The year was 1992 and the annual Halloween parade for Cabazon Elementary was almost underway. I was looking adorable as could be in my Cinderella best. From then on ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was on constant repeat, I took all my baths with a ratty Ariel doll, a myriad of Bambi stuffed animals adorned my bed, and eventually, Chip N’ Dale were permanently placed on my skin. Disney has catered to many of my memories, but as I started to get older the magic of it faded with each passing year as I realized that while I loved these characters and stories, as a whole Disney likely didn’t give a damn about me.
Granted Disney gave us Princess Tiana in 2009, 70 years after ‘Snow White’ made its debut, but it didn’t feel like enough for a number of reasons. The main one being that Tiana rocked a green tone more than her beautiful brown skin. Of course, this has left me feeling uneasy about Disney for some time but I’m just a fan who watches and collects the occasional item. I’m far from the annual pass holders, or the fans who go above and beyond to portray their favorite characters.
With that, I wanted to talk to Black Disney Cosplayers to see how they felt about giving so much to a company that hasn’t given them much in terms of representation. While that’s where we started with Sonia Blade, Visenya, Jamila (known from here on out as Black Bettie), and AichiYume, we also discusesd how they’re received by the Disney fandom, the omission of a Black Princess during the Renaissance, and more as we explored what it’s like to be a cosplayer who loves Disney and happens to have melanin.
Ranging from their mid-20’s to their mid-30’s, the cosplayers and I shared similar introductions to the Disney realm. Sonia Blade and Visenya watched the movies and visited the parks, while Black Bettie and AichiYume simply took in the movies, likely on repeat. Like myself, Black Bettie has found herself less impressed as she’s gotten older. “I was far more into Disney when I was younger than I am today," she told us. Although I do enjoy their movies, shows, and animation in general, I don't have the same unwavering loyalty I used to have to them.” For AichiYume, she admits she’s found comfort in all things, Disney, as she’s gotten older, “I fell into the fandom relatively late because after going to school I was mostly upset at the lack of representation and feminism in the movies, but as a stressed-out adult I found a lot of comfort in musicals and nostalgia.”
It’s clear Black Disney fans have a myriad of feelings when it comes to the company, but it’s clear Disney has little to none when it comes to the fandom. Yeah, Disney technically owns the rights to Marvel and Star Wars and with those come a few more colorful characters, but Disney still hasn’t shown Black folks they’re cool embracing Black characters. But what about Pixar’s upcoming ‘Soul’ you may ask?
Oh, that movie where the Black lead dies and is then represented by a blue figure? We’ve walked down this road once before with Tiana, remember? Which is weird because Disney isn’t completely whitewashed. During their Renaissance that started in the late ‘80s thanks to ‘The Little Mermaid’ and went well into the ‘90s with the likes of ‘Aladdin,’ ‘Pocahontas,’ and ‘Mulan’ those last three showcased women of color as badass characters. Disney surely could have done a movie with a Black character during that time. It would have been ideal, but alas they did not.
When poised with the question of Disney taking advantage of their multicultural Renaissance, our cosplayers were all pretty much on the same page. Sonia Blade noted how those characters were “more palatable for a whiter audience,” while Visenya felt that back then, a Black lead would have been “too much to handle.” Problematic for not only her, but confusing to Black Bettie who couldn’t piece together how they could bring a show like ‘The Proud Family’ to life, but somehow continue to ignore Black leads in their animated films.
That is until what Sonia Blade called the “slap in the face” that was 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. While the feelings on whether or not it was a good movie were mixed, all of our cosplayers agreed on one thing - Tiana felt like a diversity hire at the end of the day. AichiYume even went so far as to share, “As a small black youth who lost her father young, I was looking forward to really relating to her story but I ended up relating more to her white friend Lottie because I was blessed enough as a child to not have to struggle in the way Tiana did so I just couldn’t relate to her. Also, the movie came out when I was old enough to be annoyed by the softball they lobbed at racism and I was too cynical to see it even as an attempt.”
Despite all of that, all of our cosplayers have found themselves portraying at least one or more Disney characters since they were inspired by everything from their college years at conventions to the pure joy of it all. Along the way, they’ve each had unique experiences with not only Disney cosplay and the fandom’s critics, but other fandoms as well. Black Bettie admitted that she’s done the least amount of Disney because she didn’t want to deal with the hate. “There are certain fandoms I tend to avoid when it comes to cosplaying outside of my race," she says, "which often are Disney properties. I know many who have been rejected when trying to cosplay non-Black Princesses for groups or princess parties. I have friends who have experienced hate even when cosplaying Black characters like Finn from ‘Star Wars’ because of how that fandom feels about the character. So when I opt for a Disney cosplay, I tend to do POC or darker-skinned characters or avoid it altogether.”
Perhaps that stems from the idea that Black people aren’t interested in certain things. I don’t know how many times I’ve been called an “Oreo” based on my interests. Visenya found the same to be true, “There are these stereotypical ideas Black people aren’t interested in some fandoms and that we don’t belong there and it can make us reluctant to share photos in some dedicated groups, or even in our profiles.” Sonia Blade can attest to that as someone who has experienced some negativity for some of her looks online, “I don't experience push back in person, I experience push back online but it's light in comparison to cosplayers who are darker than me. I feel like regardless of fandom, there will always be someone that criticizes or says ignorant/racist things.”
What’s done is done though, and we can’t go back in time, step into the Disney offices in the early ‘90s and tell them that no one would hate a Black Princess right about now. There were plenty of young kids watching wishing, hoping to see themselves on the big screen after that iconic production logo. And that’s not to say Disney hasn’t given us Black characters. There’s Tia Dalma from ‘Pirates,’ Tinkerbell’s friend Iridessa, Raven and Penny’s family and friends on ‘That’s So Raven’ and ‘The Proud Family,’ and of course, Tiana. We also can’t leave out the cascade of characters they took under their umbrella when they bought up ‘Star Wars’ and Marvel. Now when you cosplay ‘Black Panther’s Shuri, you’re cosplaying a Black Disney Princess in the most roundabout way.
While we can list a handful, that doesn’t mean that’s enough or that we can consider this problem fixed. Imagine if Disney had been all-inclusive from the start. It wouldn’t have stamped out racism or the uneasy feels some Black Cosplayers get when even thinking about sporting their best Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, or even Woody but at least it would have given them more to choose from and made them feel as if the company had their back long before 2009.
Visenya doesn’t deny the progress Disney has made with Black characters in ‘Frozen 2,’ but doesn’t want them to be the sidekick anymore. Black Bettie and Sonia Blade agreed that the company as a whole could always do better in terms of inclusion, but Blade said it’s really up to all of us, “I hope that we get more experiences and more talent that can shine through, and have Disney change and become even more inclusive with a variety of different perspectives and more representation. Not every race is a monolith and we all have different experiences within our own culture. I just want everyone to do better.”
Then, of course, the conversation doesn’t start and end with Black representation. Black Bettie shared her experiences as a plus-size cosplayer, and AichiYume noted the lack of LGBTQIA+ characters. “I feel like there could be many more steps forward but that’s just not a conversation a lot of big companies want to have yet.”
At the end of the day, cosplaying is about the joy one gets out of it and everyone we talked to enjoys what they do, despite the occasional pushback from online trolls or the lack of love felt from Disney. So if you’re a Black, or any other person of color, and are wary of portraying a character that doesn’t necessarily look like you or it comes from a fandom where you don’t feel repped, all of our cosplayers say, go for it.
“We don’t look like the characters most of the time, it’s up to us to make people believe these characters always looked like us with our cosplays. So just do it,” said Visenya, and AichiYume reminded us, “Many cosplayers are incredibly supportive and willing to help.” Then there’s Sonia Blade’s story of what it means to embody a character, no matter what. It happened when she was rocking her Tinkerbell best at Anime Expo 2017.
“I was sitting outside with my friend and we were eating something from the food trucks. This little girl runs up to me, and says, “You are from Disneyland.’ I said, ‘Oh, do you know my name?" She replied, ‘Tinkerbell,’ adding, “That experience was pivotal for me because she didn't see a black Tinkerbell, she saw Tinkerbell. So basically I said to myself if kids don't care, why should I. I know online can be rough, but there is a community of us here and you'll be so much happier cosplaying what you love vs what you look like. You can also tailor things to suit you better. You want a fro, get a fro. You don't like dresses, make it a pantsuit. Just be happy at the end of the day.”
So despite Disney still being a little old fashioned, our Cosplayers see the progress, want more from the company that has given them not only memories but inspired their cosplay, but in the end as long as the cosplayer is happy with what they’re doing the pushback they receive for one reason or another is just noise to be ignored.