Don’t bother checking with Sarah Silverman, the real-life princess of comedy, because she will tell you this is not Disney’s first Jewish rodeo. The actor, who voiced the casually-dressed, sticky-sweet Vanellope von Schweetz for the studio’s successful Wreck-It Ralph franchise, is convinced that her character is Jewish. This cultural specification may not have been overtly written into the script, but Silverman raised the issue of von Schweetz’s cultural persuasions and provenance when the character was notably absent from retrospective reel of empowered and diverse female characters, aired by Disney on International Women’s Day.
More recently, Disney writer Rachel Ruderman doubled down on the omission, tweeting that she had written Disney’s first Jewish princess for a television serial. Silverman’s objection was renewed, her insistence that Vanellope’s Jewishness is integral to the character because she, her voice and soul, put it there. Moreover, Silverman continues, no one has ever specifically stated that the girl with the green hoodie and lollipops stuck to her hair isn’t Jewish, making little but mighty von Schweetz Disney’s first bona fide Jewish princess. Despite her valid point, even Silverman would not deny the studio’s hit series, Elena of Avalor, a giant mazal tov for producing the first princess in the Disney pantheon who is both Jewish and Latina.
A celebration of the diverse folklore and cultures that comprise the Latina community, Elena of Avalor will release its third season this year, following the adventures of its titular character, a teenaged Hispanic princess. This year, in a very special Hanukkah episode, Elena will be visited by an as-of-yet unnamed princess from a nearby Jewish Latino kingdom. The character will be voiced by Jamie-Lynn Siegler, famous for her portrayal of Meadow on HBO’s mega-hit, The Sopranos.
Fans around the world and around the web are incredibly excited for this moment of rare representation. Latinas are a minority only recently included within Disney’s royal repertoire; Jews are an even smaller minority, long excluded from the Disney universe. (There has been much speculation about Walt Disney’s insidious antisemitism, evidenced in personal statements, friendships, and associations. The complete absence of Jewish characters until long after his death does nothing to counter these allegations.) The overlapping demographic, one straddles both cultures, is even smaller and more rare — but we do exist! You can take my word for it, or perhaps Siegler’s, who is herself a Jewish Latina, daughter of a Jewish mother and Cuban father.
Siegler excitedly tweeted news of her upcoming portrayal, happy to be bringing something new to fans who have long wished for a Disney Hanukkah special and wider representation than the token nod to Jewishness we get yearly from the Rugrats. Siegler, who has been living with multiple sclerosis and dedicating herself to her family, is eagerly anticipating her return to television in avatar form.
Some fans remain unconvinced by Disney’s gesture, noting that unlike other minorities who get a titular princess, central to the storyline, Siegler’s princess is merely a guest star on another royal’s show. But those who would rather view the upcoming Jewish Latina adolescent monarch as a big step in the right direction, find themselves playfully wondering how much of Siegler’s own background will be poured into her character. Will the nearby kingdom be New Jersey, the place where Siegler hails from? Will the princess keep Ashkenazi (European) or Sephardic (Spanish) Jewish traditions? (Siegler is both).
Stay tuned to Elena of Avalor’s adventures with her gaggle of girlfriends. These young ladies are widening the definition of what it means to be hybrid, mestiza, and pan-Latina, one princess at a time.