Like many kids born sometime in the mid-’80s, I grew up watching (and rewatching) the golden-age trifecta of Disney movies: The Little Mermaid,Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. I knew every line and every lyric of these films, and was the proud owner of a Little Mermaid sleeping bag and lunch box. These classics will always hold a dear place in my heart, but as an adult, I’ve come to terms with the fact that these movies often projected a pretty terrible message to young girls.
Think about it: Princess Ariel gave up her voice (and later her family) after falling in love at first sight with the dreamy-eyed Prince Eric. Princess Jasmine’s greatest achievement was the fact that she refused to marry royalty and instead settled for the good-hearted yet poor villager, Aladdin. And while Belle was a nonconformist book lover, the movie puts its emphasis on her beauty, not her intelligence.
Aside from its feminist issues, Disney has also faced criticism in recent years for its lack of diversity. As of now, there has only been one black princess in its animated canon, Tiana from The Princess and The Frog. And earlier this year, a campaign to have the first-ever gay Disney princess, Elsa from Frozen, took off after the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend started trending on Twitter. Then in January 2015, Disney announced it was introducing its very first Latina princess, Elena of Avalor, in a new TV series on the Disney Channel. The news was met with overwhelming excitement.
As a Latin-American mother of a young daughter, I was curious to see how the show, which melds a variety of different Latino cultures together, would hold up. I was hopeful that this cartoon would allow my daughter to see her parents’ culture reflected on TV. Thankfully, the first episode of Elena of Avalor, which premieres tonight, presents a multitude of Latino traditions in a fun way, without ever falling into the trap of stereotypes. The opening song is a catchy merengue tune like the ones I grew up dancing to back in Venezuela. A few of the characters, such as Elena’s grandparents, have noticeable accents, similar to the ones my parents have. And most of the people who live in Avalor have Spanish names like Mateo, Luna, and Francisco.
Aside from the tasteful cultural representation, Elena of Avalor also wins big points for the positive and feminist portrayal of its titular heroine. After losing her parents to an evil sorceress, Elena, a sixteen-year-old princess, is busy trying to figure out how to rule the land of Avalor. In the first episode, she displays bravery when attempting to rescue her younger sister, and later learns the benefits of diplomacy in times of crisis. Despite being only a teenager, Elena also displays a healthy confidence in her ability to rule over the kingdom. And when she’s tasked with choosing a grand council of advisors to help her lead, she takes a page from Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and appoints a gender-equal cabinet.
Aimee Carrero, an actress of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage currently starring in Freeform’s Young and Hungry, provides the voice of Elena. “She’s tenacious and flawed and funny and compassionate,” she said over the phone. “One of my favorite things about her is that when she fails, she always, always tries again.”
Perhaps the most progressive aspect of Disney’s Elena of Avalor is that there are no plans to have a romantic interest for the princess. While there are plenty of male characters in the mix, Elena’s relationship with all of them will be strictly platonic. “She’s her own hero,” Carrero explained. “I think it’s a derivative of what’s happening now in our generation. People are finding partners later in life; they’re settling down later. Elena is just focused on her job and on her personal growth and I think that’s true for young women today.”
For the past few years, researchers have been studying the effects the Disney princesses of yore have had on kids, and most of all on young girls. We’ll have to wait a couple of years before we find out what kind of an impact Elena—a strong, female leader, who also happens to be a princess—will have on this new generation of children. For now, it seems like a step in the right direction. I, for one, will definitely be buying my daughter an Elena lunch box as soon as she’s ready.