The Princess Problem: “There’s more than one way of being pretty.”

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Deesha Philyaw

As the mother of two girls who do not live under rocks, I have not been able to escape the whole princess thing. A few years back, when my oldest was in kindergarten and my youngest was an infant, I wrote a column (for another site) about how, as I kid, I had embraced media messages that promoted a “white is right” standard of beauty (show of hands: Who else wore the white towel on her head to become Farrah Fawcett’s character on Charlie’s Angels?). I didn’t want my own daughters to go down this path:

…I take a special interest in the media images my children consume, as do most parents I know, regardless of race. I don’t rely on entertainment executives or book authors to affirm or protect my children. That’s my job. But I do seek out age-appropriate books, movies, and other media that reflect the diversity of the world in which we live, with characters who look like us and the people we know and love.

But what about fairytales and the other “classics,” those all-white, generations-old stories and characters that are presumed staples of American cultural literacy, likely to turn up as “Jeopardy” questions? We love “The Sound of Music” and “Mary Poppins”, but quick: Name an American children’s classic featuring a black cast. The good, but depressing “Sounder”?

Should classic stories and movies be avoided then because they tend to feature all-white casts? In our family, we sometimes take a “don’t ask-don’t tell” approach. For example, we simply don’t do princesses. I never told my older daughter, T, about Sleeping Beauty and company, and she never asked about them.

Until this year. Nearly every girl in T‘s kindergarten class is infatuated with princesses. I have an aversion to princesses. Actually, I have an aversion to pretty much anything that invites McDonalds or Burger King to stick a related action figure into a kid’s meal. But I find princesses especially grating. I don’t like the helplessness thing, the dependence on a man to feel complete…thing.

Thankfully, T isn’t anywhere near as obsessed with princesses as her peers. With the exception of the “Wonderful World of Disney’s” Cinderella [featuring singer Brandy in the lead role, and Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother], we’ve managed to avoid Disney’s offerings of the I-need-to-be-rescued princess tales…

You see, back then, I was able to write about the princess thing fairly calmly, fairly rationally. These days, when the princess-mafia has my youngest daughter’s preschool on lock? Not so much.

I am so over the whole princess thing. Over it.

I want Cinderella to develop hammertoes from jamming her anatomically-impossible feet into completely impractical glass slippers. I want Belle and her books to go to a library far, far away. I want Sleeping Beauty to keep hitting “snooze.” Here, Snow White…have an apple.

I never want to see anything pink again. Nothing. I want that sheer-iridescent-pink-nightmare of a fairy/princess/angel aisle in Target to go away. Doesn’t it seem to close in on you, surrounding and entangling you as walk deeper in, like an enchanted forest…an enchanted forest of tiaras, veils, glitter, and feathered boas doused in Pepto Bismol?

And it’s not just that one aisle in Target either. How many times have I picked up what seemed like a good, no-frills pair of sneakers, a backpack, a thermos, a nightgown, or a lunch box–only to find the unholy trinity–Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty–stitched to it?

It’s too much. The pink, the heavy, gendered marketing to children, the excessive emphasis on beauty. Call it blasphemy, but I can’t even get too excited about Disney’s much-anticipated black princess, Tiana. She’s still a princess. What’s the big deal about princesses anyway? They earn their titles by birth or marriage. Big whoop. Bah humbug.

All that said, my four-year-old does not know the depth of my grumpiness where princesses are concerned. She does know that I won’t buy the abovementioned products (“Mommy, look! They’ve got THREE princesses on them!” “Yes, sweetie, I see. ” *smile, nod, keep it moving*). Any typical princess stuff she owns, she’s received as a gift, or it was purchased by her father.

Instead of bad-mouthing princesses to the kids, I’ve opted to challenge the system from within: I’ve infiltrated the princess mafia. Didn’t Sun Tzu say, in The Art of War, we should know our enemies?

To wit: We own practically the whole library of what I call “colorized classics”–traditional fairytales illustrated with brown-skinned characters. So when Cinderella meets the prince at the ball, he’s wearing cornrows. Jack, he of beanstalk fame, wears locs just like we do. The damsel-in-distress schtick is still in full effect, but at least the characters won’t leave my kids with the impression that blondes have more fun.

The books are available through Hyperion’s Jump at the Sun imprint. Kudos to Hyperion for not only colorizing these beloved stories, but for also creating a good product in general. Some picture books I’ve come across are heavy on pro-black-affirmation and good intentions, but light on quality–poorly written, not age-appropriate, or otherwise kid-unfriendly.

The Jump at the Sun books have spurred some good discussions at our house about how princesses are most often shown as white, but how, truly, princesses and princes and heroes and heroines can be any color. Instead of blond flowing tresses, they can have braids and gold beads, like Jump in the Sun’s Goldilocks.

Recently, my youngest and I were in public reading one of the Jump in the Sun books. A little girl around the same age (4) wandered over to us, and, started reading along. After about five seconds, she shouted: “THAT’S not Cinderella!” When my babygirl shouted back, “Oh, yes it is!”, I was one proud mama.

As I’ve gone deeper into the princess underworld, I’ve required help from trusted comrades. My friend and fellow writer-mama Christina gives me hope. She writes often about her inner princess, and has blogged recently about two books with heroines we don’t mind worshiping. One such heroine is Zahrah:

And last week, I stumbled upon something new for my arsenal, in the most ironic of places: Yes, Target.

As I pushed my cart passed the book aisles, a book screamed out at me from the shelves: PINK! But then something else: Brown. And I knew that face! It was Grace from Amazing Grace and Boundless Grace. But why was she wearing a tiara, pearls, and a pink gown? Hadn’t she proved her classmates wrong, in Amazing Grace, when they told her that a black girl couldn’t be Peter Pan? Hadn’t her Nana saved the day the day by taking Grace to a ballet of Romeo and Juliet featuring a Trinidadian female lead? Why, then, was Grace dressed like the enemy?

The book was titled–what else?–Princess Grace. But this was no ordinary princess book. The story was kind of contrived in order for Hoffman to make her Point about princesses, but that aside, this book was downright subversive! Grace likes princesses, the “pink and pretty sort”, but as the story unfolds, she comes to wonder: “But what do princesses do?”

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes, Grace! This is a question that is long overdue in children’s literature!

Grace and her classmates eventually discover all sorts of princesses, real and imagined. Warrior princess Amina of Nigeria; Pin-Yang of China, who started a women’s army; Princess Noor Inayat Khan of what is now Andhra Pradesh, who was shot and killed by the Germans in Dachau during World War II for being a spy for the French. The kids learn about Cinderellas from Egypt, Cambodia, and the Phillipines. Hoffman also gives a shout out to Nyasha, a Zimbabwean Cinderella featured in John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.

By the end of the book, Grace is adorned in a princess costume made of Kente cloth from The Gambia, and she has learned that “there’s more than one way of being pretty.”

Amen and amen.

For all my ranting and efforts to bring down the princess mafia, we’ll no doubt catch Tiana in Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” when it hits theaters next year–if only to deconstruct it over ice cream sundaes afterwards.

Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer who has written for Essence Magazine, Wondertime Magazine (a Disney publication), and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.

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