Last month I read about a designer who photographed people dressed as Disney princesses and paired them beside portraits of their mothers or mothers-in-law who were intended to depict how the princesses would age as queens. “Gorgeous Photos Show Disney Princesses Reimagined Years Later As Queens.” Before reading the article, the title prompted me to wonder (1) In what way are the photographs gorgeous? Gorgeous is subjective and expressed through the use of many kinds of artistic media; (2) Who are Disney princesses that are represented?; (3) Doesn’t claiming the throne depend on the line of succession?; and (4) Should I log out and return to my summer reading?
The headline caught my eye particularly because a few weeks earlier, I co-taught a reading group in our preschool classroom with our school’s language arts coordinator. We selected a rich textset of storybooks that featured a princess as the protagonist in a response to one of the children’s observations during a readaloud of The Princess and the Pea. Initially the class had been exploring patterns, texture, and design, and Rachel Isadora’s Princess and the Pea includes vibrant textiles assembled into collaged images to make the East African setting come to life. During the readaloud, when the princess was first introduced on a page, one of our learners remarked, “She doesn’t look like a real princess.” So here was our opportunity to ask the students, What is a princess? Although many of the students shared their ideas of physical characteristics of a princess, the dialogue gained depth as we read more stories: “A princess has long yellow hair like me because my mommy calls me Princess.” “A princess can have brown skin.” “A princess wears beautiful clothes.” “A princess has to clean the house.” “A princess can fight better than her brother knights.” “Princesses can be strong.”
After reading Anklet for a Princess: A Cinderella Story From India (Lila Mehta and Youshan Tang), The Princess Knight (Cornelia Funke and Kersten Meyer), and Rapunzel (Rachel Isadora), we planned to continue the dialogue by inviting the students to collaborate in writing a class book that shows the many possibilities and definitions of a princess. Our textset continues to grow and we’ll read Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (John Steptoe and Clarita Kohen), The Salmon Princess: An Alaskan Cinderella (Mindy Dwyer), My Princess Boy (Cheryl Kilodavis and Suzanne DeSimone), The Talking Eggs (Robert D. San Souci and Jerry Pinkney), The Paper Bag Princess (Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko), Celia Cruz: Queen of Salsa (Veronica Chambers and Julie Maren), King for a Day (Rukhsana Khan and Christiane Krömer), and Janna and the Kings (Patricia Smith and Aaron Boyd) to think about how the words princess, prince, king, and queen can be interpreted. We explore these stories from multiple voices and perspectives to generate dialogue and empathetic literary response from students learning about strong and non-conforming characters in princess and queen roles. Through this process, our learners become critical analysts of texts, and they take agency in questioning and challenging stories told in the dominant or mainstream narrative and acquire a deeper understanding from the counterstory, the expression of experience of people of color and those less heard and seen beyond the dominant lens.
I wonder what thoughts and ideas our learners would share as we showed them “Gorgeous Photos Show Disney Princesses Reimagined Years Later as Queens.” Costume Designer Nephi Garcia and photographer Tony Ross came up with an idea that could have been empowering if it didn’t “reimagine Disney princesses as powerful, mature Disney Queens” but did reimagine Disney princesses (because they do need some reimagining in my opinion) as caring, strong, and innovative adults. Yet, in the photographs that followed each Disney princess portrait were the mothers or mothers-in law of the princess characters, and they are dressed in the same kind of ball gowns as the princesses! They look older, but they still wear lots of makeup and the “beautiful clothes” to which one of my students alluded in her description of a princess. How about if we reimagine them years later as engineers, entomologists, or artists, for example? What if Snow White decided to be a muralist or if Ariel sponsored a swim team in an afterschool program?
Here are the princesses (who were somehow destined to become queens perhaps owing to a royal succession to the throne that was in their favor) that are featured in the article:
Snow White, Ariel, Belle, Mulan, Cinderella, and Elena. Of all the depictions, Mulan as a princess and queen appears to be strong and able. Is this because both models are holding a sword? Apart from Mulan and Elena (depicted by makeup artist Richard Schaefer), who represent the Disney characters of color in this project, the princesses and queens are visibly white. I’m no Disney princess-phile, but where are Jasmine, Tiana, and Pocahontas?
I scrolled down to the comments following the article and felt reassured that I wasn’t alone in noticing the exclusion of Disney princesses and queens of color. And here, also, was a space to see microaggressions, particularly microinvalidations, at work. In response to some readers who commented on the omission of Jasmine, Tiana, and Pocahontas, someone replied, “At least they included Mulan.. progress, right…” Another person commented, “Calm down! Why try making a mountain out of a molehill?” Here are some more reactions: “This isn’t racist. Stop making it something it’s not.” “It seems like it’s including the most popular princesses overall.” “The costume designer who created this was a POC and he included Mulan, who is also Chinese. Normally I wouldn’t say anything, but this is definitely not a racist thing. Not everything is a big deal.” “They’re probably working on it. This stuff takes a lot of time to plan and pull together. Just calm down.” ” Relax.” “Can’t anyone just be happy they did this instead of bitching and moaning about who was or wasn’t included? We don’t know if there will be more, or what they plan on doing. Just click the like, love, wow or whatever button of your choosing and keep it moving.” “Omg why does everything always have to go to a race thing?” “With the designer creating eight or so dresses from scratch in time for Mother’s Day by himself, I don’t think he had the time or manpower to make the other princesses.”
Such reactions to a very critical question show the defensiveness of white privilege. Astute questions and observations were met with replies full of denial. Calm down? Relax? Just be happy? Are these replies from people so enthralled by this odd photo shoot that they are unable to see the exclusion, not to mention the absurdity and creepiness, in this reimagining? Most likely. Can we tell them to get uncomfortable and become more perceptive? Definitely.