¿Who’s the real Latina?

In recent weeks, Disney has received a wave of scathing criticism for the portrayal of its newest royal. The announcement of Princess Sophia as Disney’s first Latina princess by Jamie Mitchell, Disney’s executive producer, has caused an explosive stir in the Latino community. Intense criticism regarding the princess’ proposed identity, mainly expressed via social media networks, has caused Disney to recant its initial announcement of Sophia as the first Latina princess in favor of her being a “mixed-heritage” princess.

What caused an entertainment giant to change the identity of a fictional character? Short answer: People tweeted and Disney listened. Long version? Sophia doesn’t look like a typical Latina. But what does a “typical” Latina look like and if such a person exists, can she be packaged for an audience in a racially obsessive nation? (Let’s hold off on that one, we’ll come back to it). The Latino community’s frustration with the new princess is largely attributed to her fair complexion, blue eyes, and auburn hair. Individuals have used their tweets and statuses to express their rejection of Princess Sophia’s proposed Latina identity. Below are a few examples of popular tweets:

“Disappointment: Disney unveils first Latina princess who DOESN’T look like the vast majority of Latinas. #fail #latism”

“Is it me, or does Disney’s first Latina princess look… white?”

“She don’t look very Laaatinnnna. She look white.”

“She’s about as Latina as Mitt Romney is Mexican. #Fail”

“Most of us Latinas have tint our skin if you’re going to make a #Latina Disney Princess make her more relatable to our race”

In light of the growing frustration, a few questions come to mind. Did Disney miscalculate their packaging of the world’s first Latina princess? Is this an example of the opposition between globalization and identification as described by Manuel Castells? I submit that the backlash received by the company indicates a gross miscalculation in its packaging of Sophia. Although the world is moving into an era of cultural globalization, the power of individual cultural identity has not waned. Disney has received few—if any—praise for showcasing Sophia’s multicultural heritage. In fact, the lack of overt cultural identification, now identifying Sophia as a “mixed-heritage” princess rather than Latina, has also earned the company sharp criticism. If nothing else, this illustrates the aforementioned case made by Castells as it affirms the difficulty of packaging cultural products due to the opposition between globalization and identification. Whether it’s global or local, individual identity still matters which means packaging does too.

Now let’s go back to the first question: What does a “typical” Latina look like and if she exists, can her identity be packaged for an audience in a racially obsessive nation (yes, racially-obsessive)? It’s important to recognize that America is not a post-racial society and whether we like it or not, race still matters. It’s also crucial to acknowledge the racial and ethnic diversity of minority groups living in this nation (e.g., not all black people are African-Americans) rather than throwing them into one group for the sake of being politically correct.

Most scholars who study race and ethnicity in the Americas would affirm that 1) the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic”, as used by individuals living in the U.S, identify a cultural group rather than a racial or ethnic group, and 2) Latin America’s model of racial categorization is much more expansive than the United States’ binary model of race (i.e. you’re either black, white, or—depending on where you live—somewhere in the middle). With that said, I submit that there is no “typical” Latina. Latinos come in all beautiful shapes, sizes and colors. Given the huge racial and ethnic diversity of Latinos, someone will—unfortunately—get left out when the official Latina princess is presented. Why? Because some Latinas look like Sophia (especially in Argentina, Chile, or Uruguay) and others look like Disney’s Tiana (true in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and even Puerto Rico) and believe it or not, a few even look like Mulan (e.g. the daughter of Peru’s former president, Señor Alberto Fujimori).

¿Entonces, who do you say the real Latina is?


The value of culture


As is argued through the lens of Critical Theory, culture is seen as a commodity. This results in the mass production of cultural artifacts that are a reflection of that culture’s communication style (Thussu pg 54). The creation process has the masses, the least common denominator, in mind. Culture is not perceived as the transmitter of heritage or the carrier of profound beliefs. Instead it is being consumed, mostly without second thought by the masses. It can be so easily consumed because these mass-products are easily accessible e.g. on tv and do not require a lot of thought process. The product is being being broken down in easy to digest pieces with a little cliffhanger here and there to tie you over the commercial break.
If you look at the current mass media output, especially in the area of tv and movie production, there is a clear bias towards (scripted) reality-tv (Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives of XYZ, Honey Boo Boo) and easy to digest movie plots (good vs. evil fighting it out in 90 minutes with a lot of action and guns or chick flicks that center around the apparently only issue concerning women in their 20s which is getting hitched) in the Western hemisphere.
Of course one can argue that this is what the masses want, easy access to easy to digest entertainment. And I do agree: after a day of working, running errands, taking care of screaming children, attempting to impress your boss so that you stay at the company while everyone else is being fired you DO want to settle in the evening to a world of entertainment that nice and easy to digest. A world that makes you laugh, albeit mostly at the expense of others or a world where you do know that in the end the good will prevail. But the fact that non-mass culture movie producers have a very hard time getting funding, finding themselves in the “independent movie” niche, should be alarming. Is what they have to say less important? Do their movies have less cultural value than Honey Boo Boo and hence they deserve a struggle to get their project up and running since they don’t cater to what the masses want?
What I am wondering is, in 100 or 200 years from now, what will society think about our consumer behavior today? What does the fact that (scripted) reality tv is so popular across the Western culture say about us now, and what does it say about us in 200 years when the need for a certain level of voyeurism has been replaced by something else. Will the society of the future look at who owns media today, who produces it and with what intentions? Or will they be even more one-dimensional in their entertainment needs resulting in the fact that a show such as Jersey Shore is suddenly difficult to grasp due to the nature of the characters, their actions and their cultural background?
This post refers to Thussu “Approaches to theorizing international communication” from International Communication: Continuity and Change.