The Cheetah Girls: Lessons on Intersectionality & How Disney High-Key White Washed Them

The Cheetah Girls are the most iconic Disney group— don’t try to change my mind. I most definitely wanted to be Chanel, sporting the purple cheetah print jumpsuit. If you weren’t obsessed with the last sequence of the song “Cheetah Sisters,” with Toto the dog dancing, firefighters doing a dance sequence with Dorinda in the streets of NYC, and Jackal looking on the TV with nothing less than regret for being the world’s worst producer then we had very different childhoods. The Cheetah Girls movie was released in 2003 and it’s been girl power ever since. The lyrics “I can slay my own dragons/ I can dream my own dreams/ My knight in shining armor is me/ So I’m gonna set me free” from the hit “Cinderella,” are nothing less than ICONIC.

Perhaps a less discussed topic is how “the Cheetah Girls” movie came from a 16-novel series by author Deborah Gregory. In the novels, the Cheetah Girls are made up of five black girls. Yup, you heard that right. It wasn’t just our four Cheetah girls. A black character named Anginette that was in the novels got cut out of the movie.

The first character we all know is Chanel, our fierce Latina portrayed by Adrienne Bailon in the movies. However, in the books, Chanel “Chuchie” Simmons is not only Puerto Rican but also Cuban and Dominican. Disney had the chance to cast an Afro-Latina and didn’t take the opportunity?! Chanel is known in the books for her trademark mini micro-braids. Chanel has a taste for the expensive (I mean, who doesn’t?!) and once charged hundreds on her mother’s credit card. Chanel is fluent in both Spanish and English. She is very conscious of her body, and later in the series develops an eating disorder. She lives in SoHo with her mother and brother, Pucci.

Perhaps the character nobody knows was even a Cheetah Girl at all is Anginette “Angie” Walker. Angie is African-American and her twin sister is Aqua. Aqua is the more talkative of the two, but Angie is sneaky. Angie wants to be a doctor someday and loves gospel music. Angie lives with her sister and father in the Upper West Side. Deborah Gregory couldn’t find twin black girls to play Aqua and Angie in the films, so she just decided to cut Angie all together.

Aquanette “Aqua” Walker is the twin sister of Angie. She is played by Kiely Williams in the movies and both Aqua and her twin sister Angie are known for being the strongest vocalists in the group. She moved from Houston to New York with her dad after her parents got divorced. Unlike Angie, Aqua is assertive and speaks her mind when she is unhappy. Aqua wants to be a doctor someday, and has two guinea pigs. Aqua is very religious and goes to church every Sunday.

Galleria “Bubbles” Garibaldi is played by Raven-Symone in “the Cheetah Girls” movie. She is both Italian and African-American. She lives with her parents in a luxury apartment on the Upper East Side and is the most outspoken of the group. She is the lead singer and the co-founder of the Cheetah Girls, as well as the songwriter for the group. Often her outspoken nature gets her in hot water with other members of the group.  Dorinda “Do’ Re Me” Rogers is white and African-American. She is portrayed by Sabrina Bryan, an actress of European and Mexican descent. Dorinda frequently compares herself to a scrambled egg due to her mixed race. She was only 12 years old when she went to Fashion Industries High School, which is a testament to her intellect. She is a foster child and lives with 10 other children in the housing projects of Harlem, N.Y.

There is really no real explanation from Disney on why they decided to cast a white-passing Latina in replacement of the Dorinda depicted in the books. I guess this instance reflects the long-standing history of Disney to water down powerful female figures. However, I think that this series taught us powerful lessons on intersectionality and the structures of oppression that face women in similar yet different ways. We learn how these compounding institutional structures, like Dorinda being a foster child and low-income, can have Chanel feeling more well-off after she buys Dorinda a cheetah top with her mother’s credit card. Chanel faces her own struggles as a Latina (and based on the countries she represents, it can be inferred that she is Afro-Latina). The Cheetah Girls also refused to paint the same portrait of women of color—specifically black women. As children, we saw black women build this girl group and stick up for each other. We saw loud women and quiet women — and all of them were empowering. We saw women who were well off and women who were struggling financially. We saw women who had attitudes and weren’t afraid to speak their minds.

Deborah Gregory gave us a masterpiece. She gave us a series about black girls that all girls of color could relate to and one could argue that the Cheetah Girls franchise may be the most inclusive one Disney owns to date (despite it being inherently white-washed.) The Cheetah Girls represent a fierce, fiery look at how when we come together as women—we can accomplish anything. We can dream our own dreams.