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How My Role In A Disney Movie Showed Me The True Power Of Representation

Growing up in Colombia, I never saw people who looked like me in books, on TV or even represented in the toys I played with. But working as a consultant on a new Disney movie gave me the chance to rewrite my history — and my country's — by showing the true beauty and diversity of Colombia.

Screenshot of Disney's Encanto, set in Colombia

Disney's Encanto is set in Colombia

Edna Liliana Valencia Murillo

BOGOTA — I was born in 1986 in Colombia. At that time, some families had a machine in our homes that most of us no longer remember or simply never knew about. The rewinder was used to put movies back to the beginning, first in Betamax format and then, from the mid-1990s on, in VHS.

I would like to propose that we rewind the film. That we make use of our mental rewinder and go back about 30 years in time. The objective of this exercise is to try to understand our relationship with Walt Disney movies, Barbies, the illustrations in our school books and other identity references that, I am sure, conditioned a good part of how we thought when we were girls and thus have influenced much of who we are today.

Turning back to the year 1989

Let's go back to the year 1989, when one of the greatest successes in the history of Walt Disney reached the cinemas of the entire planet and, later, millions of homes when the tape was available in Betamax format. I was 3 years old and my older sister was 7. We were two Afro-Bogotan girls living with our parents in the Modelia middle-class neighborhood of the city of Bogotá, Colombia. I do not remember other Afro families in our residential complex. Not because there were no Afro-descendants in Bogotá, but because they were concentrated in the peripheral neighborhoods of the city. I remember very well that we used to argue because neither of us liked to put the videocassettes on rewind, but it was essential if we wanted to see The Little Mermaid for the umpteenth time.

We loved that story. We knew all the songs, all the characters and all the dialogue. We rewatched it day and night, and we fantasized imagining what it would be like to live "Under the Sea." How to forget that catchy song?

The protagonist of the film was Princess Ariel, a young mermaid who was the youngest of several sisters and the one with the greatest talents for music and singing. My sister and I used to imitate a scene where Ariel and her sisters put on a musical show in front of their father. They were, at least, eight sirens, all different from each other. Some blond, others with brown hair, others with black hair. They represented different versions of euro-centered beauty on a pretense of diversity that, for the time, had nothing wrong with it. Yet today, 32 years later, I rewind the cassette and can't help but notice that something wasn't right there.

How non-Africans saw us and how we saw ourselves

It is true that my sister and I had fun watching the movie. We laughed while acting out its funniest scenes, and we had a good time dancing and singing its songs. It is true that the story of a mermaid who falls in love with a human man is a simple fantasy, and at that time we thought that it did not harm anyone. But it is also true that the damage was done and it was done effectively if we analyze that same reality now through intersectional feminism. And if we are able to put ourselves in the shoes of girls like my sister and me, who never saw themselves represented in any of these famous films.

How is it possible that none of Ariel's eight sisters had curly hair, dark skin or a different body type than the one that mermaids are supposed to have? What if our generation had grown up seeing different models of beauty, different body types, different skin colors and different hair textures in movies like The Little Mermaid?

Beauty was what we saw in movies like The Little Mermaid and it didn't look like us

Of course I'm not trying to say that a Walt Disney movie is to blame for racism. Racism was invented by the European slavers at the beginning of the 16th century when they decided to enslave Africans and invent a whole series of negative attributes based on their physical characteristics. These are normalized thoughts that are still part of our belief systems as a society.

But I am saying that movies like that (and other worse ones, like the 1940 film Fantasia, in which a black centaur appears serving, combing and kissing the hooves of another blonde centaur) reproduced white-centric and exclusive stereotypes that conditioned our way of seeing beauty. Some stereotypes according to which, even, diversity was only white and the beauty of Afro women was something that simply did not exist. And if, by chance, any reference to Afro women appeared, it was directly related to roles of subordination or servitude. Such subordination was the only way non-Africans learned to see us and also the only way my sister and I saw ourselves.

What a woman should be

Even we, two Afro-Colombian girls, learned that beauty was what we saw over and over again in movies like The Little Mermaid and that it didn't look like us. We had been seeing that since we were born in other films like Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland and many others that, for decades, helped forge a unique concept of what a woman should be, both physically as well as socially and emotionally.

It should be clarified that Walt Disney's films were only one element of the system. They were one example of the lack of references for all those women who did not respond to the hegemonically imposed model of beauty at that time. Walt Disney's films were, and still are, a reflection of the way in which our societies understand themselves as the years go by. That is why I would like us to analyze other symptoms of the same disease.

Photo of a woman in a White Snow costume

Some Disney movies "reproduced white-centric and exclusive stereotypes"

Joseph Prezioso/ZUMA

The problem with Barbie

One of the most macabre symptoms, and also the most powerful when implanting beauty stereotypes, was, at that time, the Barbie doll. I celebrate the recent decision of the Mattel company to launch a version of the Barbie on the market in honor of the African-American journalist Ida Wells-Barnnet (1862–1931), a woman who, despite being born before abolition of enslavement in the United States, was able to raise her voice against the lynchings of Afro-descendants in the country and other injustices derived from the segregationist system. A world-renowned journalist who received the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 2020, at least a century after the peak of her career.

However, these strategies are new and, of course, respond to a more critical society that, over the years, has demanded possibilities of representation for all girls and not just for a small group of Caucasian types.

35 years ago (because Barbie has been on the market for 62 years) this doll was always white, blonde, with long straight hair and blue eyes. She was the sole model of perfection, the very image of what to aspire to, the only object of desire for the girls of the world. No one asked us if we liked Barbie. It was simply imposed on us because the society of the time agreed that beauty was a single thing that resembled that seemingly harmless toy.

Barbie changed roles every year: there was the doctor Barbie, the teacher, the hip-hop singer, the pregnant one. But in addition, Barbie responded to fierce class hierarchies. Girls from wealthy families asked every year for Christmas for the Barbie swimming pool, then the Barbie convertible car and then the Barbie house. Obviously Ken was also essential, because no woman who responded to this stereotype could be fulfilled as a person if she did not have a well-groomed man like that by her side. I consider that sexist and homophobic, as it excludes the possibility of a woman wanting to build her life alone, or accompanied, by another woman or non-binary person.

False collective self-conception

In this way, they imposed the idea on us that women who looked like Barbie could do whatever they wanted. But what about the majority of girls from all over Latin America who didn't look like her? And let me take advantage of the moment to say that if there is a group that can be considered a minority in Colombia, it is white people. It has been said a thousand times that what exists in Colombia is miscegenation: a mixture of ethnic groups and cultures (because remember that races do not exist) that resulted in a multi-ethnic and multicultural society.

But I still listen and read a lot of people in Colombia who recognize themselves as white, but in Colombia, white people are scarce. There are 26% that belong to the Afro population, 5% of the indigenous population and the rest are mestizo people, with more or less melanin in their skin. Of course, there are people of the Caucasian phenotype, but just looking around Colombian streets you’ll see they represent a minority. This is to say that this matter of representation concerns us all. It is not just a issue of "little black girls" who, poor things, played with white dolls all their lives.

It is a matter of collective self-conception. A self-conception that is profoundly distorted by the systematic invisibility of Afro-Colombian communities both in the media and in decision-making spaces. Spaces that have traditionally been occupied by white-mestizo men and the occasional woman at the service of the same heteropatriarchal system. And, because they also put The Little Mermaid on the TV and made us play with Barbies since we were little as if they were the only possibility of a successful existence, we believed we are a country of white people.

Understanding where our complexes came from

In Colombia, there are deep educational issues. Like the lack of diverse female references in history books and other educational tools. In the end, my sister and I, two Afro-Bogotan girls, like thousands of other Afro-Colombian girls of the time, watched movies with no character that looked like us. We watched television where only white actors and journalists appeared, played with Barbies and studied with history books in which only European white men appeared, mostly genocidal slavers, exploiters and thieves. Because that was what the colony sold us was “worthy of admiration”. They sold us a way of seeing the world where the same one who oppressed and plundered us for so many centuries is paid homage to and called a hero.

It is necessary to remember these things in order to understand ourselves as we are today and understand where many of our complexes come from. Where was it that we lost some of our potential, forgetting how beautiful and powerful we are in our own skin, in our own size, with our own hair and with our own history.

Giving back to my inner child

And if we take a big leap back to the present, we can also analyze the importance of representation for us and why we feel so happy today when we see our country narrated from a different point-of-view than drug trafficking and war.

The day Walt Disney wrote to me to be part of the team of cultural consultants for the film Encanto, set in Colombia, I felt very happy. I immediately understood that the possibility was opening — to give back to my inner child what she did not have back in the 80s, what she did not even desire, because she was never told that it was an option.

The diversity of our Colombia is helping to break beauty stereotypes

However, I was not able to measure the impact that the film would have on the children of Colombia, and of the entire world, in terms of representation. As a consultant, precisely, representing African heritage, I was in charge of accompanying the team of producers and directors in the design of the Afro characters of the film. Mainly Antonio Félix and Dolores: their hair, their dresses and their features were under my scrutiny, as well as the representation of regions such as Chocó and its magnificent tropical forest, or instruments such as the Marimba de Chonta, typical of the South Pacific of the country.

From being invisible to a Disney movie

The day I suggested to the directors of the film that Antonio's room could be inspired by the Chocó region rainforest and they responded positively, I felt very proud of the work I was doing. My beloved, invisibilized and stigmatized area would be represented in a Walt Disney movie.

I am also proud to have suggested that Dolores' clothing would be inspired by the dress traditionally worn by the women of Palenque de Benkos Biohó. The region is, without a doubt, another of the most representative Afro-Colombian territories, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005.

As for Felix, I love the fact that I suggested that a perfect outfit for him would be the guayabera that he actually wears throughout the movie. This added to many other details of the Afro-Colombian culture that I managed to contribute during my work as a consultant.

The importance of hair diversity

But perhaps my greatest pride as a member of the Encanto Cultural Trust team was helping Disney understand the importance of representing all hair textures in the film. It is a defining moment that shows that all hair is beautiful and deserves to appear in children's narratives, so that boys and girls learn to value and recognize them.

There are 12 hair textures described in trichology (the science that studies human hair) and 12 was also the number of members of the Madrigal family in the film. Each one of them represents a type of curl, from 4C (which is the curliest of all) to 1A (which is the straightest), which also passes through wavy and curly hair. In this way, everyone that sees the film will be able to identify a hair similar to theirs and that is absolutely powerful in terms of identity.

But beyond my work on the film, it is special that it is the diversity of our country, the diversity of our Colombia, that is helping to break beauty stereotypes and transform the way in which women are represented. How powerful it is that the world is seeing the different skin colors that exist in Colombia. How powerful it is that the blackness that we have disowned so much as a country is today inspiring so many. Millions of Afro children around the world are seeing themselves represented in Antonio and millions of Afro girls are seeing themselves represented in Dolores.

The power in ​being​ different

I also find it absolutely powerful that plus size girls can see themselves represented in Luisa, a character from the Madrigal family who also represents a hard-working woman who carries the burden of her entire family and her entire community. How many of us have felt that we are called to solve the problems of the whole world, even if it costs us our own peace of mind? How many of us grew up suffering from not being as slim as Barbie or the beauty queens on television pageants? Luisa taught us that we don't need to be thin to be beautiful and that being strong women doesn't mean we have to take care of everything, even of other people’s problems.

The character of Isabela Madrigal also did her part. She represents the woman who is required to be perfect. Marry the most handsome man in the neighborhood and have five children to give continuity to the family lineage. How many of us have felt the pressure of our mothers and grandmothers who are waiting to see us "sorted” and pregnant, even though our true desire is to create new, different and unique things, to be ourselves and find the maturity of our gifts in our own personal satisfaction?

The image in the mirror of a society that is finally reflecting on the importance of representation

And not to mention Mirabel, the special "not gifted" girl. That girl with glasses and curly hair who, today, is helping thousands of women to reconcile with their natural beauty. To understand that being who we are is the only thing that really makes us beautiful and that we don't have to prove anything to anyone.

Even Abuela Alma shows us the Colombian female head of a family who lost her partner due to violence and had to raise her children and grandchildren with the respective traumas and fears she carried. And so we see how this new Disney film is also the symptom of something deeper: it is the image in the mirror of a society that is finally reflecting on the importance of representation, the role of women in society, the importance of solidarity and collective construction (which is what, in the end, saves the magic of the Madrigal family) and the breaking of Eurocentric standards of beauty that were previously the only possibility.

Whether we like the beginning or the end of the film or not, whether or not the story meets our expectations, it is important that we rewind, compare and value this golden opportunity for the generational identities of our country. Encanto represents a truly positive and realistic message about Colombia (despite its abundant fantasy). But, above all, it represents a new reference of plurality that we only understand when we see our girls and boys smiling in front of the television.

*Edna Liliana Valencia Murillo is a proudly Afro-Colombian journalist, with more than 15 years of experience in national and international media. She was a cultural consultant for Disney Animation Studios for the film Encanto, which was inspired by Colombia. She is an expert in Afro-Latin American studies certified by Harvard University.

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