BY MONIQUE QUINTANA
My favorite Disney film was Sleeping Beauty. That’s how I learned about romantic love. I was taken by the image of the beautiful blonde woman waiting for her prince to awaken her from a death-like sleep. My favorite part was when the prince kisses her and she opened her blue eyes and smiled, her golden hair spilling over the bed like an ethereal halo.
The first time I felt really conflicted about my love for a Disney princesses was when Beauty and the Beast came out. I adored Belle as a character because I could relate to her in so many ways. She was a bookworm, had a propensity for daydreaming, and was a daddy’s girl. I was thrilled to get a Belle nightgown for Christmas, but when I put it on, something felt very off to me. I felt uncomfortable wearing this image of a white woman on my body.
Prior to that, I could insert myself in the film, I could become that beautiful white woman twirling on the screen, but I couldn’t do it this time. With her image in the middle of myself, I could see my brown arms and legs shooting out of the gown. I could see the difference in our skin colors. I couldn’t pretend anymore.
When Aladdin came out, I a saw a new thing happening with myself and the other brown girls I knew. Our families and white people began to compare us to Jasmine. I think that they did this lovingly, possibly out of a quiet relief that we finally had a dark-skinned princess to call our own. Like us, Jasmine had dark hair and slanted eyes. She was beautiful and intelligent, and I do believe that at the time, she gave us something to aspire to. It wasn’t until many years later, when I became a feminist, did I realize how problematic she was and still is.
My intimate experience with the Disney princess films stops somewhere in the mid-nineties. I was entering junior high when Pocahontas came out. The Hunchback of Notre Dame came out a year later with it’s gypsy character, Esmeralda. Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Esmeralda exemplify the ramifications of Euro-centric standards of beauty. Now, these three characters are stunningly beautiful, but they’re depicted much differently than their wide-eyed white princess counterparts. These characters of color are exoticized in nearly every frame.
Pocahontas is a curiosity that white sailors stumble upon during their quest for land, riches, and power. Jasmine uses sexual cunning to outwit the villain, and a man of the cloth whips himself because he’s tormented by his lust for Esmeralda. Looking at these Disney films of my youth, I see that pervasive Madonna/Whore dichotomy so prevalent in Western art forms.
Now, that’s not to say these characters are completely lacking in admirable qualities, but I do see that their sexuality and temperament usually eclipses every other aspect about them. The white princesses are innocent, noble, and the kind of women who will reside happily ever after with their princes. The female characters of color are made desirable, but often at the consequence of shame for their powerful male admirers.
I have never seen the films Mulan or The Princess and the Frog. Both of these films feature young women of color as principle characters. I was a grown woman when they came out, and I stopped watching Disney princess films years ago. Last summer, Disney debuted a television show with its first Latina princess called Elena de Avelor. I don’t know what kind of impact these characters have made on young women today.
What I do know is that there are women like me, thirty something women out there, who went between watching Disney films with wonder and hope and shame and confusion and insecurity. I loved these films, but I also resent how they made me feel about my own brown body. I’m still learning how to be comfortable in it, in the slant of my eyes, and the texture of my hair. I still feel insecure about my dark complexion at times. I still envy that Euro-centric beauty that I longed for as a child. I believe that trauma and colonialism are written on our bodies and this requires healing. As a brown woman, I need to remind myself of this daily. One of my brown friends recently asked me if I thought it was a bad idea to let her daughter watch princess films. I told her no, it wasn’t. Little girls have to dream and this is one of the ways they do it, but it’s never to young to cultivate feminism, to tell her that her magick resides in the skin she was born in.
Monique Quintana is a Pocha/Chicana identified feminst bruja. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the blogazine Razorhouse and is a contributing Beauty and Fashion Editor for Luna Luna. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Huizache, Bordersenses, and the Acentos Review, among others. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from CSU Fresno and teaches English at Fresno City College. She is mother to a fourteen-year old Chicano emo son who is her greatest manifestation.