Ana's Note: This was written prior to my back surgery (thus, the references to my 'upcoming' surgical stay), but is only now being posted. Apologies in advance for any confusion.
I nearly cried in the middle of the Disney store today.
I'd had some time to waste, as I was cooling my heels between appointments, and decided to make my yearly visit to the local mall. After exhausting the opportunities available in the Zany Headband store (I am determined to be eccentric during my post-surgery hospital stay and it's the only way I can really "change clothes" and feel fresh and new in the mornings) and in the Used Games That Are More Expensive Than New On Amazon So How Is The Used Game Market Killing The Industry Again store, that left the Disney store and I've had Disney on my mind lately so in I went.
And, right there, right at the front, was Merida.
Pixar's first female protagonist. The first "Disney Princess" (Merida may or may not be added to the Disney Princess pantheon, but she's a Princess and she's sold in the Disney store, so I'm counting her) with unambiguously curly hair.
And not just curly hair -- frizzy hair!
It's hard to describe just how much that means to me. In a recent post on Narnia, we discussed "Good Hair" and "Bad Hair" and how people of color face daily discrimination for not conforming to the white-centric American "Standard of Beauty". I didn't want to make that post a "racism hurts white people too!" post, because that was Not The Point, but now that we're on the subject of why Merida's very existence brings tears to my eyes, it's worth pointing out that she's a white girl with Very Bad Hair indeed.
Merida doesn't have smooth, silken ringlets. She doesn't have curls that tumble gently down her back. She doesn't look like she's stepped out of a Pantene ProV commercial. She has curly hair that juts high up on her head and is surrounded by an impenetrable layer of frizz. She has the kind of curly hair you can lose a pencil in. She has my hair, the hair that got me bullied and teased to tears for the better part of the first two decades of my life, the hair that I fight with daily in an attempt to tame it into something presentable. And she looks BEAUTIFUL.
Merida is the first Disney princess with frizzy hair. A decade ago, Snow White was the usual go-to for "ambiguously curly". More recently, curly girls have looked to Tiana ("The Princess and The Frog") for inspiration. Indeed, those hopes were pinned on Tiana even before the movie was released; Bonnie Rochman wrote in anticipation of the film:
Recently, my 4-year-old came downstairs clutching in her hands her severed blond ringlets. Why did she cut off her corkscrew curls? "Because no princesses have curly hair," she said.
I was astonished, though I probably shouldn't have been. She'd been complaining for a while that no Disney princesses have curly hair like hers. We even went so far as to seek out a ringletted royal online, where we discovered we aren't the only family that has detected anticurl prejudice. A thread on Yahoo! Answers asks, "How come no Disney Princess has curly hair?" YouTube led us to Princess Giselle, as portrayed by Amy Adams in Disney's half-animated Enchanted, but my daughter roundly dismissed Adams' gorgeously coiled tresses because the princess she plays has barely a hint of curl whenever she inhabits her cartoon self. My daughter's takeaway: in the fantasy realm that is Disney's raison d'être, straight hair is the stuff of dreams.
But now Disney is setting the record, um, straight, with its release of The Princess and the Frog. The protagonist, Tiana, is Disney's first black princess — and she's got curly hair. Although Tiana's skin color is generating far more buzz than her hairstyle, it would be a mistake to overlook the significance of her coif. There are plenty of black women who spend tons of time, energy and money straightening their hair — including the U.S.'s much imitated First Lady. Disney easily could have bestowed smooth tresses on Tiana, yet it didn't.
But Tiana's curly hair was largely hidden away through the film -- when she's not a hairless frog, her hair is usually pulled back in lovely up-dos that hide all but a few strategically-escaped ringlets that never seem to swell or puff up in the heat, no matter how humid New Orleans nights may be.
And that's okay. Tiana didn't need to break every Disney record at once. In fact, a major problem with tokenism is the idea that once it's been done once, we can stop. We've got one black Disney princess, so why would we need another one? We've got one Native American Disney princess, so let's stop there. And now we've got one frizzy haired Disney princess, so do we really need more?
Yes, Disney, please give us more. Give us a hundred varieties of women, in all different shapes and sizes. Give us curly protagonists, fat protagonists, POC protagonists of every possible shade and hue, protagonists with disabilities that aren't magicked away in the final moments of the film. Give us princesses who are girly and princesses who are tomboys and princesses who are a little of both. Protagonists who study hard and change the world and protagonists who have fun with lipsticks and nylons and making friends. You're really trying to fill out the pantheon and I love that you are -- just don't call it a day once you have a set of each type. Variety is the best, maybe the only, way to avoid stereotypes and unfortunate implications and tokenism.
I was moved near to weeping in the Disney store because there Merida was, in all her glory. Back straight, bow poised, cape flaring, eyes confident, and curly hair ablaze. Never in my lifetime did I imagine we'd have a frizzy-haired princess; never did I think the masterminds in Hollywood would realize that confidence and character are what I find beautiful, and not so much golden tresses and a very specific waist-to-hip ratio. But what really moved me was there, next to the Merida doll, was a "Merida wig" for little girls to play dress-up in and wear on Halloween.
I'm not unaware that the Disney dress-up line carries the potential for harming girls' self-image. I'm not unaware that the very concept of the Disney princesses -- of which there has yet to be an unapologetically fat or considered-by-America-standards-of-beauty-to-be "ugly" member -- can hurt girls' self-esteem and body image. I'm not trying to wipe all that away here in my CURLY GIRL OMG squee.
But if we must have Disney princesses and if we must have dress-up and if we must have Halloween costumes and if we must have All These Things…
…it makes a deep part of my soul happy that now curly hair, frizzy hair, hair like mine is considered to be something worth emulating as something Beautiful, Valuable, and Desirable.
I am privileged enough to not face daily racism; the color of my skin marks me in my society as acceptable. I am fortunate enough to no longer face daily bullying; the texture of my hair has been remarked on less since I left school to join a professional environment. I am wealthy enough to afford the plethora of specialized hair care products necessary to bring my stubborn, obstinate, terribly frizzy hair into some semblance of soft curls. I have learned not to roll my eyes when well-meaning people with board-straight hair exclaim how EASY my hair must be, "just style and go!" I have realized that beauty standards are designed so that no one can win: the Curly Girls must buy straighteners, the Straight Girls must buy hot rollers, and ideally we will all buy ALL THE THINGS -- straighteners and then curlers and then straighteners -- because otherwise the world would stop spinning and WE CAN'T HAVE THAT, NOW CAN WE, LADIES?
So this isn't a post about how hard it is to be me, because it's (relatively speaking) not.
It's a post about how much easier it is now that Merida exists.
I haven't seen "Brave". I hope it will rock; I'm terribly afraid it may not. We'll see. But even if the movie is dreadful, it has accomplished at least one valuable thing: it's provided one more Disney princess as a point of normalization for thousands of little girls. We need more points, so many more points, of every size, color, facial structure, and body shape. Because each one of these data points, when added to the overall picture, can serve to reinforce the absolutely necessary message that it's Okay To Be You.
And today -- for at least a few hours after leaving the Disney store -- I really felt like it was okay to have my hair. And that felt exhilarating.
Note: Melissa McEwan at Shakesville has another take on the Merida wig based on the appropriation of red-hair rather than the normalization of curly-hair. I think her post -- which I hadn't seen until after mine went up -- is thoughtful and valid and raises serious concerns about marginalization and appropriation. I leave my original post here to demonstrate the intersectional issues that arise when one person's perceived normalization can be another person's genuine appropriation, and because I in no way wish to validate any appropriative messages contained in Brave.