Walt Disney Animation Studios/Screenshot by NPR
Disney, a company that’s both perpetually groundbreaking and perennially behind the times, revealed its first plus-sized heroine last month, leaving fans both frustrated and inspired.
Bianca, a young ballerina with no spoken lines, stars in a two-minute short titled Reflect.
The film premiered last month as part of Short Circuit, a series of experimental animated shorts available only on Disney+, but is gaining fresh attention on social media this week as more and more viewers discover the content.
Bianca’s struggles with self-image serve as the film’s plot driver
Reflect opens on Bianca, whose dance lesson is quickly dampened by self-doubt after the instructor chides “tight tummy, long neck” and she reviews her own stomach in the mirror.
The glass cracks and Bianca is swiftly sucked into a dark and ominous space, where (spoiler alert) she must dance without inhibition to successfully battle her reflection.
Director Hillary Bradfield, best known for her work on Disney films Encanto and Frozen II, says she based the film on her own experiences with body image.
“I feel like I’m a very body positive person in principle. But when it’s on a personal level, it’s a lot harder to be body positive,” she says in an interview that airs as part of the episode.
“Sometimes you go to the dark place to get to the good place, and that just makes the good place so much more beautiful.”
Fans have interpreted the film’s mirror iconography as a sign Bianca may be struggling with body dysmorphia.
The Mayo Clinic, which defines the mental health disorder as the inability “to stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance,” says that those with body dysmorphia often develop compulsive routines, including excessive grooming and the frequent use of mirrors.
The term has been trending on social media platforms this week after Taylor Swift edited the word “fat” off of a scale in a new music video, igniting a wide-ranging social media conversation around eating disorders, body dysmorphia and fatphobia.
Disney’s 99-year history has been marked with racism, sexism and exclusivity
Disney has historically depicted plus-sized female characters as extras or villains in sharp visual contrast to whisper-thin princess protagonists.
Some recent heroines, including Moana and the Encanto siblings Luisa and Mirabel, have been celebrated for modeling more realistic body types. But the company has also caught flack for others, including a 2016 short film character whose waist was nearly thinner than her neck.
Always trying to maintain its mainstream popularity, Disney pledged in 2020 to “consciously, purposefully and relentlessly champion the spectrum of voices and perspectives in our world.”
Some said the timing of the pledge, which was part of its launch of the “Stories Matter” initiative, was a too-little-too-late approach to racial justice following years of racism in everything from its films to its theme park rides.
And the content that’s aired since then might best be described as a give-and-take approach to representation.
Take Disney’s stances on LGBTQ+ issues for example.
The feature film Lightyear released earlier this year included an on-screen kiss between two gay characters. Another scene from the show Baymax featured a trans man buying menstrual products.
But Disney didn’t rally against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill until employees began walking out and accusing executives of cutting queer content. And even then, Disney kept donating to some of the bill’s sponsors.
Fan reactions to Reflect have been thoroughly mixed
Social media users have questioned Disney’s intentions behind Reflect, saying the two-minute length didn’t leave enough room for nuance, and the message of body positivity was muddled by making Bianca’s self-image the primary plot driver.
“Hey Disney, now do fat characters that aren’t tragic and whose stories don’t revolve around their weight?” one Twitter user posted this week.
Another dared Disney to “put the fat girl on screens for two hours, cowards.”
But for others, Bianca serves as a step toward the right kind of representation — or at least the conversation starter.
@mollykaynelson #duet with @sarahineorzea As a Plus Size Disney lover seeing this short made me cry because I’m finally seeing my body type represented on screen in Disney film. I took ballet when I was little and remember feeling so out of place when no one was my size. We need more inclusivity like this and one day I hope we can have a plus size disney princess so all the little fat girls can see that we dont need to be thin to be beautiful, loved and celebrated #plussizedisney #disneyplussizeprincesses #disneyplussize ♬ After LIKE – Short Ver. – IVE
“I RAN to watch this short,” a Tik Tok user posted alongside a video of herself in tears.
Another found the film gave her a chance to, well, reflect.
“Growing up I was always the biggest girl in my ballet classes,” she posted. “I would give anything to show this to my younger self and say it’ll be ok.”