'The Dreaded Disney Princess: The Emergence of Black Representation' / Michelle Mashuro

'The Dreaded Disney Princess: The Emergence of Black Representation' / Michelle Mashuro

Being a ‘blerd’ means being stuck in the intersection of blackness and nerdiness. You’re often not allowed to enjoy both because, when you take on one, you are forced to question how you belong to the other. Say you like anime, someone will say, “Avatar the Last Airbender doesn’t count”. If you say that you like horror, someone else will ask you to name all the original Friday the 13th cinematic releases. They do this just to prove a non-existent point about how this isn’t for people like you

When you’re stuck in the confines of an existence that is continually critiqued, you develop a shell of insecurity and self-doubt that manifest in a belief that you are lesser. Your blackness is lesser than others and your nerdiness is not as valid. 

Growing up while having your identity pushed aside and made to feel redundant creates a longing for representation. Any amount that you can get. Regardless of accuracy or positive portrayal. It doesn’t even have to be a multi-dimensional character with attributes that extend past mere tokenism. You are just happy that someone on-screen LOOKS LIKE YOU. Or at least, looks like the people that you know. It’s a cinematic nod that approves people like you enjoying these things because there are people like you in them.

Representation in mass entertainment media isn’t a new discussion, however, it is one worth having until we feel accurately represented. It isn’t a dialogue of being ‘overly PC’ and stuffing ‘PC nonsense’ into our faces everywhere we look, it’s deeper than that. It’s erasure and racism blanketed by factless ideas like ‘movies with female leads don’t sell and minorities are less favoured’. Star Wars opening weekend would beg to differ. This conversation is worth having because it speaks to tell media organisations that they have to do better and be better.

I remember being in middle school, which was predominantly white, and having conversations about our favourite musicians, shows and all the things that now spark nostalgia. I remember being asked what my favourite show was, and my response would always be That So Raven, The Proud Family and My Wife andKids. My friends would always be clueless to those shows and their favourites were Lizzie Maguire and iCarly—shows I knew but couldn’t identify with. So, I watched their shows and we talked about them, then I watched mine, but we never talked about them. 

My friends couldn’t understand why I liked those shows or found them funny. At the time I didn’t have the vocabulary to fully express what they meant to me, why I felt at ease when I watched. I could only say, ‘well I like it because it has black people’, which is itself a valid reason. But, now that I’m older, I understand why those shows meant so much to me. Those shows allowed me to see myself on screen. I saw characters that resembled people in my life. I saw cultural similarities and complexities that I hadn’t fully begun to understand the importance of.

We can argue the importance of representation, all-black cast and crew within woke liberal circles. But, as we all know, these discussions need to take place elsewhere. The idea of representation and profiting off nerd culture has been co-opted by big companies. Take, for example, Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) rolling out Phase 4 and 5 movies, a large portion now led by women, black and people of colour (PoC), which has people asking, why they are only deciding to do this now? Media companies know films with black or PoC leads makes money, they know how much we crave to see our people on screen and what it means for us, they know we’ll pay to watch it because our people deserve their coins. This doesn’t undermine the crew of talented professionals that go into the craft, but it’s evidence of how the landscape is evolving. It’s evolving because mediocre efforts of representation are no longer tolerated. 

Recently, Disney, our problematic favourite, decided to cast a black Ariel with dreads. The multitalented Halle Baily, the younger sister in the musical duo Chloe x Halle, will play the iconic red-haired mermaid. The Little Mermaid is the story of a fourteen-year-old mermaid who gives up her voice and her family to be with a significantly older man. In the Hans Christian Anderson version, it is said that she will feel a stabbing pain when she attempts to sing and the pain of knives whenever she walks on those beautiful legs of hers. Oh yes, and The Little Mermaid is white in both the original story and the animated version. 

The story takes place in the Caribbean Sea in the made-up city of Atlantis, so race plays no significant part in the storytelling of The Little Mermaid. Meaning that her skin colour can be changed without any repercussions to the narrative.  Yet, there is commotion surrounding the casting of Ariel, whether it’s mere tokenism to profit of the black dollar or valid acts of representation.

Young black girls and boys will stare longingly onto the silver screen, seeing a character that looks like them. They get to experience what their white counterparts have felt all along. This isn’t just the story of Ariel, it’s the story of black Starfire in Titans, black MJ in Spider-Man and black Iris West Allen in The Flash. I’ve scrolled through Twitter long enough with people attempting to come up with counter-arguments like ‘what if we made Tiana from The Princess and the Frog black?’, I could come up with several reasons as to how that doesn’t fit the cultural narrative of a young black woman struggling to run a small business and face cultural adversity in 1920s New Orleans. Instead, I’ll just say that whiteness as a concept, and not just a group of people, have had their chance of writing the black narrative and continue to do so. Whiteness has suppressed our blackness by reducing us to stereotypes that affect us in the real world not just as tropes on screen. Whiteness has used blackface to limit our existence to just a few features. Though stereotyping and blackface may seem like events of the past they still continue to happen. Until our blackness is not limited to the box which whiteness put us in, no, you cannot make Tiana white.

The long-overdue conversations about representation invite, and accept, black people into fandoms that we have long been forced to watch from the sidelines. In addition, we can create our own fandoms, having the freedom and space to do so. It’s our opportunity to be weird, to be alternative and to be our own definition of black. I personally love my blackness, my nerdiness and being a blerd, but it took me a long time to get there. It took time to realise that one does not invalidate the other. This type of self-love is only achieved if we continue to have the conversation about why seeing all different types of black people on screen, in books, in plays in all forms of media is so important. Especially in the black diaspora. Representation isn’t just black Hermione fan art; it’s putting that into practice. It’s holding media to account and calling them out when they’re doing a bad job. It’s calling out racist commentary of black casting in popular culture. Western entertainment industries have done a magnificent job from profiting off the black dollar and tokenising our existence in their art. Now we’re simply redefining Hollywood’s perception of us by going centre stage. From one blerd to another, in the words of Solange, “this shit is for us”.

 Image: Michelle Mashuro.

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