Disney Princesses and Race

So, today I’m going to go out on a limb here a bit and talk about something that I’ve found a lot of people like to sweep under the carpet or run and use their PC dictionary. I’m going to talk about race.

Specifically race and fairytales. This might take more than one post.

Race is something I’m very comfortable talking about. I’ve lived in three foreign countries, grew up on the West Coast of the U.S., went to school in Ohio and fell in love with a boy from Memphis, Tennessee. He’s a southern U.S. African American. I’m Celtic on my father’s side and early America era British colonist on my mother’s.

Or to put it in over-simplified and heavily stereotyped jargon:

He’s black.

I’m white.

And we live in Japan.

As you might guess, race comes up rather frequently. Both my husband and I enjoy talking about it. Things would be a little bit weird if we couldn’t talk about it.

So, today I was thinking about what to write about and I mentioned to my husband that I had a bone to pick with people who complain about so many of the Disney Princesses being white. My reasoning went something like this:

  1. Most of the Disney Princess stories come from European mythology. For example, Sleeping Beauty would be white, because she comes from a Germanic fairytale, in an era where just about everyone there would have been very white. The culture in the fairytale is European nobility, with European tools and European traditions. Thus the princess should be white. That is the story.
  2. It would be as equally unsettling to me if an historical fairytale Nigerian ruler’s daughter was presented as white as if someone made Sleeping Beauty black.
  3. If our culture- I’m referring to the United States as a collective culture, though ‘mixing pot of cultures transported from other places and held within this political territory of the U.S.’ would be more correct – truly desires to have heroines that are skin tones other than Caucasian in our fairytale lexicon, then we should start telling stories from other traditions
  4. It’s actually more damaging to people’s racial identities to be changing just the skin color on Disney Princesses and posting altered images of them online than to simply have white heroines. We can love and seek to embody ideals found in people of all races and backgrounds. It’s not necessary to tell little girls that they need to be looking for women who look like them to be properly entertained.

*My husband interrupted me at one point to say that people should be complaining more over the fact that there weren’t very many heroines out there anyway, before getting hung up on race but we laid that aside for another conversation. *

Here’s the biggy for me. It’s not the color of one’s skin that designates who somebody is. In the U.S we are way to hung up on skin tone and forget much of everything else that makes up what someone is. Boiling it down to skin color is a nice way to make statistics simple. There’s only so many skin colors out there, but it really is even more destructive in the long run. By making a big deal out of the color of Disney Princess’s skin, you’re brushing under the carpet that the architecture, the traditions, the values, the legends that are incorporated into the story of those princesses are just as culturally and ethnically centric as what they look like, if not more so. Throwing paint on a Germanic fairytale does not suddenly make a little girl with skin color darker than Sleeping Beauty’s identify with her. She’s still wearing a western Victorian era inspired dress, with Victorian era inspired jewelry, living with European noble family and servants.

You just changed her skin color. She’s still…..dare I say it….white.

Does a black girl have to be culturally white to be desirable? Totally remake the storyline, set in the Serengeti, within the setting of an African tribe, wearing African clothes, with the traditions and values of the historical and local people proper to the region and I’ll buy that she’s black.

Actually, I’d pay to see that movie.

But getting back to the little girl viewer, what if the little girl doesn’t want Prince Charming to come for her? What if she’s attracted to girls and wants to be Prince Charming? How about an altered picture for that?

The point is we need to start telling more stories, different stories. We need stories from more of the many traditions that make up the U.S. We need to tell stories about girls who aren’t princesses, girls who are wonderful princesses, girls who rescue princesses, girls who never heard of princesses and girls who represent and remind us, who ever we are, of what we’re proud to be.

And there are many of these stories out there. So go enjoy those stories. Do the work to find them, and please, please, let Sleeping Beauty stay white. She’s just weird when she’s black.

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4 Responses to Disney Princesses and Race

  1. daisyaflower says:

    Regarding your first argument I would like to point out that Princess and the Frog is also based off of a German tale, but most of the characters are black, is there a problem with that?
    Also just because a character fits the mold of how a “white person” acts, doesn’t make that person white. The attitude of “they have to be white or else act black” is exactly what is keeping Disney in such a regressive state racially speaking. I’m talking about the girls who want dress as a Disney princesses without being criticized, the girls who want to work at Disneyland as a princess and only have 1 choice of whom to want to be, the girls who want a princess, not to relate to, but to be reassured that there is more than one way to be beautiful. I’m talking about me.
    I don’t me to come off as aggressive and I apologize if I do, I just needed to input my personal feelings.

    • Ciara Darren says:

      Thank you for you comment. You did not come off as aggressive. Actually, you pointed out some parts of my argument that were weak, such as girls who grow up wanting to dress as Disney princesses without being criticized. Not something I would have thought of on my own. Definitely appreciated. I have two cousins, one part hispanic and one half Indian (as in India). They both love dressing up as Disney Princesses and it never entered my head that they were anything other than cute. I supposed Disney fairytales in the course of mixing and reinventing and commercialization have become separated from their original ethnic origins in many people’s minds. Candace in her comment below, makes an excellent point about that, which I had overlooked. Girls should aspire to be whatever they want to be, without regard to skin color. I don’t understand what it means to “act white” or “act black”. I know the stereotypes exist, but they come from particular regions and have little to do with the people I know. I agree that having such an attitude will keep Disney in a regressive state on race. I wasn’t actually trying to say that acting white made someone white. I was pointing out the origins and architecture, traditions of the story remained Germanic in origin and that there is so much more to ethnicity to demand respect for and recognize than skin color. Racism, even only seventy years ago, wasn’t necessarily a skin color issue. My grandmother was telling me about the prejudice against Irish and Jews in the servants quarters of Downton Abbey yesterday. I hope Disney and other entertainment companies tell more stories that actually reflect the global demographic. Having only one role to play at Disneyland is a definite shame.

      I haven’t seen Princess and the Frog. Thank you for pointing it out but without seeing it I don’t want to comment.

  2. Hi Ciara,

    On one hand I get where you’re coming from, and I respect it (and thank you for sharing your perspective). I’m somewhat of a fairy tale junkie and I appreciate the fact that you can openly write about race.

    But there are certainly things I disagree with, so I’ll just throw in my two cents here -I’m African American. I didn’t grow up idolizing princesses or even loving fairy tales as much as I do now as an adult (I happen to like good stories). But I did play with dolls, and yes my parents did go out their way to get me black dolls when they could. Why would I constantly play with dolls that look nothing like me, when white is clearly considered the standard of beauty (and all things “good”) in this country as is? Dolls have no origin, lol so I know it’s not the same as fairy tales but from a non-white perspective it’s a similar concept. Kids should understand that the world is diverse yes, but there’s nothing wrong with having images (at least sometimes) that reflect more of their identities.

    Also as far as fairy tales, sure I get their origins. But we’re not watching German princesses here, Disney is not marketing to Germans or holding true to the stories as they were written, or their original culture. Most cartoons (in the U.S. at least) feature white characters (if they have a race) because the majority is white. And usually having “icons” as any other race than white (unfortunately especially when their black is seems) often ruffles feathers. For example, when Jaden Smith played the new Karate Kid a lot of people had a fit because it messed up the saga…when the original Karate Kid (whom I love) wasn’t even Asian himself…but Italian American. With that said, is it a big deal to me when a Disney princess is cast as black, or asian, etc. Heck no.

    Why would it? Disney adapted the story to fit American tastes, and I’m sure even changed some of the story line…they speak English, etc. Why would it be a travesty to have American girls (who happen to be black, asian, latino) play her sometimes? Would it really muddle an origin that has already been adapted and modified many times over?

    Whew! Longest comment I ever wrote! lol. But yes, I do wish people were more open to diversity period (girl loving girl princesses, etc.) challenging the idea of princesses, and princesses/fairy tales/fantasy from other origins, such as African-based. The authors that do these types of stories such as Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson seem pretty respected in their genres but may never permeate to more “mainstream” audiences the way stories with white main characters do because white (in this country as least) white is universal and more marketable.

    • Ciara Darren says:

      Candace, Thank you for your wonderful comment. Your commentary on dolls was well put and deserved. I appreciate you pointing out that we’re not watching a Germanic Princesses here. It’s a very reasonable argument. Still not certain that changing skin color on posters is a good way to combat the lack of diversity but obviously it did start a conversation. I guess that still leaves the glaring point we both agree on that we need more diverse icons, more stories. I’m not sure I’ll ever enjoy a sleeping beauty that deviates from the original, but I would enjoy a new story that is inclusive.

      In the U.S. we have a two hundred year history of predominately white icons, and I would hazard to say, also predominately male icons that need renovation. We have European icons even before that. Comic strips, classic books, movies, religious leaders in some traditions are all biased when we start counting them up. I don’t think its reasonable to get rid of them and some of them have certainly earned their place. But we should be working towards a world that appears as diverse in its artifacts as its human population. It’s going to take effort, debate and consciousness of how we’re making our buying decisions, designs decisions and artistic decisions.

      One of the things I’m struggling with is different looks, hair styles, ethnic backgrounds exist. It’s a fact of history. Is the answer to throw it all into a pot, mix it up and roll out some puree that offends no one and sells to everyone, or is the moral answer to recognize and celebrate the different stories and let everyone join in enjoying them, no matter what the story looks like or we look like?

      I was in Korea when the new Karate Kid came out. Missed the controversy. Hadn’t heard about it. I watched the movie in theater near Seoul. Loved the new movie and the old movie. The casting made total sense to me in terms of story-lines for both movies.

      Thank you for the very thoughtful comment! If you have more thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You’re making great points.

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