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Social Studies

Once Upon a Time

By Vincent Williams | Posted 4/1/2009

As much as I hate to admit it, I think we're going to have to address this The Princess and the Frog situation with my daughter. Disney's upcoming animated feature is already getting a lot of press because it's going to be the first time the company has shown a black princess in any of its films, and those of us with little black daughters feel, well, I think there's a variety of thought about an African-American princess, and we'll get to that. Recently, however, the real heat coming off of it, and the reason it's been the source of conversation at play dates, playgrounds, and birthday parties, surrounds the controversy of the fact that it looks like the black princess' prince . . . ain't black. As the father of a 4-year-old who'll be almost 5 when the film comes out this December, this is really the first sort of media situation that we're going to have to confront as parents. I am now, officially, in the "We have to think about the children" game.

Now, before we go any further, let me be clear: I am not trying to outright state or otherwise imply that I have some kind of beef with interracial relationships. In fact, it's just the opposite. After almost 10 years of marriage, what I have truly started to understand is that "'til death do we part" is a long-ass time, and you need to spend it with someone you like as well as someone you love. And I think people should get their happiness where they can find it, regardless of what the package looks like. So let's not get it twisted.

Having said that, I am also a staunch advocate of black love. I also believe that, since the time of slavery our culture has been hostile toward the concept of black love and said hostility has resonated and lingered since emancipation. I mean, just take a second and think about how many black couples you've seen in the media in the past few decades in loving, respectful relationships? Oh, there's been plenty of post-Alice Walker/Terry McMillan/Maury Povich style couples sniping and yelling at one another like junkyard dogs. But black folks actually getting along with one another like they have some damn sense? Good luck with that project.

So, yeah, I think that black children should be able to see adults who look like themselves in relationships with each other. Because of that, I can completely understand the frustration that people are feeling over the fact that the first black Disney princess isn't going to have a black prince. And, toward that fact, the wife and I are going to have to figure out a strategy toward approaching that conversation when our daughter brings it up.

Then there's the whole princess thing in general. We all know it's Women's Studies 101 to critique the role of fairy tales on the psyche of young girls. We can't teach little girls that they're helpless or that they have to look for a prince to come and save them, and, to their credit, my daughter's grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. have been very good about limiting the types of images that are portrayed in the books and gifts she's been given, so we haven't had to have that conversation yet. Truth be told, I have not seen a Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Snow White doll, toy, DVD, etc. in either my house or the houses of any little girls around us, not so much because of the whole princess thing, as much as the historically negative role those kind of beauty images play on the psyche of little black girls. (I believe that's the real reason behind this movie: Disney knows there's a whole demographic that's bypassing its blonde haired, blue-eyed products. Our daughters may not be the "fairest ones of all," but they still have parents who will buy stuff for them.) But now there's an honest-to-God black princess, and there are old ladies all around us just chomping at the bit to inundate my child's life with every single product Disney has. So, that's a coming storm we're going to have to address as well.

Honestly, though, I'm a little intimidated by the fact that this is the first time we'll really have to engage our daughter as a thinking, impressionable person about a pop-culture situation. You do all this stuff for your kids, thinking that you're controlling their environments, exercising harsh scrutiny with the food and the classes and the TV and the books and, somehow, they still come home talking about something completely out of your control. I can't even begin to tell you the relief we felt over dodging the last parental bullet, as we watched the couples around us with older daughters explaining why that dreamy Chris Brown has lost his damn mind.

But, y'know, that's the gig. Up until this point, we really have been able to control the ebb and flow of information and, even with the pre-school, Disney juggernaut onslaught of the past year, it's been fairly easy avoiding sticky conversations about images of beauty and the overall potential of girls. But The Princess and the Frog is coming full speed ahead and we have to make sure we've got a plan to address the issues it raises so that we can have a real storybook ending.

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