If you’re like me and have children under the age of 13 , then I’m certain you know the lyrics of Wicked World or Chill’in like a Villian , songs from Disney’s Descendants and Descendants 2 that may vibrate from the speakers of your television or mobile device. The gimmick is catchy; the teenage descendants of Disney’s most vile cartoon villains are outcasts who attempt to destroy and then are integrated into the community of United States of Auradon; a kingdom where Belle is princess, the Beast is king and their son Ben is bolstered as the all good conscious of the people.
With the release of the sequel last week across disney platforms including the Disney Chanel and ABC, the popularity of the characters are deeply entrenched in kid culture (my six year old and four year old at obsessed) with the Disney machine in full force. From behind the scene videos on YouTube kids to the Disney Store showcasing the movie on full display (my daughter already has her Descendants 2 Halloween costume), the characters and the songs seem to provide innocent entertainment. However, its a film that truly deserves equal watching from parents as it has the potential (if you’re ready and willing) to shape some meaningful conversation.
It’s in listening to the sequel play in the back seat of the family SUV on a recent cottage excursion that it became evident that for all of their progressive steps with theatrical productions, the Disney machine seemed out of touch with the at home audience; one surely composed of rich diversity. From race to class, Descendants 2 falls the diversity test and falls trapped within colonial rhetoric where “blackness” is vilified and projected with stereotype.
As we drove two plus hours, it was a optimal time to provide my kids with a critical media reading; shaping a conversation they can understand will not destroying their fondness of the production’s songs and dance routines.
Here’s the step by step guide:
1) I began by asking the kids what racism means. We talked about this before when my daughter came home from school two years ago upset that her friend from preschool was being ridiculed for having “chocolate” skin. She was taught not to be a passive bystander and to voice her disposition, which she did.
2) I asked the kids to reflect on who the heroes were in Descendants and Descendants 2; the main characters. I asked them what colour skin was missing from the respective group. They came to the conclusion that neither of the main characters were black.
3) I asked them to reflect on the first movie and the characterization of Cruella De Vil. What colour was her skin and what colour is the skin of her son Carlos. They responded that the mom was black and Carlos was white. Arguably, Carlos could be bi-racial, however, reference to his father is never mentioned. Problematically, within the conversation of race representation, Carlos turns good , amplifying his generic race narrative within popular film. Black = Bad and White = Good.
4) Now looking at Descendants 2, I asked my kids who the main villain was and the color of their skin. The kids noted Uma, and that she had brown skin.
5) I then asked why Uma is upset? The kids responded that Uma is upset in the film because she is jealous of Mal (who is going to be a future princess ) and that she hates working in her mom’s (Ursula’s) restaurant. Their response was correct and as such, this characterization of Uma as a working class black woman cursed with jealously and contempt for the “privilege” that Mal holds, reinforces traditional cultural narratives of “blackness” as the “other,” and morally corrupt. These ideas were presented by Ava DuVernay in her masterpiece 13th where the black male body is deemed as monstrous in popular Hollywood cinema and the notion of American blackness is vilified. The only representation of blackness in either The Descendants 2 or the original film is connected to villainy.
Along with Uma’s internal motivation, her physical characterization is painted with an equally stereotypical brush; dreadlocks and hip-hop define her existence and as such trap her within an a corporate – colonial appropriation of culture.
Although the child’s experience of watching is innocent, its important that as parents we are indeed watching with our children and providing them with a framework to understand that media texts have and carry meaning. This is not to take away from the joy of being entertained but to make them critical viewers (at their level) with the hope that they mature into respectful, inclusive, emphatic and active citizens.
After all, we as parents are responsible for raising our children. Not, Disney.