The Princess Problem

I’ve always taken an interest in how women, particularly women of color, are represented in toys and media that are targeted towards children: everything from the release of Mattel’s Diwali Barbie in 2006 to Dora the Explorer’s makeover. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve been reading about and mulling over Disney’s new princess movie, “The Princess and the Frog,” which features the company’s first black woman as the lead character.

I’m already cringing about the movie, set in 1920s New Orleans, where the better portion of the princess’ on-screen time is spent not as a human, but as a frog. The prince is a light-skinned man of color and one wonders why Disney wasn’t willing to portray a black man in the role of charismatic and masculine Prince.

Despite Disney’s racist representations of people of color throughout the years, it remains troubling to see the impact of these movies on young people, and the company’s inability to adequately show racial diversity in their films.

On one hand, there are complaints about the racialized components of the movie: the Princess is finally a black woman, but the backdrop of the film continues to drudge up tired racist stereotypes about the black community, attempting to separate cultural components of African-American history from the violence of slavery and racism.

On the other hand, there are complaints about the fact that Disney continues to build female characters around traditional gender roles and notions of femininity. They may be spunky or brave or portray qualities of heroism, but the lead women are still pretty princesses who are saved by a happy heteronormative ending. This has been an issue raised more recently with the release of Pixar’s “Up” where adventure and action can take place for male leads, but not for women. Pixar’s first movie to feature a female lead will release in 2011 and guess what the story is built around? A white princess who gives up her royal title to become an archer. Apparently, the only way to portray young women with agency in movies is to characterize them around that familiar princess theme.

When the two questions floating around children’s movies are “When will people of color be adequately represented?” and “When will girls have leads to look up to that aren’t princesses?” I have to wonder where and when young girls of color will find justice in media representation. A part of me honestly feels that all women should have an equal opportunity to be pitted into the princess role by Disney. Another part of me thinks that girls of color deserve better than to settle in this way. The rest of me thinks that if we can’t find justice in children’s films, how can I expect to see justice in the rest of the mainstream media? So perhaps the question we should continue to ask ourselves, and encourage the media to consider is “How can we appropriately show diversity in children’s films so that they are inspiring and humorous and memorable?” Diversity in the media cannot be limited to race or gender – it has to consider both, and more. After all, identity is complex and multifacted – and creating characters that can be relateable and seen as heroic shouldn’t depend solely on how they look or where they are from or who they love.

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