A Whole New World
December 11, 2009
I almost died a thousand deaths the day my Mari came home from preschool and announced she wanted to be Snow White for Halloween. I mean, I understood that the kid wasn’t trying to make any grand political statements about her caramel skin and natural, kinky hair or anything. She was three. It was all about getting dressed up in the fancy gown and wearing a tiara.
Still, I shuddered when I got the mental image of my brown baby floating down the streets of New Jersey, telling all the neighbors -- and especially my African-American mom friends -- that she was Snow White. After all, my friends and I had practically taken a blood oath while we sat on the benches watching our daughters play on the swings that we would never, ever, let our daughters get suckered by The Mouse into thinking fancy dresses, sparkly crowns, and some guy on a white horse were some kind of barometer of their self-worth -- and we especially didn’t need them thinking they had to stand around waiting for some boy to “rescue” them and take them to a hot party. The feminist in us needed our girls to think bigger, to embrace independence and be clear they don’t need to be “rescued.” And the African-American mom in us needed to protect our young -- to shield them from the shameful, subliminal message that if you didn’t have fair skin, silky hair, and blue eyes, your brown feet would never, ever fit into a Disney glass slipper. We simply could not encourage our daughters to love themselves just the way they are if we allowed them to be bombarded with beauty standards that didn’t include little brown girls.
And so we made up our minds to fight the porcelain-skinned princess-themed parties and costumes and tea sets and toothbrushes and stuff. Like, here’s a pink Power Rangers outfit, dear. Toughen up. Go karate chop something.
Still, my parents, who’d fed Mari’s “Snow White” habit by keeping a VHS copy of the classic movie on repeat at their house, kept feeding their granddaughter’s princess habit.
The two of them were wrecking my anti-princess flow.
And I was defenseless against Mari's request to be the black Snow White.
Already a little queasy about the mission at hand, my gut tied into a million more knots when I stepped into the Disney store to buy her costume. There was Mulan, representing for Asian Americans, and Pocahontas holding it down for American Indians, and Jasmine, repping “other” really hard. And every other gown in the place had white faces plastered like a shiny badge on the chest. I would have paid triple the price if just ONE of the gowns in that great big ol’ store featured a character that looked like my child.
Two daughters, one each of the Snow White, Tinkerbell, and Pocahontas costumes, and an aggressive “Independent Brown Girls Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Princesses” campaign later, the Walt Disney Company is finally coming correct. Today, Princess Tiana, Disney’s first black princess, makes her debut in the new Disney animated feature, The Princess and the Frog. And she is absolutely stunning, with her big almond eyes and chocolate skin and songbird voice, as played by the equally beautiful movie actress, Broadway star, and singer, Anika Noni Rose.
All it took was one look for me to drop my anti-princess rhetoric. Princess Tiana is beautiful and chocolate and independent and smart and feisty and a dreamer -- all the things my daughters are. And because of Princess Tiana, Mari and Lila can twirl around in a beautiful princess costume and tiara and dream and imagine -- in color.
Even my Mari, who’s long been over the princess thing (part age, part “Drop Squad”-style indoctrination) got geeked when she saw Princess Tiana for the first time. “She’s so pretty!” she exclaimed. “A brown princess!” You should have seen how quickly she and her 10-year-old girlfriends eased into their tiaras when I threw a Princess Tiana Rocks slumber party for 10 of my girls’ friends at our house this past weekend to celebrate Tiana’s debut.
(Sadly, ridiculously, NOT ONE of the party stores I stopped by to buy Tiana’s trademark green tiara and other The Princess and the Frog paraphernalia had Princess Tiana gear; apparently, they haven’t gotten the memo that black moms-- and other moms who want to add a little color to their daughters’ Disney Princess collection -- have little girls who want to dress up in, eat from, and decorate and play with all things Princess Tiana. Indeed, despite that they were practically selling Cinderella’s dryer lint in the Disney aisle at my local Party City, a worker there told me they had no intention of getting Princess Tiana items because they “weren’t sure” it would sell well. She actually said that with a straight face as she directed me toward the Snow White tiaras -- what she thought would make for a fine Princess Tiana tiara substitute. Dead. Fish. Eyes. Disney? I’m gonna need you to do something about that.)
No matter, though: Those little giggly girls, a mixture of black and white and Latino, Christian and Muslim, tweens and second graders, got their Princess Tiana on anyway. They danced to the movie’s soundtrack and ate “frog” cupcakes and sported their tiaras with confidence, all the while marveling at the beautiful Princess Tiana and making plans for seeing her on the big screen.
To them, Princess Tiana rocks.
I think she does, too.
And frankly, I’m surprised at how geeked I am to embrace a Disney princess.
But I am.
Because finally, it feels like my girls can dream in color about their own Happily Ever After.
It’s a whole new world.