The Disney Fairies franchise is the most perfect gateway drug ever invented by Hollywood. It’s a series of movies (and books and video games and theme park rides) centered on Tinker Bell that imagines an entire fairy world where Tink and her friends have adventures and learn lessons before the events of Peter Pan.
The Fairies movies are direct-to-video and they’re short, averaging about 75 minutes. This means that they’re designed primarily for kids who aren’t old enough to sit through a full movie in a theater. They’re also low-intensity, even by Disney standards, meaning that three- and four-year-olds won’t be scared—there’s no Disney Parental Death.TM And no scary villains, like Ursula the Sea Witch. With the exception of The Pirate Fairy, none of the movies even has a true villain.
Watching the Fairies movies, it’s obvious that Disney’s corporate plan is to capture kids with Tinker Bell and graduate them up to the Princesses line around age seven. From there, they’ll be boosted to the main Disney and Pixar films by ten, captured as tweens with Disney Channel fare (such as Descendents), and then finally ushered into consuming Disney’s line of “grown-up” re-imaginings of their classic properties, such as Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella, and Pan (which debuted in theaters this past weekend).
But even more interesting than this insight into Disney’s corporate business model is the degree to which the Fairies movies reveal Disney’s corporate imperatives concerning multiculturalism and political correctness.
The idea of “diversity” presents a problem for the Tinker Bell universe. The original character was created in 1904 by J. M. Barrie, a Scottish playwright who dreamed up the fairy as a companion for Peter Pan. Fairies were commonplace in British lore and while the fairy isn’t exclusive to Great Britain—similar mythical creatures existed in other European cultures, too—the fairy is most strongly identified with the English tradition. And fairies were much in vogue in Britain during Barrie’s time—just a few years after Tinker Bell was created, Britain was captivated by the Cottingley fairy hoax.
All of which is to say, that for a series set in and around turn of the century London, there isn’t much racial diversity to work with. (We learn in the first movie, Tinker Bell, that Pixie Hollow—where Tink lives—is a short flight from London.) Disney waves this problem aside. They keep the occasional human characters in the series as period-appropriate Caucasian Brits, but Tinker Bell’s group of friends is like a wee Benetton ad.
There’s Rosetta, the pretty white fairy who speaks, inexplicably, with a Southern drawl. There’s Iridessa, the black fairy (voiced by Raven Symoné). There’s Silvermist, the Asian fairy (voiced by Lucy Liu). And in the first movie, the racially ambiguous fairy Fawn was voiced by Latina actress America Ferrera. (In subsequent films, Fawn’s voice work is performed by Anglo actresses Angela Bartys and Ginnifer Goodwin.) So it’s unclear if Fawn is, or is not, Hispanic. Either way, a micro-aggression has probably been committed.
Then there are the boy fairies, inexplicably referred to in the Tinker Bell canon as “sparrowmen.” The two most prominent male characters are Bobble and Clank and these chums are awfully . . . close . . . friends. They’re inseparable, they frequently fuss over one another, and while every other fairy character in the Tinker Bell universe is shown living alone, Bobble and Clank are revealed to be roommates (in Secret of the Wings). Make of this what you will. Disney has given just enough clues to suggest that they could be a couple, while still maintaining plausible deniability. Much in the same way the company did in Frozen with the throwaway shot of Oaken’s family.
But the most interesting bit of diversity maneuvering is found in Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast. The central conflict of NeverBeast emerges when a large animal suddenly appears in Pixie Hollow. The troop of Scout fairies charged with protecting the fairy homeland believes him to be a danger. The Scout fairy leader, Nix, is especially zealous in trying to find and apprehend this NeverBeast.
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Yet Tinker Bell and her friends believe that the NeverBeast is not a threat. They aid and abet him, hiding him from Nyx and coming into (Disney Fairies-level) conflict with her. In the end, it turns out that the NeverBeast is actually a heroic fellow. He saves Pixie Hollow from existential doom and Nyx, realizing her mistake, apologizes to him and befriends him.
Here’s what’s interesting: the character of Nyx is voiced (wonderfully) by Rosario Dawson, who is black. Yet Nyx the fairy is depicted as white. Why in the world would that be? It isn’t that Disney is averse to having black fairies, obviously. They’re not even averse to having black Scout fairies—one of the minor Scouts, who has no dialogue, is black. But Nyx, voiced by an African- (and Cuban-) American actress, has been made white.
The obvious explanation is that Nyx is portrayed, for most of the movie, as the story’s antagonist. Her character isn’t a villain—she’s well meaning, but mistaken. And in the end she honorably atones for her misjudgment. But nevertheless, the central conflict of the movie is between Nyx and Tinker Bell’s multi-culti posse.
So here’s how well thought-out Disney’s commitment to diversity is: Not only is it important to insert minority characters into settings where there’s no logical reason for them to exist—but within this system they will not allow a minority character to appear as an antagonist, even when the casting would call for it.
This isn’t a scandal or an outrage. But it is a telling glimpse into how the logic of corporate diversity mandates work, even at the level of animated children’s movies.