Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Of princesses and politics

Although I said when I started that I'd be talking about more than just "green" issues, this is my first post that really veers from that. So I'll mention a few green things to start: my spinach and tomatoes are sprouting, but my lettuce is doing horribly. Hubby bought some green bean plant starts, and I think I might have to do that with lettuce. On the plus side, our bird feeder is paying off. My daughter and I have been able to watch chickadees, sparrows, robins and even a dove come visit!

So the point of this post: Daughter turned four on Saturday, and had two parties: one in a park in the morning with some family friends with two daughters, and a sleepover with two of her friends from daycare on Saturday night. They all had a blast!

My daughter, like all the little girls mentioned above, is really into Disney princess stuff. Now, I happen to think Belle and Mulan are pretty cool; the rest of the princesses I have mixed feelings about, but not enough to ban her from it. However, I have noticed, and the friend with the two daughters above and I discussed the fact that on most of the Disney paraphenalia, the "princesses of color" (Mulan, Pocahontas, and Jasmine) are often left out. Jasmine is sometimes included, but Mulan and Pocahontas, almost never. I have to wonder why. Even Sleeping Beauty, who is the most useless and passive of the bunch (and therefore the least likely for a young girl to want to emulate) appears on almost all the princess merchandise.

I just learned today that later this year, Disney is introducing its first African-American princess, Tiana, in the animated, "The Princess and the Frog." I have to wonder whether she will continue to appear prominently on princess paraphenalia after the movie has gone from the theaters, or if she will be left out like Mulan, Pocahontas and Jasmine.

I read a few discussions about the new Disney movie, including the fact that Tiana's love interest is possibly white (the cartoon character is dark-haired and olive skinned, the actor voicing him Brazilian; btw, I have no problem with the character being white or "other"), and others which talk about the importance of this movie as a role model for black children, especially girls. In the latter case, some mention the famous doll study used as part of the evidence in the Brown v. Board of Education case. This study has been repeated recently, with similar results: black children preferring white dolls to black ones.

Anyway, it makes me wonder what, if anything, I should be teaching my daughter about race. I don't remember my parents teaching me anything specific, but I remember often preferring black dolls as a child. My favorite set were the Happy Family (scroll down on this page to view them), who I loved not just because they were black but because they also had black hair texture, unlike, say, black Barbies. But I grew up in a predominantly black environment. My daughter, if we continue to live where we live now, will grow up in a majority white (~70%) community.

Right now, she makes observations about people that are just statements of fact, unconnected to politics or sociology. "Daddy is brown, and Mommy, you and me are yellow," she says. A little girl at her daycare is Chinese, she observes, and a boy there has two mommies. Right now, there's nothing remarkable about these facts to her, and I'd love for it to stay that way--where people are people, and their differences are just interesting facts about them.

But I wonder if that's possible. I remember talking with the teenage daughter of a friend a few years ago, who told me about the tensions at her high school between kids of different races. It made me sad, especially when I think of my own high school years in the 1980's, during which, even amid the turmoil of recent desegregation, the kids of different races got along fairly well. (It was the racism of some teachers that was the bigger problem).

And I wonder what Disney is communicating when they make movies about diverse characters but then cut them out of their merchandise. Just food for thought.


  1. THe princess thing is a phase that will disaapear around age seven but the subconscious issues about race will not. Children are perceptive and they make observation, generalization and then make conclusions with sometimes are pretty accurate. My kids used the word brown too but around first grade someone mentioned they were "black" This was confusing to them and that is when we began the race dialogue.

    Also at a certain point, she may also begin to wish for "long stright hair". Unfortunately, this doesn't tend to go away with much speed.

  2. Dolls, Disney and the 'race' issue are things I have a big interest in, so this entry is very intersting to me!

    I am a Disney fanatic, and I also collect dolls. I am white. My mother was a professor of English in Florida, specializing in teaching Southern black women's literature. I've had serious romantic relationships with two black men, although I married a guy who is paler than I am LOL. Several of my college classes focused on the 'race' issue and had us read a LOT by black authors, some fiction, some biographies. So! I have a LOT I can say about this.

    First, about the princesses. I think Disney will use whatever sells the best, and you can be sure they've done focus groups on which female characters little girls like the most. And well, I'm pretty sure that little girls are going to like what they consider to be the prettiest ones, that being a combination of body and costume. That's about as deep as it gets, if my own memory serves me correctly of what I liked when I was little. I think the key is not what race they are, but do they look ELEGANT? Mulan isn't all that pretty, and her outfit isn't very glamorous. Pocahontas is gorgeous but she doesn't wear a beautiful sparkly gown. Ariel is cute but not beautiful, and of course, she's half fish. Jasmine, however, is lovely and has an exotic outfit.

    If you ever go in the Disney store (which I do about twice a month), you can see that the princess DOLLS are quite varied and they prominently and equally display ALL the Disney movie heroine dolls including Pocahontas and Mulan. But on the other stuff, the printed stuff like plates and cups and pencils, only a few are prominent.

    I think that the princess paraphernalia is in a different category than the movies themselves. The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty and Mulan are my favorite Disney movies. But Snow White and Belle are my favorite princesses and the ones I have the most dolls of. And Disney's princess line now has them all wearing more elaborate outfits than any of them wore in the movies. I really like the new outfit designs, but it makes it more clear that they are icons that are very separate from the actual characters in the movies. Interestingly, Cinderella had light brown hair and a white ball gown in the movie, but in all the princessmarketing stuff she's a blonde in a blue dress.

    I think that Disney had this glaring lack of diversity in mind when coming up with the concept of a black heroine for the Princess and the Frog. It's certainly about time. (Good try, Disney, but The Lion King does NOT count!! LOL) And I'm really glad they're finally doing another hand-drawn fairy tale, although from the preview this looks to be more comedic than romantic and epic, which is too bad. But at least, after this movie comes out, they'll have a beautiful, elegant black woman in a beautiful, elegant princess gown complete with a tiara that they can prominently feature alongside the other mostly white heroines. I'm sure this is what they have in mind. And come on, Amy, the prince is GREEN! Not white or black. He's a frog! ;)
    (continued next post)

  3. Now about the ethnicity of dolls... All of my life I have always really liked dolls of any ethnicity. I usually wanted both Barbie and Christie (Barbie's black counterpart in the 80s)... for example, I had Beauty Secrets Barbie and Christie. I thought they were both gorgeous and I played with them equally. I had Black Barbie and I remember her very clearly even though I no longer have her. I think she did have an afro and tightly curled hair although the hair was soft. But it was pointless to run a comb through it at least :) I loved my Hispanic Barbie and I really loved my Eskimo Barbie, who I still have and who I think has the most beautiful face of all my Barbies. Of course I had a bunch of white Barbies too that I loved but I didn't differentiate between them and the "women of color." I didn't even know that phrase. And for the Barbies I collect now, most of the collector's styles come in black or white, and I get whichever one I think is more attractive overall. It's about half and half. And frankly, the ones I have that I love the most are either black or Asian.
    (continued next post

  4. Lastly... about what, if anything, you should be teaching your daughter about race. I say, nothing (and I qualify that at the end, so bear with me). I will tell you what my parents, who were active in the civil rights movement, did for me. My parents never talked to me about race or pointed out the 'differences' between the looks of different people. It was a NON-issue. As I've already mentioned, I had dolls of different races and I never really thought much about WHY they looked different, since I liked the way all of them looked. My mom read books to me from all different cultures and races. Ezra Jack Keats' books were and are among my top favorites. She read Native American stories that I dearly loved. She never pointed out any cultural or ethnic differences to me in the books (i.e. see how this person's a different color than that one, or this person wears this kind of clothes?) She just read them to me and let me enjoy them for what they are: interesting and relatable stories about fellow human beings.
    My schools didn't focus on it at all either, and now I hear that they are... even in pre-school! I think that is counterproductive for kids that young. They don't care, but here we are trying to MAKE them care. Let them just innocently and honestly acknowledge that humans don't all look the same (like your daughter is doing) and leave it at that. I think it is stupid to bring attention to anything more at that age.

    I didn't get into any in-depth studies of racial issues until college, except as part of learning U.S. history: the subduing of Native Americans, slavery, and the civil rights movement. What I walked away with from those pre-college teachings was that we whites are JERKS. I came home crying from third grade one day (so my mom tells me) because I had learned what "we" did to the Native Americans, and I told her I didn't want to be white anymore. That was my first exposure to the issue of racial tension and cultural clashes, and it was VERY disturbing to me. Prior to that, I was blissfully unaware, and I'm glad I was. I still remember my first grade teacher Ms. Carter, whom I loved dearly. She was black but I didn't know she was called "black" at the time or ever think about it. To me she was just a dear, kind wonderful teacher who had a pretty brown face and black hair. (BTW I do NOT remember all my teachers that clearly, black or white.) Why do we (as a society) want to spoil our children’s innocence so soon? Let's let them learn the deeper issues of life as slowly as possible, I say, and not force it upon their sweet little souls. They don't see race or culture or country lines. They see other humans. Let's let them!
    (continued next post)

  5. Unfortunately, maybe it's not so simple if you ARE black and you are afraid that your daughter will be the victim of racism and be more hurt by it if she's not prepared for it. I don't know if that is as much a risk in Washington as it would be in the South...?? So I can't speak for that.

    But I do know that as a woman and therefore part of a group that has been discriminated against, I really appreciate my parents' approach; they treated sexism the same way as racism: they never talked to me about women vs. men or any feminist issue even though both are active feminists and my mom subscribed to Ms. Magazine. I was just encouraged that I could do or be whatever I wanted when I grew up--just as any boy would be encouraged. They never told me that because I was female I'd have to do xyz to get ahead; they never told me I had disadvantages I'd have to struggle against; they didn't harp on all the injustices women have suffered. They didn't bring up my gender at all. And I believe that I was MUCH more empowered by that than if they had tried to 'toughen me up' by making me aware of 'the challenges' I might face because I'm a woman. I have always had a LOT of self-confidence and was one of the few females in my junior high and high school classes who was outspoken and would debate with the guys about any issue. That didn't make me popular at all with the boys in my classes, but I'm sure my parents were VERY happy about that... less libido to worry about!! On the Delphi forums a lot of people thought I was a guy for a while because they said "I write like a guy," whatever that means. More confidently or brazenly or unapologetically or something? I think a lot of it is because I grew up totally unaware that I might be considered to be any different from men in any negative way by anyone. I grew up seeing myself as an equal human being to the people with 'outies.'

    Okay, enough from me!!!

  6. I don't know how to delete comments so I want to correct the phrase "in the South" to be "in the East."!! I'm Southern and my whole family is Southern so I didn't think to include the North in this.

  7. To George: Yes, I guess if the kids bring it up or are confused, some explaining has to be done.

    And as far as hair goes, I think every girl on the planet has some kind of built-in instinct that their hair isn't good enough. All the girls I knew with straight hair wanted curly, and vice versa. I know that for black girls they tend to want white hair more often than the other way around (I would assume this is because of our media and cultural norms). But NO girl is ever satisfied with her hair!! LOL Heck, I used to want to BE Shari Belafonte, one of the most beautiful women ever on the planet, and I loved her short hair. (Of course I also wanted to be Lynda Carter and Olivia Newton-John.) I was also jealous that my black friends didn't have to waste time washing their hair daily or even ever other day.

    I know the hair issue can be a very frustrating thing for black girls. But some of it is a universal female thing. None of us will ever win as long as mirrors exist....

  8. One last thing - to Amy - that link for the video about the recent doll study is broken. But I am interested in seeing that documentary. And I am saddened to read the Wikipedia entry that the results of the 'doll study' are the same today.

  9. Geez, I can't get off this!! LOL ... Thinking about my 3rd grade 'trauma' - I reread that and thought, maybe if I'd known more from my parents about racial issues before learning it in school I wouldn't have been as badly affected that day? But I don't know. My mom's immediate response to me was that it wasn't ME who did that, it was other white people. And I think that our teacher should have made that clear to us as well. I think in her zeal to preach about the injustice of it, she didn't think about the effect it might have on the white kids in the class (even though she herself was white).

  10. I just read that Washington Post article. I guess I should have actually read your links before responding! LOL... anyway, I don't get this: "the first line of Barbie dolls modeled on black women." I guess I'll have to see them to understand this statement, because Mattel has produced many lines of dolls with traditional black-looking face molds (not just 'white' faces colored black) as well as Asian. Maybe they're referring to body shape?

    Here's a good comment from that article about Tiana's hair:

    Tarshia Stanley, a professor of English at Spelman College in Atlanta who often writes and teaches about portrayals of black women in film, says that the character's hair -- straight and pulled back in early images released by the studio -- seems to be the appropriate, middle-of-the-road bet, too.

    "They might as well make it straight so little girls can comb it when the doll comes out," she notes, wryly. "We as African American women haven't fully dealt with how sensitive the subject of our hair can be, so I certainly wouldn't expect Disney to know what to do with [that issue]."

    I like this comment too, about Pocahontas: "Pocahontas was presented in an almost Frederick's of Hollywood costume," she says. "The movie turned out to be more damage control for Native American parents than a moment of pride."

    I got to go to the animation studio in Orlando when they were doing initial studies for Pocahontas. I spent an hour doing figure drawings with the animators (I was the guest of one of them) and the woman portraying her looked just like she does in the film. My very first thought on seeing the model was, "She's wearing THAT???" It was so skimpy!! Of course that actual tribe went topless. But come on! They could have done much better with that. I didn't like Pocahontas the movie that much anyway; the plot was soooo different from the actual history.

  11. Amy and George, thanks for all your comments. Yeah, Pocahontas' costume is pretty skimpy, but so is Jasmine's and Ariel's. I think the reason I love Belle so much is that, while beautiful, she is dressed modestly, and the Beast falls in love with her courage (she stands up to him) and her kindness as much as her beauty.

    And for Mulan, it's also her courage, brains and perseverance that stands out. Of course, I saw all these movies as an adult; I'm not sure how I would have felt if I'd first seen them as a kid!

  12. Yea I was not happy about how sexy Jasmine was. Ariel I understood because after all she actually had a top which mermaids traditionally don't ;) And on land, she dressed modestly. I definitely relate to Belle the most. But for little girls it's more about 'pretty, pretty, pretty!' At least I know for me it was. And as I got older I started caring about character as well. I think Cinderella is still most little girls' favorite, at least as far as I can tell. And she is pretty, and kind, and sweet, and modest. So that's good!

  13. Great topic,

    I noticed this in super heroes when I was a boy - Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Robin, the Flash were all white, and when the black heroes started coming around - they had one thing in common which was terribly obvious -

    The first black heroes were: The Black Panther, Black Lightning and Black Avenger.

    I actually pointed out the merchandising event in my book, "Blackbirds: Volume 1" when one of the characters notices a bottle of syrup.