Since their first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney has included a diverse range of characters in their films. By looking at these texts through the lens of disability studies, we can highlight stereotypes that continue to be used and create public discourse around disability representation in popular culture. As Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock state “the educational relevance of animated films makes it all the more necessary to move beyond treating these films as transparent entertainment and to question the diverse, often contradictory, messages that constitute Disney’s worldview.” (2010, p. 92)
Disney is a global media conglomerate that has a dominant and influential force. Providing family entertainment for over 80 years, Disney continues to be a site of magic, nostalgia, childhood and fantasy, but, at the same time, has to be understood as a multi-billion dollar empire that manufactures and markets magic and as a corporate media giant that is driven by profit (Wasko, 2020). Disney, as Sandlin and Garlen state “is a major cultural force shaping concepts of family values, gender, sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, Americanness, childhood, pleasure, entertainment, education, community and must be recognized as having profound protection to affect how we think, learn and live” (2017, p. 121) and thus, analysing representations of disability allows us to understand how these representations could shape audiences thoughts and opinions of disability as well as the lived experience of disabled people themselves.
Characters including Quasimodo, Dopey, Captain Hook and Mama Odie, as well as many others, have impairments, but the way in which they are represented often falls into disability tropes. Representation is slowly changing in Disney animation as well as popular culture more generally, with more inclusive depictions of difference being portrayed. There are newer films that feature more diverse characters with a myriad of characteristics and differences that aren't rooted in ableist assumptions about disability, or that feature representation that reflect more accurate experiences of disability. This includes Elsa from Frozen (2013) and Frozen II (2019), Vanellope von Schweetz from Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), Pixar short films Loop (2020) and Float (2019) and Pixar’s Luca (2021).
Although it is a short film that was part of an experimental project released on Disney+, Loop provides a realistic portrayal of autism and neurodiversity that is missing from mainstream media which normalises the experience of autism. Writer and director Erica Milsom wanted to ensure the depiction was authentic by working with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and casting a voice actress with autism, Madison Bandy, to stay true to the phrase "nothing about us without us". It was with hope that following this short film, the representation of disability would continue in a more accurate and realistic manner. And, interestingly, the latest Pixar film Luca also features a disabled character, Massimo Marcovaldo, who has a limb difference, missing most of his right arm. When he is asked about it, he jokes that a sea monster ate it and then states “this is how I came into the world”. This short explanation is an excellent example of how disabled characters can be included in narratives that normalise their disability, living their life without a tragic backstory. Additionally, with the film having a predominately younger audience, this is a way for children to learn about disability and for adults/parents to spark conversation around individual difference. These changes in representation are definitely a step in the right direction, and it would be great to see these improvements continue across the Disney franchise.
- Giroux, Henry A, and Grace Pollock. 2010. The Mouse That Roared. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
- Sandlin, Jennifer A., and Julie C. Garlen. 2017. “Magic Everywhere: Mapping the Disney Curriculum.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 39 (2): 190–219.
- Wasko, J. 2020. Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy (2nd ed.). Polity Press.