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Bee with Diana Leon-Boys: New Book Announcement and Tangential Representation

By Bee Eldridge

 

Welcome to our latest installment of Bee With...

As you know, my DisNeteers, this segment series highlights new and upcoming Disney works to aid in promoting such fantastic work being done in Disney Studies and interdisciplinary fields.


This week, I was delighted to interview Dr. Diana Leon-Boys and her latest work, Elena, Princesa of the Periphery: Disney's Flexible Latina Girl (2023).


Dr. Leon-Boys (PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida. Her research and teaching interests are in critical media and cultural studies, Latinx studies, and girlhood studies. Her work focuses on the global representation of girls of color in a post-network digital era against the backdrop of contemporary post-feminism and neoliberal frameworks.

(I will warn you ahead of time, my DisNeteers, I enjoyed speaking with Dr. Leon-Boys and the interview reflects the in-depth conversation we had in length.)


The cover of this work draws you in, but the interesting research on the representation of Latina girlhood within Disney media and this focus on "flexibility" keeps you invested. When Dr. Leon-Boys agreed to meet with me to discuss the work, I was truly excited to discuss this fascinating work.


When speaking with Dr. Leon-Boys, I began with the two most important questions:

Bee: What is your favorite Disney television show or film?


Diana: My absolute favorite Disney animated series is Doc McStuffins (2012-2020). I love that show. I actually started watching it with my daughter 7 years ago, or so...I just love so much of the themes that they tackle, and one of my favorite episodes from this series is the one where they tackle childhood cancer.

For those unfamiliar, Doc McStuffins was a television show on the Disney Junior channel, airing from 2012-2020. The 5 seasons follow Dottie "Doc" McStuffin and her adventures in her playhouse clinic. As we see above, when she puts on the magical stethoscope, the dolls and toys she cares for come to life! The episode above, and the one Dr. Leon-Boys is describing, is called "Hannah the Brave." In this episode, long-term illness and the impact of chemotherapy on Aubrey, the character focused on in the episode, is discussed. Cancer survivor, Robin Roberts even voices Aubrey's mother in the episode. My dear DisNeteers, if you have not seen this show, please do.


Now, back to the interview...

 

Bee: And films?


Diana: Films...it's so hard to talk about films, because I feel like Disney owns everything...But Hocus Pocus (1993). It has a special place in my heart.

Bee: As you say in your book, you're a 90's

kid, and Hocus Pocus for 90's kids really does have a special place in our hearts. It's so nostalgic and reminiscent. It's why it has such a cult following.


Well, with that answered we moved on to the second most important question:


Bee: I know you've been to Disney Theme Parks. What is your favorite ride?


Diana: I don't think I've ever been asked that question before. It's so hard to think about rides though, because all I've been doing the past few years is doing the 'Meet and Greets' with the princesses! So, Space Mountain has been a favorite of mine through they ears, but I also really like the Slinky Dog Dash at Toy Story Land.

(Now, at this point, the interview went off topic a bit as we both reminisced about the "quick" waiting times at Disney theme parks (by "quick" I mean the 70 minute wait for one ride). I must confess, my dear DisNeteer, I went insane waiting in a Disney park line - to the point that I started talking to the ducks that were staring at us. But that's a story for another time...)

 

Bee: With these important and vital questions out of the way, we now have a few other trickier ones. So, your work focuses on representation in media. In the second paragraph of your introduction, you discuss missing representation on television. This resonated with me as a queer individual. While queerness and race are fundamentally different, I understand this odd nostalgia for a representation that was not present in the 90’s on children’s television shows. I was hoping you could speak more about this need for outside figures in identity creation and how your work addresses this in regard to Latinidad and Girlhood studies?


Diana: You're right when you mention that a lot of it is just so nostalgic. It's what you wish you had as a kid, or what you wish you had seen or been a part of. My work seeks to shine light on these missing pieces, on these missing layers of representation. So that hopefully, for children everywhere, these possibilities can be expanded.
Popular culture gets dismissed as just "entertainment" a lot of the time. But, when we're talking about children, it comes to what they are watching. If we're talking about Latinidad on a global scale (because Disney is global). These are shows and films that might only be the snippets of portrayal of a certain group of people that other people around the world have. I think it's important to understand how, through popular culture, what we see becomes so significant to how we understand the world. How do we see this person. What types of storylines are they given? How do they act? How do they dress? All of this becomes critical to children who do not know anyone from that demographic or who identifies as such, it's going to make a huge difference to them and also for children who identify in that way.

Bee: All of which is very important in today's current discourse surrounding content for children and what is 'appropriate' versus 'inappropriate.'


Diana: Right. This representation forms mine, or the children's, understanding and perception of this. Yet, it is also important for people of that background, who do identify in that way. Seeing themselves existing through popular culture, through popular media, is so unbelievably significant and it makes a huge impact.
My work focuses on this representation, and how it makes a huge difference in the way children see themselves and their place of belonging in the world.
For me as a child, I didn't have this representation. Subconsciously, this informed a lot of how I understood my place, where I was, within my surroundings. I did grow up in the US. That lack of representation affected the way that I understood what my place was in this country, as well as how other people might have perceived what my place was in this country.

Bee: That representation in popular culture, particularly children's television shows, it's that exposure and that validation through exposure that introduces children to other cultures. Even if the children do not identify with the representation, they are still aware of that representation existing. This helps fight stigmatizations and stereotypes, as well as misunderstandings of that representation.


Your book is so great because it does draw in more of that exposure needed in this area and these studies of representation, particularly with Latinx representation and Disney.



 

Bee: With that, my next question looks at Latinx representation, and your work looks at Latinidad culture, age, and girlhood studies – regarding the importance of this, I found this quote really interesting:


“Even though Elena, the princess and all that her kingdom stands for, provides a new space for Latina girls to find recognition and possibilities for existence, these new possibilities are momentary, nonthreatening, and tangential” (Leon-Boys, 2).


How does your work further expand on these notions, and could you describe what you mean by this and how such a representation is problematic.


Diana: I want to start with "tangential." That is where a big part of the title comes from, the "periphery." Elena is the princess of the outside. She's not part of the normative US main stream culture, when talking about popular culture at large. When we are talking about the Magic Kingdom, what we hear over and over from these cast members - paid actresses - is that they are not in their kingdom, but they are just guests in Cinderella's kingdom.
So the tangential/peripheral is problematic because this is a way in which Latinxes have been understood in society at large. We're no longer talking about mainstream popular culture, but we're talking about in general - as in: not from here, as othered, as eternal foreigners, as people that are constantly trying to adapt and adjust and assimilate into a culture that is not their own. Although, we know that's not really the case as there are people that have been in the US for many generations.
The peripheral aspect of it continues through this narrative franchise, through the stories and the characters, and all of that to position us (Latinxes) on the periphery. We're not part of that central dominant equation. That is how the non-threatening element comes into play, because it's on the outside, and it's not part of that core. It loses some of that threat element. It loses part of those narratives of invasion, and the "threat" of the population being taken over...it takes away some of that fear from people and from the audiences/audience members, from everyone at the theme parks, everyone at the show...audience members who are not part of that demographic.
By placing Latinxes on the periphery, it shaves away some of that fear - as well as through all of these other tactics, that I address in the book. I discuss how Elena is made easily consumable and non-threatening and a non-threatening character. The book examines how this happens through the production, through the text, and through the live interactions with audience members at the theme park spaces.
I also mention momentary, and I want to say that momentary really does expand beyond this narrative franchise - beyond Elena of Avalor. Elena of Avalor itself is momentary. It's an animated televisions series, very different than the blockbusters, the full length, and the animated feature films. While the show has a lot of episodes, obviously there is a different weight to them. A lot of people don't even know the television series exists.

Bee: I think that's a problem with a lot of television shows. We are so inundated by all of the available streaming platforms and services, a lot of the shows that don't make it into the "main stream" are left by the wayside. However, it seems those are the shows that are worth watching.


 

Bee: This next question I have for you delves into a slightly different aspect of your work. Your subtitle is "Disney's Flexible Latina Girl." That term "flexible" is found throughout your book with this idea that representation needs to be flexible. Can you briefly describe to our DisNeteers what the "continuum of flexibility" is and how this impacts approaching the visualization of Elena of Avalor regarding Latinidad culture and Latinx representation?


Diana: For the purposes of my study, the "flexibility" applies to a Latina identity, to a girl Latinidad, but it's something we can extend to really analyze mediated instances of any kind when discussing "non-normative" representation. I look at the "flexibility" in reference to how the series is trying to adapt and transform, bend and snap these elements so it can appeal to a wider global audience. The third chapter of the book analyzes Elena of Avalor, where I focus on 10 specific episodes and draw out these instances. The "continuum of flexibility" is a typology with 4 different segments, or layers, in terms of how "flexible" a representation is in the episode being analyzed; specifically regarding the narrative and storyline.

Bee: That's a great short description! I want to be sure you don't give too much of the book away. However, I found these study fascinating, particularly this theory of "continuum of flexibility." I believe many scholars can look at it from so many viewpoints and see its value. Before I get to my final question, is there anything you wish to add?

Diana: Yes. I want to add a bit more to this "momentary" aspect from the previous question. We don't really know what the future holds for this princess. The longevity of this character is questionable. In 2032, are they still going to be showcasing her character at the theme parks, at the meet and greets, at the parades in the same way we do with some of the other princesses? Or, has Elena reached her end? This extends beyond the book, because we see this happening with Latinx series, films, the halting of production, the halting of new series. I just saw Netflix cancelled the On My Block spin off Freeridge after just one season. In some cases, like One Day at a Time, the fan backlash promotes another season of the show, but it's rare. This is why I say it all extends beyond my book. Elena of Avalor is just one example of this very consistent pattern we see in mainstream popular culture.


Bee: I absolutely agree. Coming at this from a queer aspect, Netflix is known for cancelling shows that are beloved by the audience base - after just one season. Those that are in the periphery of the main stream community encounter a lot of similar loss in representation.


Diana: Right. It's a matter of trying to shift that focus from the main stream to the periphery with time. Hopefully some of these conversations can set the stage for that, or can at least start future conversations.

 

Bee: What I also find interesting it to see what Disney will replace with the ending of such shows. Will we get more representation, or will it be a loss? Will the periphery continue to shift more into the core, or will we be left outside once more? Particularly in the case of The Owl House (2020-2023) as it is coming to an end after only 3 seasons, Elena of Avalor ended after 5 seasons, what are we getting in place of that representation? We don't know. We can only wait.


Unfortunately, this leads me to my final questions. And, I promise this is my final question. With everything we've talked about today, what is it that you hope a general audience, or a general reader, will get from your book?


Diana: One of the biggest things that I'm hopeful for is a balance of praise and hopefulness, with a critical eye to what's happening and the patterns that we continue to see. Hopefully, that critical eye will open up the space for people to have conversations about this, maybe beyond Elena of Avalor, maybe about popular culture at large, or Latinidad at large.

Bee: I think as Disney scholars, but also as fans, we cannot help but view a Disney creation with a critical eye. I believe that your work will draw in other fans as well, whether a scholar or not. Through our work as Disney scholars we can draw in fans with our work and then ask them to look at Disney creations from a critical point of view. I think your book has great potential to do just that.


I would sincerely like to thank Dr. Leon-Boys for her time and for answering my questions.


My dear DisNeteer, if you have not had the chance to obtain a copy (physical or digital) of Elena, Princesa of the Periphery: Disney's Flexible Latina Girl (2023), I advise you to do so.



Order your copy here.

For more on Dr. Diana Leon-Boys, see her website.

 

We are so excited to promote new and upcoming Disney scholarship that Dr. Diana Leon-Boys will be speaking about her work during the first DisNet Book Launch event!


To celebrate the release of her new book, Elena, Princesa of the Periphery: Disney's Flexible Latina Girl. Dr. Emily Aguiló-Pérez will be in conversation with Dr. Diana Leon-Boys to discuss her explorations of Disney's first Latina princess, Elena of Avalor.


Please join us by signing up for the FREE event here:



 

If you love all things Disney, if you had a presentation that you would love to see written down (and citable) come out into the world, email Bee! Do you have a book coming out and would love to have a launch with us? Email Bee! Did your book, or someone else's book, come out and you want to see us do a book review or an author interview...that's right, email Bee!


Check out our Want to Write for DisNet post.


(Bee's email is also disnetblog@gmail.com)

 

References:


Leon-Boys, Diana. Elena, Princesa of the Periphery: Disney's Flexible Latina Girl. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press (2023).


Images:


Fig. 1: Cover Image. Leon-Boys, Diana. Elena, Princesa of the Periphery: Disney's Flexible Latina Girl. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press (2023).


Fig. 2: Grant, Kerri and Rachel Vine., writers Doc McStuffins. Season 4, Episode 18,"Hannah the Brave/Waddly's Huggy Overload." https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/robin-roberts-voices-character-doc-mcstuffins-national-cancer/story?id=47515124


Fig. 3: Ortega, Kenny. Hocus Pocus. (United States: Buena Vista Pictures, 1993) https://movies.disney.com/hocus-pocus


Fig. 4: The Slinky Dog Dash in Toy Storyland at Hollywood Studios. https://www.flickr.com/photos/127662106@N04/29262611338/


Fig. 5: Space Mountain in Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Space_Mountain_in_the_Magic_Kingdom_in_2021.jpg


Fig. 6: Elena of Avalor Poster. Gerber, Craig, producer. Elena of Avalor. (United State: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2016-2020). https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcT3EKnvAcSTbihxv0zIk7yOVN6kMiiTASVzVkw-1WcAZaBs0WUG


Fig. 7: Coco Film Poster for Molina, Adrain and Lee Unkrich, dirs. Coco. (California: Pixar Animation Studios, 2017). https://movies.disney.com/coco


Fig. 8: Elena in Elena of Avalor. Gerber, Craig, producer. Elena of Avalor. (United State: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2016-2020). https://disney.fandom.com/wiki/Princess_Elena


Fig. 9: Elena of Avalor's Induction at Disney Parks with Cinderella. Fickley, Bake Jennifer. "This Week in Disney Parks Photos: A Royal Welcome For Elena of Avalor." Disney Parks Blog (blog). Aug. 13, 2016. Disney. https://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/2016/08/this-week-in-disney-parks-photos-a-royal-welcome-for-elena-of-avalor/


Fig. 10: Elena of Avalor during her induction to Disney Parks. Fickley, Bake Jennifer. "This Week in Disney Parks Photos: A Royal Welcome For Elena of Avalor." Disney Parks Blog (blog). Aug. 13, 2016. Disney. https://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/2016/08/this-week-in-disney-parks-photos-a-royal-welcome-for-elena-of-avalor/


Fig. 11: Still from the Elena of Avalor Trailer. Disney Channel. "Trailer Elena of Avalor," Youtube Video, 01:07, June 10, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRpmMwQ0aR4


Fig. 12: On My Block still. "On My Block Season 4: Release date on Netflix - 2021." Marca (blog). Oct. 4, 2021. https://www.marca.com/en/lifestyle/tv-shows/2021/10/04/615ad9bb46163f4a6e8b45b9.html


Fig. 13: Freeridge Netflix Ad. "Freeridge." IMDB (blog). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt15506958/?ref_=tt_mv_close



 


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