Ain’t I a Princess? Including Black Women and Girls in Fantasy and Play

Is Black Barbie “beautiful” to Black women and girls, but a “strong Black woman” to others? Does she too have to say: “Ain’t I a Barbie doll?” And about other fantasies: “Ain’t I a princess?”

It is only fitting that Netflix chose Juneteenth—now a federal holiday, thanks to the efforts of Opal Lee, a Black woman who fought for national recognition of a local holiday commemorating the emancipation of the last enslaved people of the Confederate South in Galveston, Texas—to debut the Shondaland-produced documentary film, Black Barbie. The film tells a similar story of Black women who worked at Mattel and gave us the titular doll, showcasing the joy of freedom through play.

A Black Doll’s Story

Filmed by Lagueria Davis, Black Barbie follows her personal journey in learning that her older relative, “Aunt” Beulah Mae Mitchell, worked on the assembly line at Mattel’s toy company and communicated with founder Ruth Handler on the need for a Black version of the Barbie doll that debuted in 1959. It was not until 1968 that this idea manifested into Barbie’s Black friend Christie.

By the time Mitchell moved from Mattel’s factory floor to its corporate offices, another Black woman had joined the company: Kitty Black Perkins was Mattel’s first Black designer who gave us the official Black Barbie doll, which debuted in 1980. 

This insightful film highlights the contentious history of Black dolls: From the topsy-turvy dolls created by enslaved women—dolls that flip between Black and white, which may have reflected the dual demands of Black women having to care for both white babies in their care and their own children—to Kenneth Clark’s “doll test” from the 1940s documenting Black children’s feelings of racial inferiority, which further impacted Supreme Court Justices on their ruling to strike down legal race segregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The film also depicts Mattel’s support for a Black-owned doll company, Shindana, in promoting Black dolls for Black children to build their self-esteem in the wake of the civil rights movement and the era of “Black Power” and “Black Is Beautiful.”

Some of the Black women interviewees could not contain their tears, reflecting on the pain of childhood memories of being teased for being Black, which is to say “not pretty enough” and “not good enough.” Black Barbie was simple validation that Black women could be beautiful too.

And yet, while the film shows that today’s Black children may no longer have feelings of being “ugly” or “bad,” as demonstrated during Clark’s doll experiment, they clearly understood Black Barbie wasn’t the “real Barbie,” wasn’t the “hero” of her own story. 

As a young girl, I played with Barbie dolls and distinctly remember my own excitement when I finally received my first Black Barbie doll. No longer was I reliant on the “default” fantasy of my white dolls; I now had one closer to my appearance. As a result, Black Barbie became the group leader among the other dolls and the preferred dating partner for my sole (white) Ken doll. 

Black Barbie was simple validation that Black women could be beautiful too.

I understood my positioning of Black Barbie as the desires of a young Black girl who dared to imagine Black womanhood as something to celebrate, normalize and aspire to, and I’m grateful that Mattel hired the Black women who created this product (and for Davis to tell their story through film) because they knew Black girls like me needed something or someone to inspire us toward a potential future and possibility.

But what of other girls and other creatives?

Whose Black Barbie Is This?

I think of Greta Gerwig’s billion-dollar hit movie Barbie, which tells the story of the “stereotypical Barbie” (read: “real Barbie”) existing in a pretend world that depicts Black Barbie (played by Issa Rae) as “President of Barbieland.”

What do white women see when they fantasize such leadership roles onto Black women? Is this similar to how they teared up when Oprah Winfrey gave her riveting and powerful speech about #MeToo and #TimesUp during her acceptance of the Golden Globes Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, which led to the trending hashtag #OprahWinfrey4President? 

Is this a throwback to the time in the 19th century when white feminist Frances Dana Gage placed the words “Ain’t I a Woman?” into the mouth of Sojourner Truth during a women’s rights speech in Akron, Ohio, as she imagined Truth’s “strong arms” gathering the more delicate white ladies present, uplifting them when they supposedly did not have Truth’s temerity to confront the misogynist men in the room? Is Black Barbie “beautiful” to Black women and girls but a “strong Black woman” to others? Does she too have to say: “Ain’t I a Barbie doll?”

Replacements and Displacements

As Davis emphasized in and through her film, Black Barbie deserves to be the center of her story and a hero of her own story. To that end, are we needing to ask a similar question about other fantasies:

“Ain’t I a princess?”

This question is in direct response to another planned debut later this month: The opening of Disney World’s “Tiana’s Bayou Adventure,” set to premiere June 28, 2024, at its theme parks of Magic Kingdom and, later this year, at Disneyland.

Plans for a re-imagined ride that would replace “Splash Mountain”—the popular ride based on the racially controversial 1946 film Song of the South—were already under way, but the Disney company announced its changes during the height of racial justice protests in 2020, thus launching “Tiana’s Bayou Adventure” right into the culture wars. The ride positions Princess Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess, as a “corrective” hero, not the center of her own story. 

Other Disney princesses, like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid and the sisters from Frozen already have their own rides and attractions. Why did it take 15 years for Tiana, who debuted in 2009, to have her own themed attraction, and why was it only as a replacement of a problematic narrative? 

Tiana’s film, The Princess and the Frog, is often considered a box office disappointment and is only the second favorite Disney character among Black women (who prefer the ones from The Lion King).

Perhaps because she was not as popular as other Disney princesses (not even topping Black women’s lists!), Tiana did not get heroic treatment. Indeed, her film’s performance encouraged Disney to shift from its hand-drawn animation to computer animation and avoid “princess” moniker for its next film, the regressive Tangled (2010). 

Why did it take 15 years for Tiana, who debuted in 2009, to have her own themed attraction, and why was it only as a replacement of a problematic narrative? 

Princess Problems

Departing from the can-do, strong-willed heroine who establishes an egalitarian relationship with her Prince Naveen, Tangled not only retold the Rapunzel story with all its anti-Semitic tropes, as captured in the villain Mother Gothel, but posited the very length and blondeness of Rapunzel’s hair as the ultimate symbol of beauty and magic, which was then cut off—without her consent—by the male hero Flynn.

Disney redeemed itself by removing the male hero through its next film’s focus on the two sisters Elsa and Anna in Frozen (2013).

But, as others have noted, given the origins of Elsa as the “evil snow queen” in the original Hans Christian Andersen tale, Elsa’s need to “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know/ let it go” rendered her ice-making powers potentially evil and thus, a metaphor for queerness. LGBTQ+ audiences demanded that Disney #GiveElsaaGirlfriend for its Frozen sequels. However, as Jeanna Kadlec argues, writing from an LGBTQ+ perspective about Frozen II:

But this is Disney, which means that the ending is ultimately about the preservation of the (rightful rulers of the) nation-state, and for that to happen, we need a stable, obedient body—at the very least, one that doesn’t hear voices, shoot ice out of its hands, and have no interest in procreation. A cisgender, heterosexual body. Enter: Anna, the younger sister whom Elsa has no problem giving her throne to. Anna is royal, perfectly in the line of succession, and very much about to marry a man.

The film Moana (2016), told from an Indigenous Polynesian perspective, eschews the heterosexual romance to advance the hero’s journey into saving the people she will eventually lead as the chief’s daughter. But, as Kadlec observes, “[t]he idea that Disney princesses could ever be politically progressive while simultaneously affirming their rule in absolute monarchies is, itself, wildly fraught.”

And yet, how could one not appreciate the feminist rewriting of Moana, whose final showdown with the big villain Te Ka turned into an opportunity to restore, not destroy, the goddess Te Fiti. This was an important narrative reversal of the showdown in The Little Mermaid between the queer-coded Ursula (whose animation design was inspired by drag queen Divine) and Ariel’s Prince Eric—and later, for the live-action remake, Ariel herself.

The killing of Ursula, a water dragon of sorts, echoes the ancient Babylonian tale of the killing of Tiamat, the water dragon goddess whose destruction establishes patriarchy and the rule of male gods. Remaking Ariel as a Black, dreadlocked mermaid (played by Halle Bailey in a racially controversial makeover) who can slay her own dragons without the help of her prince does not adequately reframe the underlying misogyny that suggests women who rule without a heterosexual partner become dangerous and are thus “unnatural”/queer, as expressed through the deepening of Ursula’s voice when she takes the crown from Ariel’s temporarily defeated father. 

B.A.P. (Black American Princess)

But what of Princess Tiana? In the retelling of her story, does she defy the narrative that “Disney princesses ultimately operate in the service of empire” (Kadlec 2019)?

Princess Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, 2009. (Disney)

In the original film set in 1920s New Orleans, Tiana—unlike her playmate, the white, rich and spoiled Southern belle Charlotte—has no interest in marrying princes and only reluctantly kisses a talking frog who promises to give her the money she needs to buy an old mill that she has dreams of transforming into a lavish restaurant. The plan backfires when she too becomes a frog, and she and Prince Naveen journey through the bayou in search of the Voodoo queen Mama Odie who could turn them back into human form.

Much of the criticism of the film was based on animators’ refusal to let Black characters be Black (Tiana is a frog for the majority of the film). When she is in human form, she’s constantly hard at work, with no time for music or enjoyment—something her prince has to teach her.

The film enables a romance to develop between the two frog-people, and Prince Naveen has one of the best character arcs when he transforms from a ne’er-do-well pleasure-seeker into a responsible man willing to support Tiana’s dreams rather than simply bestow her with riches and luxury.

And yet, as Rochelle Smith notes in her essay, “Wonder Tale,” this insistence on presenting Tiana in the context of real-world struggles strips the enchantment and the fantasy: “I didn’t feel that Disney let me down … But I did feel it let fairy tales down, and that, in a way, is far worse” (Smith, p. 535). 

Real Black Princesses

Disney could not even imagine how to tell a Black princess story nine years later without invoking tales of struggle and without the trope of animalizing Black people.

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, while re-imagined with the help of Black women imagineers, seems to be stuck in a prescriptive narrative for the hard-working, strong Black woman.

Smith considered the significance of Black women’s blogs circulating the wedding photo of Angela, Princess of Liechtenstein, an Afro-Panamanian fashion designer who became the first Black woman to marry into a European royal family in 2000 and whose bridal dress some viewed as inspiration for the bridal gown of mixed-race Meghan Markle, who married into the British royal family 18 years later.

That the unambiguously Black Princess Angela married a prince 11 years her junior, just shy of her 42 birthday, without any fanfare from the English-speaking media propels her narrative toward fable-like status. The narrative is so understated, so unknown, that Disney could not even imagine how to tell a Black princess story nine years later without invoking tales of struggle and without the trope of animalizing Black people.

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure largely focuses on her alligator sidekick, Louis, working with her to form a jazz band of various animal critters in the bayou, which simply replaces the animals who comprised the story of Splash mountain, culturally appropriated from African American folktales of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox. 

Where is Prince Naveen whose love of jazz should propel this story? Do they have children? Why are visitors, while on queue, treated to a “Tiana’s Foods” storage display of the various spices and ingredients used for her restaurant? Is this re-branding of Princess Tiana a different version of Disneyland’s “Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House” from the 1950s, or will it challenge stereotypes of Black women’s servitude through her leadership over a community-based food co-op? Whatever the intention, this narrative seems to emphasize our girl is still hard at work, despite her “princess” status.

Slay, Queen! Beyond Disney Princesses

As Black women, we have always imagined ourselves as queens more than we have seen ourselves as princesses. Still, what would it mean for Tiana to say, ‘And ain’t I a princess?’

I am reminded of Beyoncé who, while working with Disney as she voiced the lioness Nala for its 2019 photo-realist remake of The Lion King, learned of the unjust history of South African singer Solomon Linda. Linda only received $2 U.S. dollars for recording “Mbube” (lion), which became the chart-topping hit song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” that Disney earned $15 million for when including it in The Lion King.

From this, Beyonce’s Black Is King was born, which includes the original recording of “Mbube,” heard during a segment featuring the song “Mood 4 Eva,” and a glorious feature of African people bedecked in their best finery on the grounds of a luxurious estate.

My favorite scene highlights Black women elaborately dressed while sipping tea in a garden that features a peacock, the symbol of Oshun, the orisha Beyoncé channeled for this vision of Black beauty, wealth and bounty. Beyoncé’s vision insisted that this is what Disney’s $15 million looks like when redistributed to the talent that built its empire—this is what it looks like to see African people beyond their animalization and in their full humanity, slaying as queens!

As Black women, we have always imagined ourselves as queens more than we have seen ourselves as princesses. Still, what would it mean for Tiana to say, “And ain’t I a princess?” Instead of sacks of flour and sugar, what if visitors to her new ride queued up for a vision of her palace—not the restaurant of her dreams, which opened in Disneyland last year, but her living quarters—as enchanted as the magic of Mama Odie’s bottle tree, steeped in ancestral memories beyond enslavement and struggle?

It is not enough for Black women and girls to enter fantasy and play as “corrective” heroes. While we are as indebted to the Black women imagineers who worked on the new ride as we are to the Black women at Mattel for giving us Black Barbie, we are equally in need of imaginations that transcend our limited realities and revel in our most whimsical dreams.

At least the ride ends with an elaborate Mardi Gras party that Tiana hosts, but we would love to see her as comfortable in her princess status as Br’er Rabbit in his briar patch.

Up next:

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.