Hi everyone, Mike here. I am so pleased to welcome Gisell Álvarez, LPC-Intern, as a contributor to the blog. She has a fascinating background, which you can read more about here and I look forward to her contributions! We will, at times, be engaging in roundtable discussions, but she will also be writing individual blog posts.
Mike McMahan: Welcome to the blog, Gisell! I’m happy to have a perspective besides my own. I’m glad you suggested talking about Elena of Avalor, as I hadn’t even heard of the show and I think it’s a perfect topic for you to start with; the reasons why are obvious to anyone reading your bio. For anyone who hasn’t seen the pilot episode, it streams on YouTube. Let's start at the beginning. I have a young daughter so I see some of these series and I am fairly familiar with the closely-related Sophia the First (for better or worse!). I am curious to know how you discovered this series?
Gisell Álvarez: Thanks for the opportunity! Talking about pop culture is so much fun. I follow a blog on Facebook called HelloGiggles. It covers a variety of topics, from gender issues to Hollywood trends. One of the bloggers published a very exciting and enthusiastic article about Disney having finally a Latina princess. I was interested, as I have so many emotional and significant memories linked to Disney. The first time I went to the movies with my dad was to see a Disney movie (Aladdin, with a non-European princess). The graphics, the music, everything was magic to me, and the fact that my dad was with me that day watching my eyes sparkling with fantasy, made it even more special.
So, of course, I was excited when I read we were going to have a princess that would look like us (Latina women), eager to live life as we do, full of emotion and passion, with our constant desire to dance, our strong character and, most importantly, the relevant role we have in our own society. Our society is one where, even though machismo is widely accepted, we are the cornerstone of our communities. I was beyond excited. So, I looked for the series and watched it and, then came away disappointed. Elena is more like a Spanish princess with dark skin, which doesn’t really reflect the Latino people. Spanish people, as other people from the Mediterranean coast, have darker skin color. In theory, Elena lives in a pre-colonial universe; however, there are no signs of indigenous people. On the Disney web page, Elena's biography says she is Spanish and Scandinavian descendant, so... how is Elena a Latina girl?
Mike: I noticed that at times their seemed to be an Arabic or Middle Eastern flair. It seemed to me that they wanted to go with at least a superficial Latina/Spanish feel (Elena's grandmother and grandfather are called Abuelita and Abuelito, for instance). But then, the writers/creators pulled back a bit and decided to try and muddy the waters a bit, for reasons that are unclear. They seemed to resort purely to stereotypes, such as the mustachioed Lt. Gabriel Nunez and the use of "mija" as a term of endearment. At other times, there seemed to be an Arabic flair that, to me, had a sore thumb quality. I don't recall this random culture mixing in Disney's other efforts to capture a particular culture, such as The Princess and The Frog, which felt, to me, more honest.
Did you also pick up on what appeared to be ham-fisted Aztec imagery? I thought that the flying leopard, was perhaps an attempt to evoke Aztec culture.
Gisell: I also noticed these kind of Middle Eastern aesthetics. I heard some rhythms that sounded like old Mexican corridos. And that mixture of a leopard with a quetzal bird? I also saw a wolf, and I believe we don't have wolves in our territories... The "Latino" touches are more than anything, reminiscent of Mexican clichés. They are what outsiders identify about the Mexican culture and things that Mexicans do not share with the rest of the countries in Latin America.
I agree with you that the Jasmine and Mulan characters looked more like a portrayal of their correspondent cultures. A leopard with wings could be cool, I think it has potential; however, the Aztec, Maya, Inca, or Muisca indigenous cultures and imagery are so much richer than a leopard with wings or a gray wolf. If you think about Pocahontas or Mulan, both of them have historical figures as inspiration. I don't know why they didn't look in our history and get inspiration from one of our impressive and brave women. If you want to keep it Mexican (because half of the world thinks that all of us are Mexicans) you could use Malinche, or even Frida Kahlo as inspirations. I know that their stories are very dark, but the original fairy tales that inspired Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty aren’t exactly light, either.
Now, think about Moana, the upcoming film which features a Pacific Islander princess. She looks a lot like a Pacific islander girl, and brings beautiful elements from their indigenous cultures. So, they can do it! I think they didn't do their homework researching as they should have with the Latina princess, and that they need to start all over again, as difficult as that will be.
Mike: Yeah, it seems like some homework may have been in order. Even a quick jump onto Wikipedia might have fixed some of the issues that you’ve identified. A person would think, as well, that even though this isn't a film and therefore had a smaller budget, that Disney could have hired someone as a consultant, such as a college professor in Latino studies, for example.
It’s worth noting that my daughter really liked this program, though given that she's in preschool she may not have been sensitive to the larger cultural issues (haha). I'm wondering how important cultural issues are for older children (from inside or outside the United States) or whether these concerns are more for parents? Also, did you see any positives in this program? For me, I thought it continued the more recent trend in Disney films of trying to present stronger female role models. In this case, Elena seems to be the definitive ruler, rather than waiting for a dashing, Prince Charming-type. It doesn't appear, at least from this premiere episode, that she will making the same mistake that Anna made in Frozen.
Gisell: Elena is an empowering character, no matter the ethnicity of the spectator. For Latinas, she is a young, Western girl willing and capable of conquer the world, and our girls need to see that it is possible for each one of them to try and succeed in and conquer their own worlds and face their own challenges.
In establishing rapport and constructing a common language, when doing counseling with children, Elena could be an awesome bridge. The program helps therapist get closer to their realities and it gives us the opportunity to share a similar reality, where we are not only the strange adult, but also somebody willing to connect. Elena has so many attributes that many children could identify with, and therefore feel more confident and more willing to see the strength within them. Elena likes to be strong, and pursues strength even in the most challenging moments. That's a colorful invitation that resonates with our kids, especially those who struggle with self-esteem and self-expression.
I think the kids that watch this really don't give much relevance to the fact that Elena is not light-skinned and blond; they like the character, they like the story and how she looks is secondary. I'm assuming, of course, that if we put Elena on TV for your daughter and my six-year-year old Colombian cousin, they would enjoy the story without much (or any) thought about Elena's race and/or ethnicity. However, for Latina girls, it's awesome to have the chance to show them that a popular character has a name with phonetics similar to ours and that is described as a Latina princess, even when some adults don't know what the hell that is. I also realized that I was assuming that Mulan, The Princess And The Frog and Aladdin were more accurate portrayals of their respective cultures. But I began to think: what am I basing that on? My own outsider perception? I have never discussed this matter with a Chinese girl. Maybe they have some things to say about the portrayal, as I did.
I have a question for you. Do you feel that other animated productions have accurately portrayed you as a Caucasian? How well do you think the European princesses have represented the ethnicity that could describe your daughter?
Mike: That’s a good question, and one I’ve never really considered. I do flinch a bit at some of the messages (implied or otherwise) that are part of the fabric of these stories, but that’s more about gender. I also realize that these films are, in some cases, over 50 years old and may have reflected feelings about women that were prevalent at the time and it’s a bit unfair to hold them to modern standards. There are so many Caucasian princesses (and characters in general) that I have never considered how white people are reflected. This huge number makes it easy to identify with this character or not with that character based on things besides gender or race/ethnicity, but rather characteristics that I find appealing or unappealing. When I discuss these films and shows with my own daughter or with clients, I try to emphasize positive attributes such as courage, problem solving skills and willingness to take part in team work. It’s easy for me to ignore race and ethnicity because I’ve never had to say “finally, a white princess!” since that’s literally almost all of them.
Well, thanks again, Gisell, for coming on board. I’ve really enjoyed this discussion and look forward to your input on a variety of topics!
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Gisell Álvarez, LPC-Intern is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx. She is currently under the clinical supervision of Mary Contreras, LPC-S.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture