Corey Dulin: Princess

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 - 1:56am

“They treat me like Cinderella around here,” I once exaggerated when I was little. I was never too interested in the general idea of princesses, but they’re a staple in the media diet of young girls. They line the toy aisles and are one of the main focuses of children’s movies and TV shows, so they’re easy for kids to connect with.

Despite their prevalence, children’s movies that feature princesses fail to capture and showcase a range of experiences and backgrounds. While the princess narrative usually brings to mind a helpless maiden waiting for a man to save her, like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, there is a chance for the narrative to instead teach young girls to learn important values like determination, ambition and bravery and feature characters from diverse backgrounds.

Among the hordes of remakes of Cinderella, only a select few put women of color in the iconic role. I recently watched one of these, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” from 1997, for the first time in over a decade. When I was little, I remember going to day camp and always asking to watch that movie when we had to stay inside. I’m sure this irritated everyone, but this was my movie when I was in elementary school and rewatching it showed me why I was so drawn to it. First of all, there’s so much color. It makes it easy to understand why I wanted to watch it all the time — the visuals are stunning. The ornate fabrics that the characters wear are beautiful and the color scheme for the ball scene is mesmerizing. I wanted to wear all the fancy, funky dresses — especially the one Cinderella, played by actress and singer Brandy, wore at the ball. The visuals pair brilliantly with the music. The songs and dance numbers are the definition of extra: they’re hilarious, over the top and they stay in your head for at least a week. When you have Whitney Houston singing in a movie, you know the songs will become iconic. The song “Impossible” has been stuck in my head since I heard it in the early 2000s.

What was most important for me in elementary school was how diverse the cast was. It featured Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Houston, Paolo Montalbán and Brandy. It’s funny how this movie had no problem casting actors of colors while most movies, including the more recent 2015 adaptation of “Cinderella,” struggle to do this. Seeing a princess that looked like me, Black with box braids, and seeing a fairy godmother with curly hair was rare and special. Aside from the amazing score, scenes, colors and hilarity of the movie, the image of Brandy as Cinderella has stuck with me since I was little. I, like every child, looked to find myself among the images on the screen and in books. “Cinderella” gave me a character to identify with, unlike most media produced in the early 2000s.

The 1997 adaptation of “Cinderella” went against the standard of most Disney movies and princess movies of the time — but it was only one of a few movies that starred a woman of color. After seeing Disney’s animated renditions of “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Little Mermaid” too many times on ABC Family, I felt that Disney was long overdue to release a movie about a Black princess.

Disney finally delivered in 2009 with the release of “The Princess and the Frog.” I was too old to aspire to be a princess; they didn’t hold as important a part in my life as they did when I was little. But Tiana spoke to whom I hoped to become. She was smart, worked hard and was hopeful. In most narratives that involve women, especially princess narratives, the woman waits for a man to save her. But Tiana used her intelligence to save herself and that knuckleheaded prince who turned her into a frog.

You can say that princesses and princess movies are silly and that they are not worth paying attention to, but they are part of a larger discussion about what values we instill in children, especially young girls who make up the target audience. Movies like the 1997 adaptation of "Cinderella," "The Princess and the Frog" and "Mulan" incorporate the stories of different cultures and areas into media consumed by elementary school children.

This gives them the opportunity to see themselves reflected in characters and also learn about other cultures. Evaluating which lessons these movies teach children is just as important as ensuring that the stories told are diverse and include characters from different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Are these movies emphasizing the old-school princess tropes of waiting for “true love” or “Prince Charming” to solve everything or do they focus on the importance of standing up for yourself and individuality like in “The Princess and the Frog” and “Brave”? I want the word “princess” redefined; instead of the negative connotation it has of a “fair maiden” waiting for everything to be done for her, it should come to mean an independent, strong, courageous person of any skin tone.

Corey Dulin can be reached at cydulin@umich.edu.