"Can we buy this, Mom?"
Wandering through the grocery store last week, my 6-year-old daughter, Maven, spied a can of chicken soup. This wasn't just any old chicken soup; this was the Disney Princess edition, with pasta rendered in "cool shapes," including a castle, Cinderella slipper, carriage and crown.
I challenge any red-blooded American kindergartner to resist this can. It had an eye-catching picture of the carrot-top Ariel, Sleeping Beauty and, of course, the blue-eyed, blonde Cinderella. All three princesses gave come-hither smiles beneath their sparkling tiaras.
In that moment, I did not consider the long-term cumulative effect of Eurocentric beauty standards on my daughter's self-esteem. I did not think about the 1954 study that helped end legal segregation; the study showed black girls rejected black dolls in favor of white ones. I did not consider the 2005 update that found the same troubling results.
I was thinking more about how I was already late picking up my husband and son from football and needed to get out of the store as quickly as possible. "Put it in the cart," I told her with a sigh. Hey, at least she would be consuming "25 percent less sodium."
I thought about that purchase recently when my family went to the movies for the opening weekend of Disney's The Princess and the Frog, helping make it No. 1 at the box office. This is what the march of black progress looks like. In 2008, we got the election of Barack Obama; in 2010, we might get to buy Princess Tiana cereal. The beauty company Carol's Daughter, once a black-owned mom-and-pop operation, was allowed to board this particular Disney train, as a merchandising partner. The better a movie does, the more units they will move of Princess Tiana bubble bath.
But does that really represent progress?
Our son and daughter liked the film well enough, but my husband and I loved pretty much everything about it. As a New Orleans native, my husband appreciated the setting and respectful use of Nawlins food, music and architecture. I loved Princess Tiana's luminous skin, the rich color of milk chocolate. The girl-power story line resisted rescue-the-damsel narratives that are typical Disney fare. I even loved that her Prince Naveen appeared to be of Indian descent. (Go, Disney! What a way to plow emerging global markets!)
As happy as I was about how slyly the filmmakers wove in subconscious messages about the value of thrift and hard work, white privilege and female empowerment, I also realize that story lines are beside the point. Since the beginning of Disney, its kids programming has been just a small cog in the American capitalist machine-a pretext for selling stuff.
This commercial agenda is the reason why, when I took my daughter to Wal-Mart to buy her a bike, I had to get a Hannah Montana one—with the star's blonde mug plastered all over it—because it was the only one available. It's the only possible explanation for why my daughter asked Santa for the Baby Alive Whoopsie doll—a toy that pees and poops.
One day, I'm sure, studies will be done about the impact of The Princess and the Frog on a generation of black girls. I know my daughter didn't necessarily need Disney to tell her she was a princess. This is the lone black female kindergartner at her Catholic school who announced that she intended to become a priest when she grows up. Who, when asked by an older black woman if she was ready to cheer her brother's football team, shot back, "I was born ready." Nothing against Disney magic, but she's more fascinated by the real-life Sasha and Malia who live down the street from us.
The Washington Post writer DeNeen Brown correctly pointed out that it is black moms, not their daughters, who are making a big deal of the first black Disney princess. I myself admit to succumbing to the Disney thrall; I bought the Princess Tiana doll for Maven's birthday a couple of weeks before the movie came out.
At first, my daughter excitedly played with Tiana, fascinated with her green pumps. But after a few hours, Princess Tiana had mysteriously disappeared. Eventually, I found her in a most unfortunate and un-regal position-lodged behind a dresser.
"She's hiding," said Maven, who has been on a spy/espionage kick lately. Actually, seeing the movie changed nothing. Princess Tiana is still nowhere to be found.
Natalie Hopkinson is associate editor of The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.