Disney’s “Frozen” has received more public attention than the company could have ever imagined. It quickly earned over $1 billion in the box office worldwide and was named Disney Animation Studios’ best animated musical since the studio’s striking renaissance era.
“Frozen’s” whitewashing controversy is an on-going online debate in regards to the lack of people of color in the film. The debate has inspired a series of online art that re-imagines some of Disney’s most well-known characters as people of color. The discussion has become a hot topic on many other websites since then. Recently, however, it has come to include accusations against Disney to insist Disney has been disrespectful of the Sámi culture. Online debaters insist the characters in the film should have been portrayed as the people of modern Scandinavia, who they claim are mainly people of color.
This debate, however, is only one of the many controversies accusing Disney of racism. Such accusations go way back, and the company has found it impossible to please all audiences.
But pleasing all audiences can indeed prove to be impossible. Let’s look at Disney Animation Studios. The last few Disney female heroines aside from Rapunzel of “Tangled,” have come from various racial and cultural backgrounds. Jasmine of “Aladdin,” Tiana of “Princess and the Frog” and Mulan of “Mulan” are all brilliant portrayals of their cultural backgrounds. Even then, Disney Animation Studios was accused of racism or disregarding the culture it tried to portray. People continue to insist that Disney has not abandoned the pattern of its early foundation, which some people still go back to when they accuse modern Disney of racism.
As people of modern society who have seen and learned from countless acts of discrimination against people of various racial backgrounds, we tend to be more sensitive to such topics. We are quick to point out comments or events that are based on any kind of discrimination and do not hesitate to defend ourselves and others. This includes calling attention to various possibilities, such as the artwork that explores how the characters of “Frozen” would look if they were of a different racial background. This is a good thing. It keeps society open-minded about cultural diversity and how it can enhance the way we think.
In the last few decades, however, it seems society sometimes can be overly sensitive to racism and related issues of discrimination. This brings us to our main question: Is Disney racist? Did it insult the Sámi in its newest feature film?
The best way to answer this question is to look at the reaction of the Sámi. According to the 2014 New Year’s speech of Aili Keskitalo, the president of the Norwegian Sámi, they are proud of Disney’s portrayal of their culture in their feature film and feel that it is a good way for the Sámi culture to spread to new audiences worldwide. There has been no controversy among the Sámi in regard to the characters’ physical appearances. “Frozen” has received such a warm welcome that it will later be featured at Skábmagovat, a Sámi film festival in Finland.
The Sámi were particularly excited about the musical scores in the movie, which whitewashing controversy debate supporters claim insults their culture because it contains Sámi traditional yoik, or chanting. This is the very reason why the Sámi are so at peace with the film. Disney actually consulted a professional Sámi musician, Frode Fjellheim, to write the opening score. For people to attack the music within the opening score is to insult the Sámi musician who wrote the music, who the Sámi praised for his compositions.
Why are the Sámi not upset that Disney chose to portray the characters as white? Well, most people of original Sámi descent are light-skinned because, about 100 years ago, there were no people of color in Scandinavia. This is also when Disney claims the film takes place. It wasn’t until fairly recently that the Sámi became a culturally diverse people of various Arctic, Asian and African descent.
Disney said it meant no harm in its portrayal of the Sámi. As a matter of fact, the idea for “Frozen” has been in the Disney archives since the early 1940s. The project was shelved due to feelings that it would not relate to audiences of the time. It has been pulled off of the shelf and re-shelved countless times due to various dilemmas.
Given this inside look at the Sámi and the origins of Disney’s “Frozen,” not everything revolves around discrimination. It is fairly safe to say most companies do not target a specific group to discriminate against when they make a new product. While it is good to defend one’s various backgrounds, it is not good to be critical of everything around the corner. The best way to look at it is the simple fact that not everything is done to hurt others. Looking at it this way can help us decide when discrimination is actually present and what we can do about it. If people would think before they throw out such accusations, others are more likely to listen. It defeats the purpose of our cause if we accuse others of discrimination just because it suits us.