Disney Live Action Casting
BY ANUSHA NAIK '26
You stare at the bright screen in front of you, eagerly clutching your popcorn. A large smile stretches across your face as the familiar Disney intro fills the screen before you, and a movie sure to be your new favorite begins to play. For audiences across the world, Disney movies serve as an escape to a realm of fantasy and adventure. But what happens when characters on screen do not represent the diversity of the audience?
Representation in the media plays a large role in the self-perception and confidence of people of color, especially for teenagers and young children. Struggling to find relatable characters can be disheartening and isolating; it is very important for adolescents to see people with similar journeys or identities when growing up. In terms of Disney, their latest controversies feature the decisions to cast women of color to play characters previously portrayed as white. From casting Halle Bailey as Ariel and Rachel Zegler as Snow White, there is a clear trend in Disney’s recent live action casting choices. With some in support and others in vehement opposition, audiences have displayed mixed reactions to the decisions. The majority of the backlash comes from audience members claiming that they just want to see their beloved characters exactly as they were in the original cartoons. Yet for most of these claims, this is simply a weak attempt to cover up the racism fueling this sentiment. In recent years, many filmmakers have tried to integrate more diverse actors and actresses into their casts. But simply adding more people of color to a film or series doesn’t automatically equate to good representation; characters’ actions ought to represent their diverse backgrounds without relying on stereotypes.
Many who do not believe in casting POC actors to play white characters often bring up the “if the roles were reversed argument” to try and prove societal double standards. However, this argument falls short of proving any sort of point. When looking at the stories of Mulan, Jasmine, Tiana, and many other princesses of color, the influence of the characters’ cultures on their stories is clear. Mulan’s story has many distinct Chinese elements, and switching out Mulan for a white actress would require a complete restructuring of the storyline. Although Aladdin is set in Agrabah, a fictional kingdom, it draws heavy inspiration from Indian and Middle Eastern culture. Once again, replacing Jasmine with a white actress simply would not make sense with the plot. In addition, this logic holds with the Disney adaptation of The Princess and The Frog, in which Tiana’s identity as a Black woman living in the South greatly influences the events of the story. Comparing this to Ariel, casting Bailey for the role does not affect the storyline whatsoever because in The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s race does not come into play because she is a mermaid and does not interact with the outside world other than the Prince and his family.
Another reason why the argument fails is that the loss of one character of color has a massively larger impact than losing a white character. When thinking about the amount of Asian, Middle Eastern, Indigenous, Hispanic, Black, etc. characters in leading roles in Western media, only a few come to mind. Throughout movies and animation, these characters serve as the only source of representation for people of their respective cultures. Changing the race of a white character does not affect the amount of representation in the media, because they can easily scroll to another Western show or movie and see themselves represented on screen.
But even though casting POC actors to play white characters is not bad in and of itself, it is still far from ideal. Changing the race of an existing character does not automatically create good representation; it simply serves as an excuse for Disney to avoid creating original characters of color. Although casting Bailey technically changed Ariel’s race, Ariel’s character does not become a fully fleshed-out black character. In the stories of other characters of color, their race does play a role. Although, I am not advocating for a character's entire personality to be centered around their culture; audiences want well-developed characters who happen to be people of color, not caricatures of what filmmakers think people of color are like.
An example of successful representation can be seen with Kate and Edwina Sharma in the Netflix original Bridgerton. Although the original characters from the novel are white, producers went in a different direction. But although the sisters are Indian, their characters are much more than that. Audiences witness their multifaceted personalities and development throughout the season. The representation of South Asian culture is executed tastefully, with subtle scenes like the sisters oiling each other’s hair, their jewelry, and mentions of living in India, making the characters so much more relatable. The role of the Sharma sisters does not feel forced or fake at all, yet their heritage influences how they interact with others. In the case of Ariel, Disney didn’t need to do this because she is a mermaid. Ariel does not grow up in a human society where her race affects her experiences and the way she is treated. However, when Disney recasts other, human characters, they will need to adapt their storylines. This can be accomplished by hiring people of color to write/adapt characters of their respective cultures, so that the representation feels natural.
In the ongoing debate about representation in media, it is essential to consider the cultural backgrounds of characters and the impact they hold on representation as a whole. The goal is to write or adapt storylines for well-rounded characters from diverse backgrounds while acknowledging and respecting the cultural context in which they exist. Casting POC actors in white character roles should not be an excuse for avoiding the creation of original, well-developed characters of color; meeting a diversity quota is not enough to satisfy POC viewers. Audiences want to see characters that don’t rely on stereotypes, not one-dimensional ones based solely on their cultural background.