Sooooo, I don’t know if you knew this but Disney made a movie a while back based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. Here’s a link to the original 1845 text. This tale was written in Denmark, but does not necessarily take place there.
Because, you know. It’s a fairy tale. Fiction.
Frozen is a film written and produced in the US for presumably American audiences, but Disney is loved by many all over the world, and shown/seen by people in a measurably global scale. Disney created a fictional story based on a work of fiction. They used The Snow Queen as source material, but the created films bears little resemblance to Anderson’s original tale, as is par for the course with most Disney productions.
They chose to depict all characters who speak and have names as what Americans would immediately recognize and categorize as white people. This was disappointing to many Disney fans of color-yet another film made in which no ones looks like them. A few fans made some artwork depicting some of these characters with brown skin.
And the internet exploded in outrage.
"But it’s a story from Denmark!" "That’s not historically accurate!!!" "You already have enough movies!!" "How DARE you!" Even worse, a group of indigenous Scandinavian people called the Saami were also dragged into this debate, and photographs of them were slung all over the internet by people NOT Saami, and their appearance and their race picked over with a fine-toothed comb, being lobbed as "proof" their race on either side, all because Disney chose character costume designs and certain other elements of Saami culture to show in their film, without any mention of their origin. Words from actual Saami people were drowned out in the uproar, for the most part.
The outrage over anyone suggesting the cast of the film could have been more diverse reached shockingly violent levels. Before anyone could blink, death threats were being lobbed at artists and just about anyone making cultural commentary involving the film.
In fact, there’s an entire page at knowyourmeme.com dedicated to discrediting anyone criticizing the film, it’s casting, character creation, or depictions of race therein. Almost every pop culture blog remotely related to any of the topics have covered this “debate”.
And I have received over 200 asks on this topic. Once again: I have received over 200 asks on this topic. Asks for commentary, requests that I “become involved” in some thread or another, messages begging me to “prove to my mom Elsa could have been a person of color!”, asks for my opinion on specific bloggers or their Facebook friends’ statement.
But the problem is, I know that no matter what I write, the “debate” will rage on. No “proof” can possibly compete with emotional investment in keeping these films white, and besides, in history, “proof” doesn’t work that way.
This is an Art History and Historiography blog, and while in factual reality, the debate over Frozen has almost nothing to do with the topics covered by this blog, in people’s perceptions, it has everything to do with it.
Because the response to people who would like to just make art of a Disney character with their skin color, is literally, “you aren’t allowed. It’s not historically accurate.”
This claim has nothing to do with the actual history of Denmark. People of color in Denmark have about the same amount of history as most Scandinavian nations do. There were some people of color of varying origin in most walks of life at any given time in Denmark. People of Color arrived in Denmark the same way white people did-with boats. But what on earth does that have to do with a Fantasy Film made in the United States, in the 21st Century? A film loosely based on a Danish story that is pure fantasy-it doesn’t even take place in Denmark?
But too many people think it does. The perception becomes reality. And the assumption of completely homogenous whiteness is so strong and so pervasive, it completely overrides any factual evidence to the contrary.
The fact is, there were people of all races in Denmark throughout history. Denmark is one of the oldest nations that still exist, and part of how it got that way was via trade, travel, immigration, intermarriage, alliances, and existing as a part of a global political environment.
But the bottom line is, historical documents cannot compete with a false idea that so many people are this emotionally invested in. The history of Denmark has nothing to do with Frozen, but the near-ubiquitous whiteness of children’s media is one of the most polarizing issues in American/U.S. culture today.
Too many have looked to this blog to somehow “settle” this debate once and for all, or “fix” it, to prove to the people who say mean and often racist things that it’s okay to draw a version of a brown-skinned character from Frozen.
That’s not how History works. There is evidence, and there are interpretations. One might imagine that “absolutely every single last person in the entire nation of Denmark for a thousand years was white with no exceptions whatsoever” seems like a very extreme position to take, and yet MY position, which is merely that there are some exceptions and they are notable, is still framed by many people as “extreme”, apparently to a laughable degree.
I’m sorry, but for people who are emotionally invested in the whiteness of Frozen, there is no proof because there can’t be proof. No evidence is strong enough. Nothing they see or read will change their minds. A cultural promise was made to them that they are the owners and arbiters of history, of fantasy, of imagination. You only have to look at the demographics of children’s literature to see how that promise has been fulfilled.
For those who still believe that somehow that emotional investment in white supremacy can be “fixed” by education, or that those who shriek death threats at bloggers who post their fan art online are “just ignorant” and need to be “educated”, here are some resources documenting the presence of people of color, mostly Black people because that is where the most research has so far been done, in the visual arts of Europe and Denmark itself. I, however, am pretty sure that this post will not change anything at all for most of the people who have a huge problem with even asking, “why was everyone in Frozen white?”
Girolamo Romani Romanini, Visit of King Christian of Denmark to Bartolomeo Colleoni at Malpaga; Return of Bartolomeo Colleoni and King Christian to Malpaga after the hunting party. 1474. Fresco in Colleoni Collection, Castello di Malpaga, Bergamo (near), Italy.
The fresco is enormous and in several parts, documenting arrival, departure, and many activities in between. There are plenty of Black and Arab soldiers, pages, attednants, minor gentry and others in attendance to both the Danish King and the Italian nobleman hosting his visit.
The depiction of Saint Maurice as a Black man came to Scandinavia and Denmark specifically, via Germany. The importance of Saint Maurice to the Holy Roman Empire has already been documented at length here. Many claim that the depiction of Saint Maurice as a Black man is meaningless, because Saint Maurice wasn’t Danish. Almost all depictions of biblical figures and saints from the European middle ages are shown as anachronisms…they are dressed in the fashions of when the images were created, not in the time they “belong” to.
I honestly have no clue how the hundreds of depictions of Saint Maurice as a white man (there are plenty, trust me!) fits into this paradigm, but the following two depictions of the Roman Soldier Saint and commander of the Theban Legion are wearing 15th century Danish armor and carrying Danish arms.
Saint Maurice, Anonymous Danish Artist. Mural painting. Full-length figure of St. Maurice with a halo in full armor carrying a lance and a shield. Denmark, 1462. Jean Devisse, The Image of the Black in Western Art, vol. II, From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery” (Cambridge, MA and London, 1979), pt. 1, From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood, pp. 175—76, fig. 136.
Saint Maurice, Anonymous Danish Artist. Mural painting. Standing figure of St. Maurice with a tortil around his head, holding a lance. Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen. Gude SUCKALE-REDLEFSEN and Robert SUCKALE. Mauritius: Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice (Houston, Munich, and Zurich, 1986).
A lot of people seem to think that unless a surviving record with drawings, dates, and times of enclaves of peasants with features or words we would recognize as racial can be produced, this means that everyone who ever lived in Denmark was white, historically, forever. I suppose anything in life is possible, but these depiction of Saint Maurice are more meaningful that some would give them credit for, considering most artists in this time belonged to Guilds that required using live models for artistic depictions in their method bylaws. Also, there was relatively little artwork depicting “average” people, and religious images are the most likely to have survived.
For those who wonder about depictions of average Black Danish people in service, whether military, in a household’s service, or those subjected to the depredations of colonialism, all exist. There are many, many paintings of various important Danish nobility with Black servants.
Portrait of a man and his page, Anonymous Danish Artist. Painting. Portrait of a naval officer in a garden with his pet dog and a turbaned black page holding the reins of his rearing horse. Old Master Paintings, Sale catalogue, New York, Sotheby’s, 10 October 1991 (New York, 1991), no. 164A (color reprod.) and cover illus. (color detail). Image of the Black in Western Art database, Harvard University.
Martinus Christian Wesseltoft Roerbye. Portrait of a smiling black man, seated at the edge of a pool, wearing a sort of fez and shorts and smoking a cigarette. Denmark, 1839. Dyveke HELSTED et al., Martinus Rørbye 1803—1848, Exhibition catalogue, Copenhagen, Thorvaldens Museum, 18 June—30 September 1981 (Copenhagen, 1981), p. 120, no. 82.
So, something about Denmark that parallels British History is the “there a giant ocean right there” factor. Sailors from all over the world found homes in Denmark though many circumstances. Sailors from Asia, Africa, and eventually the Americas were common in the oceans of the world for centuries before global air travel became possible.
Shipwrecks were quite common on the rocky shores in Northern Europe, and the following painting is a depiction of the aftermath of a shipwreck, with the sailors being cared for by the Danish (and a man from the Danish company the ship belonged to).
Niels Simonson, After a Shipwreck on the West Coast of Jutland (detail). Denmark, 1864. (Black sailor seated at left.) Inscriptions: Signed and inscribed lower left: “Niels Simonsen / Kjöbenhavn 1864.”Nineteenth Century European Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours, Sale catalogue, London, Sotheby’s, 25 March 1987 (London, 1987), no. 144 (color reprod.).
In fact, the history of shipping companies in Denmark document seafaring and trade for centuries. What did these average Danish sailors look like? Just like many sailors in the British navy, they were often East and South Asian, Middle Eastern or Arab, and often Black or of African descent.
Unfortunately, not all people of color reached Denmark through their own volition. African people were kidnapped and shipped all over the world during the transatlantic slave trade. The following is a scene in which an English slaving ship is under attack from a (possibly) Danish ship, and a Danish fort is visible in the background. The fort is still there.
After George Webster. Painting. English slave ships off the shore of the Gold Coast with a view of the Danish fort Christiansborg in the background. Denmark, c. 1800. HELSINGØR, Handels- og Søfartsmuseet på Kronborg.Christian DEGN, Die Schimmelmanns im atlantischen Dreieckshandel: Gewinn und Gewissen (Neumünster, 1974), color reprod. facing p. 128.
But there were also servants of the Danish royal family who were people of African descent. Portraits of these people survive today. It is also unlikely they were enslaved, because they lived in Denmark, and most of the wealth Denmark made from enslaving African people was chattel slavery in the West Indies. Even enslaved people on Danish soil would not have been without certain rights. But a royal household servant would have been a wealthy and respected member of society.
Karel Van Mander III. Prince George of Denmark (1653-1708) son of Frederick III. Denmark, 1667. Image of the Black in Western Art (Harvard University).
Karel van Mander III. Queen Anne of Denmark (?-1611), wife of Christian IV (1577-1648), king of Denmark and Norway. Denmark, 1672. Image of the Black in Western Art (Harvard University).
As an additional consideration, Karel Van Mander III, The court painter responsible for some of the portraits of royalty above, did a series of ten paintings from a tale known as The Aethiopica, which used models living in Denmark at that time. Here are some figures from the paintings:
Sheldon Creek, writing for TheRoot.com:
He brings this ancient tale to life through a vigorous, unrestrained treatment of action and facial expression, and a lively portrayal of the black protagonists. In fact, there is evidence that at least some of the figures were based on actual models — that is, black people living in northern Europe, most likely Denmark, where Van Mander was serving as court painter when the series was created.
Is there more evidence? Yes, I am sure there is. But how much evidence does it take? Where is the limit?
And more importantly, why are hours of research necessary to even consider making films with people of color in them for a diverse audience of children? Why are the overwhelming majority of Disney films based on European Fairy Tales? Why are people of color excluded from representation in these films? Why should hours of meticulous research be necessary to say “this film COULD be more representative of its audience”?
And if this post gets anyone at all thinking about those things, then I suppose it might have been worth it after all.