A Princess of Her Own

“Which one of these do you like, Baby?” I held my breath and as my daughter scanned the three characters on this toy drum, or “grum” as she puts it. My daughter pointed at Tiana, the Disney character on the left and said, “That one.”


Drum in a new member of Disney's Princess Club

Of course I was relieved that my daughter preferred the princess Tiana. My daughter is growing up in a world where Blacks are represented in every corner of society, including government, where Barack Obama is chief executive in the White House; the business sector, where Ursula Burns presides over the boardroom at HP; the Miss America pageants, where Vanessa Williams still reigns as the first Black woman to hold that title, please, despite our ambivalence about tagging pretty women and putting them on display. And who can understate the importance of Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, love them or not? Having a Disney princess that looks somewhat like her is a welcome treat, like a pretty little desert after a rich meal.

Readers, lest any of you suspect that I influenced Baby, maybe maneuvered the drum under her chubby finger, or bribed her with a sugary treat to pick the New Orleans native as her favorite, I did not. Tiana was her first pick, not a choice that I elicited from her after several tries. She made her choice genuinely and without hesitation. The question was not big deal to her. But while Baby moved on to more important matters, like finding her plush stegosaurus, I started analyzing it.

The Disney princesses have made their way into my daughter’s lineup of toys.  It won’t be long before the characters on the front also tunnel into her psyche one way or another. After she outgrows the characters and stories, she will either develop a soft, feminine fashion sense and hope for guys to treat her with a fair measure of kindness and deference, compartmentalize the Disney princesses as kindly childhood companions that ushered her to her tween years before fading away, or totally reject them as silly holdovers from a time when women were rendered passive and restrained by useless cultural norms.

And yet Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” gave me pause. I have never seen this movie, but I did buy Baby a story book based on the movie, and read that to her. It kept the leading lady, Tiana, embodied as a frog for most of the story. It had her reprise a traditional role for Black women—a nice, plucky, hardworking girl who puts the material and emotional needs of others ahead of her own. She even sacrificed her happiness in the name of loyalty to her best childhood friend, a rich white woman drawn as authentic and sweet. I have no problems with sweet, rich white folks, of course, but the whole idea of the self-sacrificing Black woman is beyond trite!!

OK, OK. Things work out in the end for our princess and her amphibian love interest. But it would have been nice to see the character in a human body and enjoying the experience like a real Black woman for most of it. At least. And what sort of “princess” heads into happily ever after by first donning an apron and the cares of running a restaurant, instead of retiring her cooking utensils and transitioning to a life of wealth and philanthropy? Even Hubby frowned when I explained to him that the prince turned out to be a layabout who was disinherited by his parents, and then lives off the woman he marries. Disney, come on!

Who really knows what influence this and other Disney toys and products will have on Baby? This “grum” is more form than function. The companion drumsticks are flimsy plastic rods that elicit a puny shallow sound from the drum when she uses them. For now the princesses all make very appealing and pretty playthings for my daughter, and it is nice to for her to see one of “her own” represented on team Disney. But if I do my job well, it will be my message, not the drumbeat of Disney’s corporate marketing and merchandising, that will reverberate through her life.

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