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Friday, 12 February 2016

#DisneySoWhite- my problem with Disney princesses

Exactly how do you teach your 4 year old daughter to love herself in all her brown glory, when her TV heroine happens to be Elsa in ‘Frozen’ with her flowing blonde hair and skin as white as snow? We all know that beauty by cartoon standards still means long flowing locks and big, green eyes. Absolutely nothing like my little one’s tight kinky Afro and dark caramel sweetness.

Not so long ago I had a conversation with my little girl that left me a tad bit anxious. It was Heritage Day in South Africa. This is a day that is usually characterized by people colorfully adorning themselves in their cultural attire. In a country that has eleven official languages, you can imagine how beautifully diverse it can be. Culturally speaking; we are from the Sesotho clan, but because I have always loved the traditional Zulu attire, I decided we would dress in the Zulu gabardine. She looked adorable complete with multi-colored beads and a bright red pleated skirt.
She was super excited and she asked me if she looked like princess Ariel. It took me a moment to figure out whom Ariel was, and when I eventually did, I had to then quickly figure out what my response should be. I asked her why she couldn’t go as princess Tumelo, the Zulu princess instead? Her response made me a little sad. She said no she couldn’t be a princess because she didn’t have nice, long red hair; an amulet and her eyes weren’t green. This exchange only struck me as strange much later on In the day when I had had time to process what it illustrated. My little girl could never imagine herself as a princess because all the princesses that she had seen looked nothing like her. Her appearance just didn’t make the cut.

This was just one of the many little interactions that I had with her that all seemed to center on the same issue, her self-image. In another similar incident I found her standing in front of my bedroom mirror singing ‘Let it Go’ from the Frozen soundtrack. This is a normal sight around my house, except for one thing. She had a white towel on her head and was caressing it lovingly.
I asked what it was and she said it was her hair, because she wanted to have long white hair like Elsa, because Elsa was beautiful. Urgh! I thought, this hair thing again.

What was it about these cartoons that were making our brown girls obsess about features they didn’t have? Of course there is nothing blatantly wrong with these Disney stories, on the surface that is. Only that they seem to have only one specific target market, and it’s not the brown girls that’s for sure.

Each time I hear her unwittingly disparage against her own appearance, or play down her own prettiness, I assure her that she is just as beautiful as any Disney princess and that her real hair is much more beautiful than her ‘fake towel hair’. And thankfully she is still at that age where what Mommy says is the gospel.

It’s become clear to me that it is my responsibility to surround her with images of beautiful, powerful and smart black women, who she can relate to and thus aspire to be like. Disney is certainly not doing me any favours in this regard. The last time they had a princess of colour was in 2009 in the form of ‘The princess and the frog’ and even then she was a working princess not living in the lap of luxury like her counterparts, Sophia and the others. So essentially Tumi has no brown alternatives to the many Elsas, Sleeping Beauty’s and Repunzels that little white girls have.

It is a fact that kids who are constantly told that they are the best tend to believe it and then they rise up to the challenge. So without killing her beautiful open spirit and filling her with cynicism about the world, I do need to reinforce the belief in her mind that brown girls can also be revered and celebrated for their beauty and status. So in my quest to affirm my little brown princess, I will say…

Dear Tumi,
Your own beauty is sufficient. Don’t always believe what you see, because there is no one group of people that hold the monopoly on what is considered to be beautiful. If you ever get into the trap of believing that your kind of beauty is less acceptable, look in the mirror and remind yourself that your fuller lips, brown eyes and kinky hair are more than enough, otherwise society wouldn’t work so tirelessly trying to diminish your self-worth, hoping that you will never truly understand your own power.