A Whole New World

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Meera Bowman Johnson, originally published at Our Kind of Parenting

“That’s it Mommy, I want that one!” My three-year-old flung her arm towards a wall of shiny, sherbet-colored princess costumes.

“I thought you wanted to be a duck.”

“I changed my mind. I wanna be Cinderella for Halloween. See it, Mommy? Right there!”

I tried not to notice the crinkly, powder blue costume creeping slowly into my peripheral vision. “Um, how about a ladybug?”

“No, Mommy. Cinderella!”

Of course that’s who she wanted to be for Halloween. After all, the blue-eyed, bouffant-wearing princess was the it-girl of Four-year-old World. I knew that J-Jo was more interested in playing dress-up and looking “pretty” than actually looking white, but I still had my reservations about endorsing it. I was never that crazy about the Disney Cinderella with all of her whining and pining for Mr. Right; I’m not raising my daughters to wait for some guy on a white horse to gallop in and whisk them off to Wisteria Lane. I want my girls to aspire to become much more than daydreaming debutantes in ball gowns. The last thing I need is some cartoon character contradicting me.

And then there was that other part. As an African American mom, I resented the fact that for so many years, Disney had never bothered to create a black princess.

American Indians had Pocahontas and Asian Americans had Mulan (both sort of underrated, but at least they were there). And of course there’s Jasmine, who always seemed like she’d only been created to keep other minorities from getting mad. Clearly somebody at the mega-corporation knew that white people weren’t the only ones with Orlando timeshares, or they wouldn’t have created the few princesses of color they had. So where the heck was Princess Imani? Black families like Epcot, too. I wanted a princess I could, I mean, my girls could relate to. Several more seasoned moms had mentioned that the princess fetish is just a phase, but if I was destined to spend the next six years or so getting dragged into the princess aisle at Target (or even worse, the Disney Store) I needed more incentive to be there.

No one could convince me that plunking $19.99 on the counter for that costume would be anything more than a deposit on my daughter’s future therapy sessions. I couldn’t stomach the thought of letting my beige-skinned daughter dress up as the archetypical porcelain-skinned princess for Halloween. At the same time, I wasn’t ready to tell J-Jo why she couldn’t make her own decision about what to be for Halloween. So I stood there for a few minutes, staring at the wall of flammable frocks. And then I caved. There’d be plenty of time to talk about the difference between real love and fairy tale romance later, right? And we could discuss race forever, considering we’ll be black all of our lives. But at that time she was three years old. She’d only be three once.

So much of parenting is about picking battles; this time I’d chosen to surrender. I gingerly placed the costume in my red cart and wheeled it towards the check out line. J-Jo just sat there beaming at me; her smile could have upstaged the sun. When Halloween rolled around, I removed the cheesy, plastic cameo (with Cinderella’s face on it just in case it wasn’t obvious) from the front and sent J-Jo off with daddy in search of strangers with candy. I tried to focus on the joy on her face when we bought that costume, instead of my resentment at the company that inspired it. Then I sat on there the couch nursing our two-month-old twins, fantasizing about a day when little girls like my own would know a princess character who wasn’t based on a Eurocentric beauty standard.

And then she arrived, Disney’s very first animated BAP.

The ninth member of the $3 Billion Princess A-List is Maddy, heroine of “The Frog Princess”. The 2-D animated film is an original story set in 1920’s New Orleans. In 2009, Princess Maddy will join the likes of Jasmine, Mulan and, yes, Cinderella. She’ll be given the royal treatment, with her very own rides at Disney World and dress up clothes to match. Rumor has it that Alicia Keys, Dreamgirls’ costars Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose are all vying for the lead role. Keys reportedly called the producers and begged for the part herself (sources say she’s received a second audition). One might scoff at the persistence of these starlets, fighting over a part like it was a sale rack at Filene’s Basement. True, the role itself is little more than a glamorized voice-over, but to anyone who grew up too black to be Snow White, the prospect of a black Disney Princess speaks volumes.

Disney has dubbed “The Frog Princess” “An American Fairy Tale”, so hopefully girls of all ethnicities will be able to identify with its heroine…at least for a little while. As I write this, J-Jo’s Cinderella Halloween costume is crumpled in ball at the bottom of her closet; the princess phase has run its course. Yet I know that Cinderella won’t be the last Disney diva to join us at the dinner table. In no time, J-Jo’s baby sister Coco will want princess get-ups of her own. And princess sippy cups, princess pajamas and whatever else that dreaded Disney store has in stock. Not that I’ll always buy into it. I’m just thrilled that by the time she asks, there’ll be another choice: An African American Disney Princess, with her very own happily ever after.

Imagine that.

Meera Bowman Johnson is a freelance writer and full time mom who is also the former Associate Art Director of Essence Magazine. Her work has been featured in HealthQuest: The Publication of Black Wellness, Code: The Style Magazine for Men of Color, Black Issues Book Review, Mommy Too! Magazine and Honey. She lives with her husband, Mat Johnson, and their three children in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Her online alter ego, Mrs. J, blogs about race, pop-culture and parenting.

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