From almost the entirety of “Song of the South” to the keyboard scene in “Aristocats,” Disney has been called out for racist content left and right. As I went to revisit older Disney movies from my childhood, I found myself shocked and embarrassed about what the company — and its viewers — let slide.
They’ve had to add trigger labels to numerous films on their website. As arguably the most influential company for children’s entertainment, Disney has done very little historically to promote diversity and inclusivity in their programming. After the events of the summer of 2020, the heat was on for the company to address their faults and make demonstrated changes in their storytelling.
To respond to this pressure, Disney created Disney Launchpad on May 28 on their Disney+ platform. Their first season featured six live-action short films, all with the central theme of “Discover.” The point of Launchpad is to promote diverse stories from diverse storytellers, featuring stories about women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, different religions, veterans, people with disabilities and more. Directors chosen for the program are given mentoring and full support from the entire Disney team. Launchpad has been renewed for a second season focused on the theme of “Connection” and is now open to writers as well as directors.
This program excited me and gave me hope for Disney’s platform. Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge Disney fan. I grew up watching the movies and can quote almost any line from “Finding Nemo.” I loved the older Disney shorts like “Piper” and “Lou,” but I felt Disney was lacking in representation and authentic storytelling.
Children want to feel a sense of belonging: You want to be able to turn on the TV and open a book and see someone who looks like you. It is Disney’s responsibility to put out diverse movies and television so kids learn to celebrate diversity, and see their identity represented on screen.
As a pre-teen, I found myself comparing my body to Instagram models, desperately trying to fit into the beauty standard. This probably came from being a little kid, going to Toys R Us and only seeing tall, thin Barbie dolls and nobody promoting body positivity. I think if we promoted body positivity at an earlier age, that would do a lot of good for young people today in the world of social media. If Disney could have more representation for different body types, this would reach younger audiences and instill body positivity at an early age.
My personal favorite of the different shorts on Launchpad was “The Little Prince(ss),” directed by Moxie Peng. It tells the story of two seven-year-old Chinese students, Rob and Gabriel. Gabriel loves the color pink, enjoys ballet dance and has a supportive father. Rob’s father is intolerant, judgemental, shames Gabriel for his femininity and discourages Rob from being his friend.
The story was heartbreaking and well-done. Disney normally shies away from representing LGBTQIA+ characters, but finally they told an authentic story of a child exploring gender identity and that suggests how a parent should best support such a child unconditionally with no judgement.
I thought the contrast between Mr. Chen and Mr. Wang was interesting as it represented the clash of intolerance and tolerance when it comes to parenting. I liked the narrative that difference is not something we should fear and, in fact, is something we should embrace.
It was refreshing to see Disney actually making content that responds to what viewers want. Instead of giving us a three-second cameo of an LGBTQIA+ character, we got stories that focus on diverse characters and amplify their experiences. I also loved how the diversity wasn’t just in the script, it was behind the scenes. They wanted diverse writers and directors, ensuring the content that is made is authentic.
Another Launchpad film I enjoyed was “American Eid” directed by Aqsa Altaf. This told the story of a Muslim Pakistani immigrant named Ameena and her fight to get her school to recognize Eid as a public school holiday. Her sister Zainab wants to go by the Americanized name “Z” and is private about her culture, while Ameena is vocal about her heritage.
I think the conflict between Ameena and Zainab was well done and opened an interesting dialogue about what it’s like for immigrants to assimilate into new countries while still maintaining their cultural identities.
But while Launchpad is great, it isn’t enough. I want to see diversity in Disney’s mainstream movies, the ones people are lining up to see in the movie theaters. This would allow them to reach more children and make a direct positive impact towards diversity in film.
Hopefully the success of Launchpad will inspire Disney to hold up standards for diversity in storytelling across the board, finally changing the narrative in children’s programming to reflect the lives of kids who are watching.
Anna Tolkien CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She’s a media studies and literature dual major and loves her pugs, iced coffee and Timothée Chalamet movies.