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
Thursday 04 February 2010
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.
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