Why Little Black Girls Still Need Disney Princesses

Princesses represent black women finally being seen and cherished.
Publish date:
November 7, 2013
princesses, Disney, black girls

My copy of “Stan Lee’s How to Draw Marvel Comics” on VHS still lives somewhere in my parents’ house. I was obsessed with two kinds of animated characters when I was a kid--Disney princesses, and Marvel comic heroines.

Obviously, those are two opposing female archetypes in the world of character animation, but for me, a little girl who wanted to be an animator (or a comic book artist, or anything that would just let me draw all the time), the princesses and women with superhuman powers were fascinating to me. Studying the way they were drawn and rendered became my favorite after school pasttime.

I never became a comic artist or an animator (not yet at least, I’m only 30), but studying the female figure through that lens easily translated into fashion illustration, which is what I do now. I never realized that until very recently.

What brought it to my attention was David Trumble’s satirical rendering of significant women in world history as princesses, entitled “World of Women.” It’s jarring to see. Rosa parks smiling sweetly and demurely, with a face younger than the one we came to know in that famous mugshot. Hillary Clinton holding a hummingbird, posed in a manner you may see in a housewares advertisement from the 1950s. And Anne Frank as a tiny, meek figure, head tilted as she smiles shyly.

All of the women in the composition are fashioned into princesses of Disney proportions. They;ve got wide eyes, friendly smiles and nipped waists. And sparkles. Lots of sparkles. It (rightly so) made a lot of viewers uncomfortable.

“I drew this picture because I wanted to analyze how unnecessary it is to collapse a heroine into one specific mold,” said Trumble, “to give them all the same sparkly fashion, the same tiny figures, and the same homogenized plastic smile. My experience of female role models both in culture and in life has shown me that there is no mold for what makes someone a role model.”

And he’s right. It is incredibly insane to try to compress these complex, important women into the simplified and sanitized mold of “princess” that we sell to so many of our girls. Doing so erases the character of our female heroes.

So all of this made me think back to my childhood, and consider the fact, that while I did love the princesses and the superheroes, they were the only animated examples available to me. (Well, them and Jem. Who was awesome because JEM.)

“World of Women” illustrates the need for us to think harder about the kind of animated females characters we offer our girls--and boys. We need characters who can capture the imagination and excitement of little kids, without falling into the prevailing princess archetype.

Dora the Explorer and Doc McStuffins are already there. Merida from Brave was there, but sadly, the fiery, adventurous girl warrior was made-over, nipped, tucked painted into princess perfection. Merida’s make-over, in fact, was what prompted Trumble to create his “World of Women” in the first place.

Still, as a woman of color, my support of Trumble offering girls characters beyond the princess archetype comes with an asterisk. The archetype is limited when it’s the only one offered, but in itself is not inherently bad. “Princesses” stir our imagination because they indicate girls who are admired, celebrated for their beauty and considered worthy of respect and adoration. Women of color, however, are often excluded from such distinctions, seldom offered the privilege of being considered muses or symbols of royalty.

This is why so many adult black women went in droves to see the premiere of the first Disney movie to feature a black princess, “The Princess and The Frog." That was in 2009. And after the credits rolled, so many of those women left the theaters with tears in their eyes. Princess Tiana represented something more than a sparkly dress and a prince’s love interest. Princess Tiana represented black women finally being seen and cherished.

This is not to say a Princess Harriet Tubman is appropriate or necessary. But for young black girls, it’s just as important to see a glamorous, animated Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt or Josephine Premice. Black women, you have to remember, have our own royalty, and they’re worthy of being celebrated as the real-life princesses and queens they are. So while I admire Trumble's effort to point out that the idea of "princess" may feel restrictive for some reason, it opens up a whole new world -- pun totally intended -- for others.