A Snowman” reprise and the eternal glory of “Let It Go”) is the need for more diversity. Tumblr user, StormyHale‘s Elemental!Elsa series is especially thought-provoking.
Each piece features Elsa recreated as a woman of a different ethnicity or from a different culture. Though each variant has her own name and element (i.e Adhira has the power of lightening), they all resemble Elsa, in that they are based off of one of her promotional posters and therefore possess the same facial structure and snarky raised eyebrow. Though exploring the need for racial diversity was not StormyHale’s inspiration for Elemental!Elsa, the series nonetheless provokes questions, as all race bending art should. Most pointedly: what if Elsa hadn’t been white?
What if Elsa had Adhira’s design and Frozen took place in India (a country where eternal winter would be a bit more problematic than, you know, Norway)? Would the story be the same … and should it be?
For example, Frozen was lauded for its subversion of the “love at first sight” trope and its cynical view on marrying someone you’ve just met. Had the movie taken place in India (or any number of other countries), might this have been interpreted by some as a value judgment on (and misrepresentation of) arranged marriage?
To what extent should the cultural setting of a Disney film (or any film for that matter) impact the storyline? Is changing the location and the cast’s ethnicity, without tailoring the story to fit the culture, color-blind screenwriting or cultural appropriation? When is representing traditionalism respectful and when is it stereotyping? These are all worthwhile questions, even if they don’t have clear cut answers.
At the same time, though, Elemental!Elsa reminds us, and any backwards-thinking opponents to diversity, that race and culture do not have to impact everything in a movie because some things (the important things) are universal. The Elemental!Elsa characters exude the same power and charisma as Frozen‘s beloved snow queen. Ergo, Elsa would have been just as winning a character if the filmmakers hadn’t made her white. Why? Because the qualities that endear Elsa to us—her strength, vulnerability, fear and eventual self-acceptance—are not exclusive to one race or culture. For that matter, the heart of Frozen‘s story, the bond between Elsa and Anna, could have remained intact no matter where the movie took place because sororal love transcends culture.
One would think in 2014 we wouldn’t have to be reminded of this anymore but the widely noted resemblance between Anna and Tangled‘s Rapunzel suggests otherwise.
It’s fan works like the Elemental!Elsa series that generate discussion and keep moviegoers from getting complacent with homogeny. Hopefully Disney’s next Princess film, Moana, about a Polynesian chief’s daughter, will demonstrate that Disney is getting the message as well.