For princesses of colour, heavy is the head that wears the first Disney crown. The entertainment monolith has famously fumbled in the past when it comes to issues of diversity. For one, the pressures of being the lone figure representing a heterogeneous group are immense. (See the debates around this year’s Moana, the first Polynesian princess, but a film directed by two white men.) Early princesses of colour seemingly offered breakthroughs for Middle Eastern (Jasmine, Aladdin), East Asian (Mulan, Mulan) and Native American (Pocahontas, Pocahontas) representation, but were heavily—and rightly—criticized for exhibiting Anglicized voices, facial features, and demeanour. When the first African-American princess finally debuted in 2009 (Princess Tiana, The Princess and the Frog), audiences were displeased once again to discover she would spend two thirds of the film…as a frog. In the wake of the Mickey Mouse studio’s missteps trying to diversify the princess canon, the arrival of the comparatively innovative Elena of Avalor, the first Latina princess, comes as a welcome surprise.
Premiering on the Disney Channel on July 22, 2016, Elena of Avalor’s record-breaking ratings secured renewal for a second season as the first was only halfway through.[i] The cultural prominence and rising purchasing power of Latina/os in the United States[ii] not only factored into the decision to bring this princess to life, but also ensured her overnight success. Disney had already tried, and terribly failed, to market a Latina princess, Sofia the First. Premiering in late 2012, this porcelain princess was branded as “Latina” but was heavily white-washed. Swift backlash from Latina/o advocates led Disney executives to first make the claim that Sofia was Latina by heritage on her mother’s side.[iii] Not placated by this tepid response, Latina/o advocates continued to push back, finally forcing Disney to admit that Sofia was, in fact, not Latina at all.[iv] This latter announcement was cushioned by the promise of a true Latina princess in the works, and four years later Elena of Avalor would premiere. The lessons learned from that earlier fiasco were put into effect in this second try: with cultural advisors from nationally recognized Latina/o arts organizations, a Latin music consultant, and a women-led writers’ room, the team behind Elena of Avalor was prepared for its cultural mission.[v]
Given the historically contentious process of defining Latino/a identity, it is surprising that one of Disney’s better attempts at ethnic media representations has been by way of a Latina princess. “Latino” as a meaningful identity marker has been mired in struggles over homogenization ever since it was first generalized by American federal agencies in the 1970s.[vi] Likewise, it was popular media that drove the adoption and standardization of this identity. Arlene Davila powerfully argues that marketing played a historical role in constituting “Latino” identity and the even more sanitized concept of “Hispanics,” as a unified, uncomplicated, depoliticized, and therefore easily digestible category.[vii] The mediatory function of this pan-identity compressed differences in class, race, and nationality into a targeted – and monetizable – group. Decades later, Latino/as figure as a cohort with specifically-targeted and owned media outlets and, notably, their own internal struggles for self-definition. Key among these is the recent push towards a Latinx identity, a marker that connotes gender non-conformity and decolonial aspirations.[viii] Another disparity concerns generational inconsistencies in terms of language usage and media consumption practices. Elena of Avalor partly succeeds by addressing the symbolic and technological specificities of Latinx media at this historical conjuncture.
Avalor is a mythical land replete with quirks and icons rooted in the Latin American traditions that shape this evolutionary Latinx culture. A promotional poster for the series meticulously details many of these: the Teotihuacan-inspired scenery, the mythical beasts, the locally specific flower on Elena’s head, the magical elements based on indigenous traditions. Many of the episodes’ storylines build on legends from the non-Anglophone parts of the American continent: one episode includes a trip to the island where the Fountain of Youth is located; another wakes up a totem giant inspired by Mayan folklore; yet another features a sensitive yet fiery rock cheekily named Charoca, a portmanteau of the famous actress-comedian Charo and the Spanish word for rock. Latinx signifiers like these fill the world that Princess Elena inhabits.
These signifiers are far from empty: the plurality they represent is integral to the ethos of the entire series. The plot of the first episode of the series concerns Elena’s attempts to prove that she should be crowned Queen because she can handle all the problems that arise in her queendom. Elena comes to realize that she still has much to learn about governing such vast and diverse lands; a Grand Council is set up to help her rule as Crown Princess. Figuring out that she cannot be everything to everyone is as much a lesson for the young heroine as it is a mandate for the series. Despite statements from head writer Silvia Olivas about the “tremendous amount of responsibility” to make the first Latina princess “authentic enough,”[ix] the show sheds any pretense to meet everyone’s expectations at the outset. Instead, it slowly builds a world where its various characters can help the Latina leader establish her reign without succumbing to the toll of being the sole representative of her ethnic group.
As is the case with most ethnically underrepresented groups, the most common critique of any one Latina/o representation is the erasure of difference with a tendency towards lighter skin tones, North American accents, and less racialized facial features. The series’ character design tends to fall into what some have termed “sameface syndrome,” where female characters’ faces remain constrained to variations on one simple silhouette.[x] Yet, the attention to issues of skin tone and accent diversity gestures towards a more inclusive formulation of this Latinx realm. Elena’s younger sister Isabel and her abuela Luisa fall on the lighter side of the skin spectrum; cousin Esteban, abuelo Francisco, and the local wizard-in-training Mateo exhibit darker skin tones, while Elena and her personal royal guard Gabe fall somewhere in the middle. The younger characters speak with accents that are noticeably more Americanized than their co-stars, while the older characters’ more Spanish-inflected accents are varied: Mexican-born Christian Lanz voices cousin Esteban and Cuban actor Emiliano Díez brings Franciso to life, for example. The multiplicity of accents — a distracting feature in a series that attempts to be locally and historically based like Netflix’s Narcos — instead signals the cultural melting pot of the Latinx identity in this mythical setting. This diversity is present not only in the show’s main characters, but also in its townspeople who represent a variety of phenotypic and linguistic attributes.
Figuring out that she cannot be everything to everyone is as much a lesson for the young heroine as it is a mandate for the series.
Elena of Avalor arrives at a moment when the Latinx identity becomes both more powerful and more nebulous. On the one hand, the purchasing power and political influence of Latinxs in the United States is increasingly solidifying: it is a group that represents the most avid and most rapidly growing television audience in the United States,[xi] and it has also proven to be a significant mobilizing force towards political aims.[xii] On the other hand, the generational shifts in language preferences and platform adoption challenge the usefulness of such an overarching category to capture heterogeneous audience tastes. Millennials represent the largest segment of the media-consuming Latinx population, a segment characterized by their rapid, flexible adoption of mobile platforms for media consumption.[xiii] As Spanish-language television networks have realized, there is an emergent preference for English-language content among younger Latinx-identified populations.[xiv] Whether there exists a unified Latinx audience to be captured is increasingly up for debate.
Though the decision to debut the first Latina princess on cable television rather than in movie theatres was met with derision by some,[xv] the narrative and technical affordances of the medium are instrumental in expressing the plurality of the Latinx identity. The ten-episode season allows creators to build a more diverse world for Elena to inhabit and to address its diversity. This televisual convergence also befits the younger target audience for the series, a group drawn to serialized content. That Elena must address issues of civic duty, empathy, and self-reliance on a weekly basis lends itself to engagements beyond the series, like the didactic handouts created by Disney Channel in collaboration with Girl Scouts of the USA. Written in English and Spanish, these handouts facilitate parent-child conversations about the themes of the show, tying these to short everyday activities children can take part in.
Ultimately, there is more to praise than begrudge with the debuting Latina princess in the Disney canon. The show is heteronormative, limited in design, and hopelessly optimistic—but these are the founding stones of the Disney canon. And even while exhibiting these qualities, Elena of Avalor is refreshing for its exuberant, inclusive, and encouragingly self-aware but not overtly self-reflexive tone. Much like reclaiming the Latinx identity from the cultural industries’ formulation, Elena of Avalor embraces hybridity qua heterogeneity. The show’s successful mobilization of cultural specificity without falling into the trap of “authenticity” is reason enough to be optimistic about the diversity of storylines and icons that this series may produce in seasons to come. That such a civic-minded, culturally aware product came from a corporate behemoth is grounds for expecting better from media industries at large.