About five years ago — eons in mom time now that my daughter is 11 and just an inch shorter than I am — we were shuffling through movie theater foot traffic when she spotted a poster pushing some new animated princess and gushed, “Oh Mommy, she’s sooooo pretty.” I bristled. I secretly rolled my eyes. I cocked one eyebrow so far up it could have easily become part of my hairline.
Outspoken soul sista that I am, however, I’m not so hardcore that I’d shut down a little kid in the middle of innocently expressing her adoration for a cartoon character. Instead, I immediately told her that she, herself, was more fabulous than any run-of-the-mill princess some artist could cook up. I also lamented internally that there would probably never be anyone to compete with the flowing long-haired, perfectly porcelain-skinned likes of Cinderella or Ariel for the affections of little brown girls everywhere.
But I stand corrected. And soon, I’ll also stand in line for The Princess and The Frog to witness the debut of Princess Tiana, who is the first black lady to be added to the lineup of Disney’s royal highnesses. Her story has been a long time in the making, partially because every other component of her development has been met with criticism and “oh no you didn’ts” from black folks privy to Disney’s behind-the-scenes plans to make the princess a maid and a domestic in white folks’ kitchen.
Her physical characteristics have also gone through more transformations than Vivica Fox and Lil’ Kim at a botox two-for-one: She’s been lighter, darker, fuller-lipped and wider-nosed with an assortment of hairdos and textures before her final look was settled. The results, I think, are commendable. She’s cute. But now a critic like myself can’t help but wait with a blend of hopefulness, curiosity and baited skepticism to see how many little girls wander past her picture announcing to their mothers that they want to look like her.
Will the introduction of a black princess really change the way little black girls think about themselves?
We’ve placed so much stock in the idea that Africanized versions of dolls and cartoons will have some sort of uplifting effect on our girls’ self-esteem. While studies have shown time and time again that there’s a clear problem with black girls associating beauty with anything but dark skin, thick lips and big noses, the Princess Tianas of the entertainment world will mean absolutely nothing if we —black mothers and our village of supportive relatives and friends—aren’t reinforcing the real-life beauty of who we are to our daughters everyday.
Someone can draw Tiana and erase her physical faults with the flick of a pencil end. I’m trying to teach my child that though she’s not flawless, her true beauty comes from embracing and celebrating her perfect imperfections.