Category: Race & Skin Color


Safe Skin Colors

Several Disney villains that poses Caucasian features are given unnatural and impossible skin tons in several Disney films. Notable examples of this include Ursula’s purple skin in The Little Mermaid, Maleficent’s green skin in Sleeping Beauty, Hades’s blue skin in Hercules, and Yzma’s grayish-purple skin in Emperor’s New Groove. Many other Disney villains have skin that is whiter than the protagonists and borders on gray.

Why Disney decided on these choices might including several reasons. For example, giving a villain a strange skin tone makes them an “other” marking them as an enemy to the protagonist. It also designates villains as being another race without having to portray an actual race. No one will be offended if Maleficent has green skin, but red skin (Native Americans) and yellow skin (Asians) are entirely off-limits.

This difference is especially startling in the Emperor’s New Groove in which the Incan people are all tan and Yzma stands out entirely with her strangely pale and purple skin. The difference, as in all of the Disney films with colored villains, is never explained.

It is also fairly regular for the Caucasian villains and villainesses to have skin so white that it takes on a grayish hue. The clearest example of this is Cruella DeVille from 101 Dalmatians. In this still from the film below, she is clearly a different, more unnatural (and eerily corpse-like) shade than Roger, the male protagonist.

Once again, Disney portrays the villains and villainesses as being outside of the norm by differentiating them by skin color.

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When classifying the Disney villains, most appeared Caucasian in appearance with the exception of Jafar from Aladdin and Dr. Faciliar from The Princess and the Frog. In Mulan, Shan-Yu is technically Mongolian whereas Mulan is Chinese, but both have stereotypically Asian features. In these three instances, the races and skin colors of the villains and heros are defined by their cultural context, but can further be broken down into their differences between hero and villain.

The clearest example of a villain with darker skin is in Mulan where Shan-Yu has much darker skin than Mulan that looks more gray than anything. This makes the Mongolians seem subhuman and subtly reinforces the idea that darker skin is more evil.

Another, more subtle and controversial example is seen in Aladdin. Although it is often pointed out that Jafar has darker skin than Jasmine, the color differences in most frames of the film are slight. Jafar’s skin almost looks lighter than Jasmine’s in this still image taken directly from the film.

The most notable example of Jafar’s darker skin is in the infamous kissing image. It’s hard to determine why Jafar’s skin changes so much throughout the film, but perhaps he was given a different and more noticeably different skin color in this frame to differentiate between them when they were so close together.

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One counterexample of the “darker is evil” hypothesis is seen in Princess and the Frog. Dr. Facilier is actually no darker than Tiana. This is true in both the film itself and its promotional materials. In fact, in the still below, Tiana actually looks a bit darker than Facilier.

Promotional materials

Perhaps Disney was more cognizant of issues about skin color when making Princess and the Frog and realized that making Dr. Facilier’s skin darker was unnecessary and offensive, especially to the African Americans to whom Disney was strongly marketing the film. Hopefully this shows signs of progress and that Disney is putting more thought into the racial messages it is sending children over what is good and evil.