Happy New Year, Readers! I can’t believe 2015 (the year I graduate college!!!) is finally here. As many of you probably noticed, I’ve been MIA for a while, but I’m fully recharged and thrilled to begin a new year. As such there’s something I’ve been meaning to get off my chest. I figured what better way to do so than to engage in a discussion, erm, rant with you. It all started last week when I went to see Into the Woods* with my family. Being the musical theater nerd I am, I was so excited to see one of my favorite musicals adapted for the “silver screen.” I loved it. Yes, it could’ve been better, but that’s not what we’re here to debate. Before the movie, there were the usual trailers and you know, Disney being Disney, they, of course, advertised some of their upcoming movies. One in particular caught my attention.
I’ll just leave this here for you to watch:
Pretty cool, right? I mean Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, and Richard Madden are among some of my favorite actors. Like, damn, that’s a cast. And, as a Cinderella fan, okay, someone who has literally seen every Disney Cinderella movie to to mention every other Cinderella movie, book, retelling, you get the point, I was freaking out over another Cinderella adaptation. Now, to be honest, Cinderella doesn’t really have a backbone. It’s not like she teaches girls to stand up for themselves or anything important like that but, hey, she’s an underdog…a poor girl who becomes a princess, what’s not to like about that?
Yet, at the same time, I freakin’ pissed. The case is 100% white. I’m going to assume straight and able-bodied, too (forgive me if I’m wrong). Wait, what, the Captain is black? (Who the heck is the Captain?) Oh, he’s Prince Charming’s friend? There’s a movie with a black friend? Haha, exactly my point.
Oh, wait, here are some more POC:
Now, because I know people, or rather, because I talk about POC/LGBT media and pop culture representation (or the lack thereof) a lot, I know what you’re thinking. What does it matter? It’s a just movie. Not to mention, it’s a universal story.
Well, let’s start with the first part of that: “What does it matter? It’s just a movie.”
I present Exhibit A.
Now, go back to the trailer and that nice image of the ballroom scene, and then look at ‘Exhibit A’.
Well, just in case, it’s the movie adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (co-produced by Disney) with an extremely diverse AND talented cast (I mean, Whitney Houston, Brandy, Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg, Bernadette Peters, and Victor Garber together, folks!). Not to mention it won one Emmy and was nominated for six others.
The movie came out in 1997, so I saw it when I was little girl, and it was my everything. Scratch all of what I said about Cinderella not having a backbone or teaching real lessons (other than just be nice and keep wishing and your dreams will come true). This Cinderella adaptation had two interracial relationships at the center of the movie, taught about the importance of finding real love, and had an older black woman mentor a younger black woman who desperately needed guidance. It was so important for me, especially at such a young age, to see a musical that handled diversity as if it wasn’t a big deal. I did musical theater through middle and high school so much so that I almost studied it in college.There are only so many famous parts out there for black girls and with this movie-musical and, now Keke Palmer as Cinderella on Broadway, Cinderella became one of those roles I aspired to play.
Nothing is ever “just a movie.” And Disney being Disney knows that. As little girls, so many of us grow up watching their movies. Everyone wants to be a freaking princess. Disney movies shape AND change lives. And when you see, but especially when you don’t see representations of yourself in something as far-reaching as a Disney movie, it does affect you.
I spent years looking through “windows.”** In other words, I read and watched stories with white girls not just as the main character but as the secondary characters, too. I became skilled at finding ways to connect with them that wasn’t on racial or cultural lines. I’m not saying that’s not okay. What I’m saying is ALL children should be able to look at “the other” and see a connection. What I lacked, however, were “mirrors” or characters who looked like me, who shared my cultural heritage. I had a couple of those growing up (aside from slave narratives or civil rights activists), but they were few and far between.
Alright, then. You might still be waiting for me to address the universality of a film, a story like Cinderella.
As I touched on earlier, everyone should have the ability to see “windows” or to find the universality in narratives that might not outwardly reflect their own. I will give you that. However, I’m also going to call your BS, if you will.
Universality, while a good thing, is often used to argue in favor of not including diversity in stories where it should be. Truly, if I wanted to, I could argue that every story should have a black, queer girl as its main character for as long as the story has universal themes (rags to riches, the importance of being kind and good, the hero’s journey, etc.) everyone can understand such a character. So, for the sake of not engaging in what would become a very circular series of arguments, I’m going to put universality in the corner for the time being and focus on something else: the real origins of Cinderella.
Now to be clear, Cinderella is a folk tale therefore no one can be sure of who truly told the FIRST Cinderella story. But it is pretty well undisputed, or universally known if you will, that origins of the European Cinderella story that Western society loves to retell every year or two, is Ancient China.
I won’t go into the details of the story, but it centers around “Yeh-Shen” a beautiful, orphan, peasant girl who has small feet. It was recorded by Tuan Ch’eng-shih during the Tang Dynasty (aka it’s really old).
It is for this reason and many others I’m tired of hearing people talk about how people of color are always complaining about not having representation in European stories like Cinderella. First, there have been POC in Europe since before the Middle Ages. Second, it’s not a European folk tale to begin with. If anything, I’d love to see Disney retell Cinderella with a cast of actors who are Chinese. Now that would be something.
The Last Airbender, Prince of Persia, Cinderella, Tiger Lily… come on, Hollywood (publishing industry & co.), this has got to stop. As a little girl, I might have sat through all of your whitewashing obliviously, but I won’t now and younger generations sure as hell don’t. Just ask my three little sisters, they’re 5, 8, and 11, and they can tell you more about the lack of black girls on TV, in movies, in the dolls they play with, and the books they read than I ever could.
We’re here, we’re aware, and this has got to stop.
*The irony of talking about the whitewashing of a movie, Cinderella, who’s trailer I first saw while watching Into The Woods (a movie-musical with a very white cast) is not lost on me.
**The metaphor of ‘Mirrors’ and ‘Windows’ when talking about diversity in children’s literature was first coined by Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emeritus of Education at The Ohio State University, in 1990.