The Disney Princess franchise is enormous; it would be difficult to find someone in the United States who does not know at least half of the princesses who comprise it, their entire back stories, and whether or not they are really princesses (I’m looking at you, Mulan and Pocahontas). As one of the most high-profile fictional groups of women in media aimed at little girls, the disney princesses possess an influence far beyond that of any other collection of fairy tales. There has been much discussion about these beloved characters and their impact on growing children for decades, particularly concerning Disney’s lack of princesses of color. We live in a society that consistently tells girls and women of color that they are less important than their white and/or male counterparts, but Disney is purportedly taking steps away from its white supremacist beginnings. With the addition of Tiana, the first (and only) black princess, Disney seemed to be making great amounts of racial progress. However, like most institutions and organizations in the United States, Disney has a long way to go.
Who actually qualifies as a Disney Princess? The official lineup consists of Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida. Two more princesses, Anna and Elsa the Snow Queen (from Frozen, which will be released in November), are both white and will be added in 2014. While Disney princesses of color do exist, we must consider the nature of their existence. Representation simply isn’t enough; we need quality representation. For example, Jasmine is little more than a prop in Aladdin; her name is mentioned in the script less than half as many times as Aladdin’s. Pocahontas’ relationship with John Smith, her father, and Kokoum are gross misrepresentations of cultural reality in favor of assuaging white guilt. Tiana spends the majority of The Princess and the Frog as a frog! Are these really acceptable portrayals of women of color?
The effect that these representations have on women and girls is both palpable and detrimental. The well-known doll study by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark (used during the Brown v Board of Education case that ended legal segregation) showed that negative portrayals of people of color led children of color to believe that they were subhuman, unintelligent, dirty, and prone to criminal behaviors. These negative images can lead to low grades in school, higher rates of depression, and increased likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors; in other words, girls of color learn that they are not valuable members of society when they (or their potential role models) are portrayed in ways that are substandard when compared to their white counterparts.
There is an extreme lack of women of color in the media, especially when looking at media aimed at children—only 7% of childrens’ books feature characters of color, let alone girls. Where are children to find positive role models outside of their homes? My own family members tried very hard to construct a world for me that showed black women in positive light—I played with black dolls, I was given books such as Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Africa, 1595, and I watched movies like Ruby Bridges (which, interestingly enough, is a Disney production). It is increasingly easy for children of color to see themselves doing good things and becoming good people; but what about white children? When they don’t see fully-developed people of color in their own media, they begin to form negative stereotypes and conclusions about children of color, just as children of color did (and still do) about themselves. In order to raise children into racially-inclusive adults, they need to see all races portrayed in complex and in-depth ways. There are plenty of stories about princesses of color that parents of color can give to their children; the question is, will white parents do the same? Disney has the ability to contribute positive images to our society and they have made a good start, but I strongly suggest that they do more. Disney has the power to become a driving force behind a racially-inclusive society, especially for our little girls—hopefully they don’t lose that momentum in the coming years.