This was originally posted on the CA NOW site
Disney is releasing a new film this Winter, The Princess and the Frog, which features the first ever African-American Disney princess, Tiana. There has been some controversy over the development of the character and story, with some important changes from Disney along the way.
As a feminist, a woman of color, and a mother, I find myself torn on this movie. It’s easy to say that the princess idea is always negative for girls. We know that focusing on girls’ looks as a measure of their value is harmful to self image and self-esteem. We know media that promotes a single type of look as the only way to be attractive is damaging too. But not seeing yourself in media is just as damaging.
Yes, I can look at The Princess and the Frog and wonder if giving girls another princess role model is really the best idea, but I’m not that little Black girl who wants to be able to see herself as a princess. I’m not her mom or dad, who have to explain why all the princesses are white. Let’s face it, Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocahontas get short shrift in the princess line, and Esmeralda doesn’t get to be part of it at all. (Why can’t she be a Romany princess?) How wonderful for that little girl to be able to look up at the screen and finally see a princess who, at least on some levels, looks like she does. And how great for me to be able to have a movie in our collection to show my daughter that being a princess, or being pretty, isn’t limited to certain skin tones.
Can equality of objectification ever be empowerment? This is where intersectionality comes into play. Is it more important for Black girls to see themselves as equally beautiful and princess-like, or more important for them not to be presented with stereotypes based on how women should look? In this case, does race trump gender, or gender trump race? Guess what, that’s not my call to make.
My ability to object to the princess image comes from my own privilege, in that I can (sort of) see myself in these princess characters already. Society already tells me that I’m attractive, or at least that I’m supposed to be. For women with darker skin tones, the message is relentless that their skin alone makes them unattractive. Women of color are shown as having masculine traits, or as promiscuous, but rarely simply as beautiful. Look at the reaction to Serena William’s ESPN magazine cover where she appeared nude (please also note ESPN featured disabled runner Sarah Reinertsen, another blow at what we define as beautiful (or able, for that matter)). Compare that to the reaction to the GQ cover that Jennifer Aniston did where she appeared in only a tie. And if Penelope Cruz and Halle Berry aren’t pretty enough for a fashion magazine cover unless their skin is lightened (thanks, Photoshop!), who is?
The point is that I, a light-skinned Latina, don’t get to tell a darker-skinned woman that she shouldn’t desire the societal acceptance and presence that a Disney princess provides. (Although I’m waiting for our first Latina princess too!) There is plenty of critique of this movie and of the princess genre in general already coming from the women who are most impacted by it. And ultimately, these women are the ones who will be able to evaluate the positive or negative impact of the movie on themselves, their daughters and sons, and the society around them. For everyone else making assumptions, predictions, and judgement calls on this movie, it’s time to sit back, shut up, and listen.
I attempted several times to make contact with a Disney representative to get their input on how the story had been developed and how decision-making was done around issues of race on the movie, but was unable to get a response. I would still love to be able to provide an interview with Disney which allows the company to respond to these questions.