A fairytale role model: What impact will Disney's first black heroine Princess Tiana have on children?

Paul McKenzie takes his daughter Esme, 7, to the cinema to find out

It's 7.30pm in the McKenzie household. Bedtime for seven-year-old Esme. I lean over to give her a kiss and, right on cue, with a twinkle in her eye she pulls away and offers me her hand. "How's about a nice, firm handshake?"

This new bedtime ritual started two months ago when Esme saw the trailer for Walt Disney's new animated film, The Princess and the Frog. Our bedtime 'handshake' is what Princess Tiana offers up to the frog because she doesn't want to kiss him on the lips! As I turn the lights out and head downstairs, the laughter fades and a nagging question returns: Why does this film resonate with her so much? I've been shying away from what I feel is the obvious answer for a while, but as the film's opening weekend nears, it's time to confront it.

The answer, I suspect, is that Tiana is a black princess, and there are not many of those on the big screen. I'd rather it were otherwise. Her mother and I have tried to shield Esme from the ugly, complex nature of racism until she hits her teenage years. But the more she talks excitedly about the upcoming film, the more convinced I am that The Princess and the Frog is striking a chord with her because the leading lady shares her shade of colouring. Esme has always loved the Disney/Pixar magic regardless of colour. Ariel, Cinderella, and Tinkerbell all have a piece of her heart. But it's worth noting that until Princess Tiana showed up, her three favourite characters have been: Lilo, a spiky, dark-skinned Hawaiian girl; Mulan, a Chinese warrior princess; and Dory an absent-minded Blue Tang fish.

Is there something in my theory? Child psychologist Emma Kenny says society ensures that from an early age, children of colour will see themselves as different. "As Esme has grown older ... she would see and take on board a number of signs – toys, images from television and news- papers, children from school – that she is somehow different from them." She continues; "Esme may be mixed-race, but she has realised from the ages one to two that in terms of colour she is more like her dad than her mum."

It is a sad reflection on society in these so-called post-racial times that a mixed-race girl, like a mixed-race President, is viewed as black rather than half-black, half-white. Kenny says that, "Society is quick to label mixed-race children as black children, and mixed-race kids hear that label loud and clear. Children are like sponges. They absorb all the information they see, and spend a lot of time trying to figure out the answer".

And positive role models provide big answers. Because of the amount of news that is watched in our home, Esme instantly recognises and admires President Obama and the First Lady. Kenny is convinced that children of colour, like Esme, are particularly inspired by Michelle Obama: "Role models, outside the so-called usual fields of sport and music, are enormously important." Children need to see from an early age that they can be what- ever they want to be, regardless of colour, and there needs to be proof of this achievement in the adult world.

Marva Rollins, the inspirational black head teacher from Rayham Primary School, north London believes that Esme, like many children of colour, is having a 'Tyler' moment. Tyler is the lead character from the Mary Hoffman children's book An Angel Like Me. Confused and upset by the all-white Christmas angel decorations that hang from the family's Christmas tree, he sets out to find an angel who looks exactly like him.

Marva explains that what happens at the nursery age is crucial to a child forming ideas and opinions on race and gender. "In my nursery, most of the black children will pick up a white doll rather than a black doll, because they associate glamour and excitement with a white doll rather than the black one." She believes Disney has taken a huge, positive step forward in making their newest tiara-twirling princess black. "With the weight of the Disney brand behind Princess Tiana, this black doll will end up in millions of households", says Rollins. Black families will buy the black doll over a white Barbie doll because they want their child to have black toys, she explains. "White families will buy Princess Tiana because she's Disney newest princess, not for any reasons of colour". This interaction at an early age with dolls of a different colour will have a positive impact on society in the long term, says Rollins, who plans to take children from her school to see the film, and more importantly debate aspects of the film – including the skin tone of Princess Tiana.

So it's off to London's Leicester Square Empire we go, Esme, her cousin Marnie, and cute-as-a-button pals, Maddie, Alex and Ryan. True to form, Disney wows them. Esme was impressed: "Tiana's funny. She was just as pretty as Cinderella but not as pretty as me!" Interestingly, Esme didn't mention her colour, but she has mentioned many of the elements of Princess Tiana's character. Feisty (a word she used), bright, sharp, a go-getter, a dream-follower.

And simple as it is powerful, Princess Tiana shows them that girls who share my daughter's complexion are "pretty as magnolia in May", and that they too can be a princess, and if they wish, marry a prince. Of course, that may entail kissing a frog or boy. And as long as I'm around, that kissing-a-boy-thing is never going to happen.

The Princess and the Frog is in cinemas tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor