The Eurocentricity of Disney

I recently saw a post on Facebook linking to this debate over Disney princess ethnicity representations. The image is of four princesses (and one queen), the most recent four: Rapunzel, Anna, Merida, and Elsa:

A commenter notes that all four are white.

The response to this comment is pretty brutal:

“Rapunzel is a German story. do you want to know what color the people in Germany are?” The argument goes on to say that Frozen is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, who happens to be Danish, and that Brave takes place in Ireland. And guess what color Irish and Danish people are.

Apparently, “there are plenty of ethnic disney ladies,” who are ethnic “because it makes sense with the story.”

And finally, the claim that “DISNEY DOES NOT WHITEWASH” because whitewashing would be making Jasmine blonde and naming her Jessica.

Please. First of all, get your facts right. Brave takes place in Scotland, not Ireland. It may not make a difference for the point being made, but your argument is not going to hold much weight if you don’t at least fact check.

Now, most people who have known me more than five seconds know that I love Disney. I will cry during scenes I have watched a million times. I will cry while replaying those scenes in my head. I am a die-hard Disney fan, and I will defend the cheesey world-through-rose-colored-glasses outlook forever. But even I can admit that Disney is way too white. (The original comment was not claiming that Disney “whitewashes,” only that there are a whole lot of white princesses.)

Tiana is mentioned as one of Disney’s “ethnic” princesses who is ethnic “because it makes sense with the story.” Well yes, Tiana is a waitress in 1920s New Orleans. But she didn’t have to be. “The Frog Prince,” on which The Princess and the Frog is based, happens to be a Brothers Grimm story, just like “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and “Rapunzel.” So the one and only black Disney princess is from a German fairy tale.

Some might say that this is a point in Disney’s favor. They didn’t have to make this princess African American, but they’re so all-inclusive that they did anyway. In fact, they changed the story around – just little details like the setting and the presence of voodoo – so that a black princess could fit in.

Except, that’s a little patronizing, isn’t it? It’s like saying that a black princess wouldn’t make sense unless the entire story is rewritten for her. None of the white princesses need their stories rewritten for them to fit in. This automatically sets Tiana apart as the “other.”

Why not just find a traditional African fairy tale and make that into your next princess movie? Just about every culture has an oral story tradition. Disney is just too ethnocentric to look for anything but Eurocentric stories.

(To be fair, Mulan was based on a Chinese legend. But that movie was not entirely commendable in their representation. I mean, c’mon, the Chinese women were dressed as Japanese geishas. Because, you know, all Asian countries are the same.)

The fact that Disney took a German fairy tale and changed it around so they could finally add a black princess to their cast begs the question: Why? Did they do it so that the little girls belonging to one of the largest minority groups in America could have a role model? Or did they do it to get people to stop complaining about their white princesses? Obviously I can’t say for sure one way or the other. But let’s take a look at the timeline:

In between the princesses shown here, we also have Esmeralda (1996). So we have five white princesses of indeterminate nationality (except Belle is definitely French), then one Middle Eastern princess, one Native American princess, one Roma (gypsy) princess, one Chinese princess, one African American princess, and then it’s as if Disney said, “Okay, that should get ‘em off our back,” and we get four white princesses in three movies, all in a row.

As for the claim that “there are plenty of ethnic disney ladies,” the answer is a big fat “no.”

“Ethnic” is not a nationality, race, or culture. When you discuss “ethnic” princesses as a group, you’re lumping together a bunch of women from very different cultures. For example, even though you may call both Pocahontas and Tiana “ethnic,” and even though both live in the same country (although it was not its own country during Pocahontas), the life and experiences of a pre-colonial Native American woman is very different from those of a 1920s African American woman. Hell, the life and experiences of Pocahontas were vastly different from those of women who were native to almost any other part of what is now the United States of America. And yet, in the eyes of little girls, Pocahontas now represents all Native American women, even those who were at war with Pocahontas’ tribe before English settlers showed up.

The biggest issue here is that little girls need to see examples of women that they can grow up to be. When Halloween rolls around, girls with white skin have a lot of options if they want to dress up like a Disney princess. Even just red-headed girls now have Cinderella, Ariel, Merida, and now Anna. Blondes have Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and now Elsa. Brunettes have Snow White and Belle. But little girls of Native American descent only have Pocahontas, who is only one example from only one Native American tribe.

Of course, this isn’t about kids’ options in Halloween costumes. It’s about having positive examples in which you can see yourself. White little girls have a lot of those examples. (Not as many examples as white little boys, but certainly more than any American minority of either gender has.)

Disney should never be considered to have “plenty” of “ethnic” princesses, because once you say that it’s like you’re saying you’re done trying to be diverse.

What would you rather see:

another “new” version of a fairy tale you’ve known your whole life (because even if you’re not white, as long as you went to school in America, you probably know these fairy tales) or

a truly new story you’ve never heard before, a story whose ending can still surprise you, whether that story takes place in ancient Hawai’i, India, Russia, North America, South America, Africa, etc.?

For my answer, I’ll refer you to Barney Stinson, who is not always right, but certainly has a fair case in this particular instance:

Happy Father’s Day!

This past week I’ve been pretty busy, getting ready for Father’s Day. So my post today is just going to be a quickie – a short excerpt from Finding ‘Ohana inspired by my own memories of my dad:

 

When I first landed on O’ahu, I missed Dad. I never told him. Lucas and I had chosen to come to Hawai’i for college because it was the furthest we could get from our hometown without fleeing the country. (Lucas missed his parents, but saw the trip as a rite of passage. I, on the other hand, wanted to get away from the church and those in it as much as I wanted to get out of that town.) The added bonus was the paradise aspect of the island. When we got off the plane, our first stop was the beach. As soon as our feet touched sand, we dropped our enormous suitcases that would get us through the semester, and ran for the waves. We had worn our swimsuits under our clothing for hours and hours, just for that moment.

I was surprised by how warm the water was. Of course I knew the air was warm in Hawai’i, but I thought all bodies of water were inherently cold, no matter what part of the world they were in. The next thing I knew, I was neck-deep in salt water. I floated with the waves, letting them wash away my exhaustion from the flight. One went higher than I expected, and I found myself sputtering the salt out of my mouth.

I was instantly brought back to our family trip to Florida. I could not have been more than eight years old. Billy was just a toddler, playing in the sand with Mom while Dad took me out past where I could touch the ocean floor. He held me above the waves, swinging me in and out of them as they swelled around us. I was scared to be where I could not reach, where I had no control, but I trusted my dad. He laughed at my joyful screams. It was one of my happiest memories of him, probably because I was still innocent – the part of me he could not accept had not emerged yet.

I had not had the taste of salt water in my mouth and nose since then. Not until I was in another ocean, thousands of miles away.

Comic Relief

I’ve been wondering lately if there’s a lack of interest in Finding ‘Ohana because of the heavy subject matter.

I mean, have you ever been in a bookstore and read the back cover of a book that sounds great, but you didn’t buy it because it sounded a little depressing? For example, a book that deals with death, and an identity crisis, and parents disowning their only daughter because she’s a lesbian?

If I’m completely honest, I’d say that upon seeing such a book I might not buy it. Maybe it’s because I get a little too emotionally invested in fiction. It feels real to me – possibly because I know that no matter how far-fetched the story, it most likely has happened to somebody.

But maybe the fact that it has happened to real people is exactly the reason why it should be out there. People should know what the reality is. Ignorance is only bliss for the people who don’t have to live with the consequences.

And if an agent or a publisher could just read Finding ‘Ohana through to the end, they would know that it’s actually quite uplifting and inspiring. All the trials Cinnamin goes through only make her story more beautiful when she comes out of it a stronger person.

 

(I could go into more detail here, but I truly hate spoilers. If any of my blog audience has read Finding ‘Ohana in full, please leave me a comment and let me know whether or not the end of the book made the journey worth it for you.)

 

 

Now, don’t get me wrong, Finding ‘Ohana is not all doom & gloom until the last page. It does show happier times in Cinnamin’s life, with Naali as well as with family and friends. And Finding ‘Ohana does have a few humorous moments too, they’re just not what I would call laugh-out-loud funny.

So here’s my question for all you readers out there: Do you need comic relief in a book in order to enjoy it, especially when the book deals with heavy subject matter? Or do you think that some books need to be serious?

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

This is the third blog post I’ve started in the last week, and it’s taken me three days to finish it.

The first one I started never got posted because I decided the writing was terrible, and no one should ever be subjected to reading it. Besides, what kind of writing blog would this be if the writing I posted was terrible? Of course, then I starting thinking that maybe it’s not just the writing that’s terrible, maybe it’s the writer. And that’s always a fun road to travel down.

The second one I started never got posted because I just couldn’t find the motivation. I left my laptop open and went to bed for an hour or two before finally coming back out of the bedroom for dinner.

 

So why have I been so depressed lately that I can’t even get a couple short paragraphs posted to my blog? Postpartum depression.

There was a problem with my medication refill and I went almost a week without it. It hasn’t been as bad as it was during the first six weeks after the birth, but I could tell that my head wasn’t right. (These were the words I used when my husband found me lying in bed, staring into space).

Like all forms of depression, and mental illness in general, PPD is kind of taboo in our culture. “Woah, don’t tell me you’re depressed! That’s a little too personal.” The problem with this is that people don’t know how to handle it when it happens, either to themselves or to someone they know.

Since I’ve always struggled with depression, I expected to experience PPD, and I paid attention when I found information and resources on it.

Yes, it is still taboo to talk about postpartum depression (and all mental illness), but there are people out there who are trying to minimize that taboo so that those who need support can get it. Hopefully this blog post will add to that.

Today I’d like to share a beautiful story I stumbled upon during the third trimester of my pregnancy. The truthfulness in the writing, along with a few similarities to my own situation, made me feel more prepared. Of course, nothing can fully prepare you for postpartum depression. As much as I told myself that it was hormones and chemical imbalances that made me feel the way I did, I just could not shake it on my own.

Still, this story helped. Maybe because I felt connected to the mothers in it, knowing that there are so many more like us out there going through similar things. Maybe because it was cathartic to read someone else having a sympathetic point of view. Maybe because the end showed the light at the end of the tunnel, even though during my worst days that tunnel seemed so long that I could not even see the end in the distance.

In any case, it’s a beautiful story. I wholeheartedly recommend reading it, even if you’ve never experienced depression, or known anyone who has (that you know of, at least). And if you have your own story, share it! Here in the comments, and anywhere else that will let you. You never know who might benefit from it.

 

CHANNEL B

BY 

November 9th, 2012

ChannelB_Daly_2

For the first few months after my son was born, I called him The Baby, or sometimes just Him with a capital H, huge proper nouns to illustrate how completely he took over my life. Is he eating, not eating? Pooping, not pooping? What color is the poop, how long ago was the poop, did I mark the poop on the spreadsheet? I had spreadsheets. I had stuff — white noise CDs and magnetic blocks and this super high-tech video monitor with a remote wireless screen and night vision, which made The Baby glow electric green in the dark like he was a CIA target. It was a little unnerving, actually. It had two frequencies, an A channel and a B channel, in case you had two kids in separate rooms, and what’s interesting about this is that one of my neighbors must have owned this same monitor, because on channel A, I saw my baby, and on channel B, I saw someone else’s.

And if I could see someone else’s, then someone else could see mine.

We live in a third-floor walk-up in Uptown surrounded by other third-floor walk-ups. Jumping onto a neighbor’s Wi-Fi signal isn’t much of a stretch, so perhaps the fact that I could toggle between babies shouldn’t have been a surprise. But it was. It was huge. I was obsessed. On one hand, it was totally creepy—stalking, even—but on the other? It was sort of magical, like walkie-talkies and CB radios when you’re a kid: connecting with someone across the void, adding your voice to the collective unconscious, feeling less alone in this crazy world, and who knows who might be listening?

Who knows who’s in that Uptown condo on channel B?

A baby, to be sure, but it wasn’t the baby I was obsessed with.

It was the mother.

My imagination went wild when I thought of the mother. Did she sit there, watching my kid in the dark? Did she question his bedtime? Wonder where I got his pajamas? How might she react if I left a sign in his crib that read: STOP LOOKING AT MY BABY, YOU DIRTY VOYEUR!

Or this one: YAY NEW FRIENDS! DO YOU WANT TO MEET UP AT THE PARK?
 Or the truth: I AM TERRIFIED. I AM SO TERRIFIED THAT SOMETIMES I CAN’T EVEN BREATHE.

 ***

Any winter in Chicago is a force to be reckoned with, but 2008 was particularly awful. The Baby was born three weeks early, middle of the night, middle of a snowstorm. My poor husband had to dig out our buried car, shovel the alley, and navigate Lakeshore Drive through a whiteout blizzard, and that relentless, pounding snow stayed through January, February, March, and into April. I’d taken those months off from work, and my husband, a web designer, had picked up extra projects to cover the difference, so for the most part, The Baby and I were alone in our tiny Uptown condo, beyond which, in my mind, was the ice planet of Hoth. Remember Planet Hoth? From The Empire Strikes Back? Luke almost freezes to death, but Han Solo pushes him inside a dead tauntaun for body warmth? That Hoth.

I joke about it now, but here’s the truth: I was scared to go outside. The Baby might freeze. I was scared to fall asleep. He might suffocate. I was scared he wasn’t eating, wasn’t latching, wasn’t gaining, wasn’t doing what the books had said he would do, and every morning, when I looked in the mirror, I wondered who that girl was looking back. We all have things about ourselves that we know to be true, and suddenly, I couldn’t remember any of them. I was unbrushed, unwashed, wearing the same yoga pants and empire-waist shirt every day. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t feed my kid. At the time, my understanding of postpartum depression was primarily shaped by Brooke Shields’s memoir Down Came the Rain: crippling depression, suicidal thoughts. But since what I was experiencing seemed heavy, but not that heavy; dark, but not really that dark; scary, but not, you know, like that—it didn’t occur to me to ask for help. I mean, I wasn’t going to hurt my kid. I wasn’t going to hurt myself. Right?

Now, four years later, I know that the symptoms and intensity of PPD are as varied as the flowers in a greenhouse. I wish I’d told someone. I didn’t need to feel that alone: just me in the frozen Chicago winter with my tiny, fragile baby. And channel B. Whenever The Baby would fall asleep, I’d stare at his Day-Glo body on the monitor, making sure he wasn’t choking—or levitating or exploding or whatever horrible thing I’d imagine—and then, assured of his safety, I’d flip the channel to see how that other mother was doing. I bet her kid was eating. I bet shechanged clothes occasionally. I bet, for her, snow wasn’t a terrifying apocalypse but rather a Hallmark-like sprinkling of picturesque flakes—”Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” if you will. And yes, I know, it was completely intrusive and unethical and above all, ridiculous. Why was I comparing myself to this woman? I never even saw her! Mostly, there was just an empty crib. Sometimes there was a baby, wiggling and doing baby things, but the mother was a total nonentity. Until one night, I flipped over to channel B and heard crying. Not from the baby—he was fast asleep, an angel—but somewhere in his room, a woman was sobbing: heavy, gaspy, gulpy sobs.

They went on. They went on and on. I shouldn’t have listened. But it was the first time since my son was born that I didn’t feel alone.

 ***

What finally changed things was this: spring. Birds! Green things! Grilling on the porch! Frozen blender drinks! Short skirts! Outdoor seating! SPF! Lemonade! Which you can get any time of year, but it tastes better in the sunshine! Sunshine! My God, how desperately I’d needed it! I’d wager most Chicagoans feel this way in spring, but for me, May 2008 was a godsend, a great, mammoth hand reaching down out of the clouds and pulling me to my feet.

That May, The Baby became Caleb, smiling, laughing, responding, four months old and learning about the world outside my lap. I’d strap him in a backpack and walk through Uptown—Broadway to Argyle, down to the beach and back up Montrose—finding magic in everyday things. Plastic grocery bags? Amazing. Tapping a glass with a spoon? Kick-ass! Water in a dish? Fun for hours! One morning he reached for a yellow street-cleaning sign stapled to a tree, and all at once I saw yellow as if I’d been blind to it for years: Brake lights! Parking lanes! Flowers in the neighbors’ yard! Taxis! More taxis!

And in that moment, we passed a woman with a stroller. She was pretty, early thirties, wearing yoga pants and a yellow empire-waist shirt. She looked nice. And tired. And interesting, like there were all sorts of secret things about her that were set on pause for the time being. She looked like how I saw myself. We nodded at each other in solidarity. This, I had newly discovered, is the way moms do it: acknowledging the fact that even though you don’t know each other, you’re still a part of this great cosmic team. And then you check out each other’s kids. Hers was grabbing his toes in the stroller—so sweet. So adorable. So… familiar, and not in that All Babies Are Alike sort of way. I looked closer: yes, I knew this kid, and suddenly I saw him not face-to-face on Lawrence Avenue, but electric green on a tiny, hand-held screen.

I looked back at the mother. “You know—“ I started, then stopped, ’cause, really, what would I have said? STOP LOOKING AT MY BABY? YOU WANT TO MEET UP AT THE PARK? How’s about the truth: YOU HELPED SAVE ME.

“Your baby is beautiful,” she said.

“So’s yours,” I said.

We stood there.

We stood there long past what is appropriate for strangers. I like to think it’s because she was thinking the same thing I was. That maybe she, too, had flipped channels in the middle of the night, trying to connect with someone across the void or feel less alone in this crazy world. Maybe she’d overheard me crying in Caleb’s bedroom, months ago when everything still seemed so cold, so impossible.

“How are you?” I asked her. I wasn’t just saying it. I really, really wanted to know.

She smiled. “I’m getting better.”

“Me too,” I said. “I’m getting better.”

It was something about myself that I knew was true.

***

Rumpus original art by Annie Daly.

A Writer’s Responsibility

The main thing I decided to change in this most recent revision of Finding ‘Ohana is the way that Naali dies. This actually happens to be one of the changes that my creative writing professor, Susan Palwick, recommended when she read the short story that was the beginning of my Finding ‘Ohana journey.

“Very few women die in childbirth today,” she told me. “It would be much more believable if you had her die in a car accident or because of a brain aneurysm.”

At the time, I was not ready to make that change. I was a young and inexperienced writer, and I wanted the drama. So I added a heart condition to Naali’s character and left it at that.

In the past two years or so I’ve become interested in natural childbirth, and my original cause of death for Naali started bothering me more and more.

As much as popular culture would have us believe otherwise, labor and birth are not scary. Or rather, they don’t have to be. Many women grow up seeing horror stories of labor in the media, and therefore approach their own birth experience from a standpoint of fear.

Fear then disrupts the woman’s ability to manage her pain. The pain becomes overwhelming, and adds to the fear, causing a cycle that is difficult to overcome.

But if we can approach labor and birth knowing that it is a natural and beautiful process, we can manage our pain on our own, without medication, and rise above it.

 

My own labor and birth three and a half months ago only solidified my believe that natural labor is not scary. I knew how to manage my pain. I swayed, I sang, I leaned on my husband and listened to him telling me that I was strong.

There were things about my son’s birth that I certainly wish had been different. But they all happened once we got to the hospital, once we had medical interventions. The part of my labor that was natural, when I was at home with my husband and my midwife, was exactly as it should be.

 

I hold very strongly to the belief that as writers, we have a responsibility to present our readers with positive messages. Actually, this is true of all artists. We cannot in good conscience produce art that will perpetuate negative ideas. We need to constantly analyze our own work to ensure that whatever messages it has are ones that we can wholeheartedly support.

I do not want to add one more negative birth story to the world. My novel will no longer include a character dying in childbirth. Finding ‘Ohana is not about birth, it’s about death and mourning, identity, family. So as much as I would love to include a positive birth story, it will have to wait for a future work. For now, at least this novel will only reflect beliefs that I am proud to hold.

 

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!

Well, it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted. This is mainly because… I had a baby! It’s been an amazing journey so far, and it’s far from over. But things have settled down a bit, so I’m going to try to get back into writing, editing, and posting here.

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to make more changes to Finding ‘Ohana before sending out query letters again. I put it off due to my focus being on other things. More important things, yes, but still.

 

Life requires balance. So along with taking care of my beautiful baby boy, I want to continue to pursue my love of writing. So here I am.

 

 

This week, I finally started making those changes I’ve been wanting to make for the past year or so. What made me finally just do it? I saw a link on Facebook to a bunch of inspiring Walt Disney quotes. (In case you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a pretty big fan of Disney.) While some of them are not my cup of tea,

a couple were exactly what I needed to start a fire under me. I started on my edits that day, and I’m still going strong!

 

I’m beginning to think I’ll never really be finished with Finding ‘Ohana. I’ll either get it published, or I’ll keep tweaking it until I grow old & die. Then maybe it’ll get published posthumously! Here’s hoping!

Why

In his first published book, Nicholas Sparks wrote that it’s not the whats and hows and wheres that matter in life, it’s the whys.

While Nicholas Sparks’ writing certainly has its faults (which I won’t go on and on and on and on… and on… about right now), this quote has always stuck with me. Focus on the whys in life, and life will be simpler, happier, and less stressful.

While reading through some old blog posts, I was reminded of why I write, and why I’m trying to get published:

 

There’s one story… on one of the special features of The Little Mermaid DVD that I borrowed from my parents. One of the creators of the movie tells the camera about the various fan mail they received after the movie was released. In one letter, a man told the studio that immediately after seeing The Little Mermaid in theaters, he called his daughter, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years. I get teary even rewriting this story that happened to people I will never meet. Possibly because remembering it instantly brings to mind the image of Ariel hugging King Triton and whispering, “I love you, Daddy.”

I love you, Daddy

This is what I want to give to my readers. This is what I think about when I’m discouraged about my lack of being “discovered.”

Among other things, Finding ‘Ohana is also about a young woman wanting to reconnect with her parents, even though they cut her out of their lives years ago. If I could reach someone who’s in a similar situation, I would consider my book a success.