Anna Dusseau | 22nd June 2020
My kids have recently fallen in love with the Descendents movies, and let me start by saying that it’s a pretty cool franchise. Oh sure, you’re gonna want to puke in your mouth every time you hear these guys break into song, but honestly? You know we would all have killed for a film like this when we were young. Fun, sassy, flipping the fairytale on its head, these Disney Network ‘baddie romps’ are like movie munchies for pre-teens. There’s just one problem; they aren’t very diverse. More than that, they aren’t very black. You only have to scroll through the IMDB cast list to see what I mean. So, let’s fast forward to the end of Descendents 2, where black actress China Anne McClain packs a punch as uber-villain Uma, abandoning her plans to seduce Prince Charming when she leaps overboard and morphs into a giant octopus hell-bent on destruction. She’s good in the role. And I have no problem with the black character being the villain. In fact, it wouldn’t even register on my radar if she wasn’t – you know – the only major black character in the movie. Because now I’m thinking… Is it okay that the white prince is reunited with his white ‘princess’ by outsmarting the black sea witch? More to the point, is it okay that this is pretty much the only representation of ‘being black’ in the movie? No, I guess it isn’t. I guess I’m going to need to speak with my kids. And I do.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white? Well, actually it does if you want to shift Disney merchandise.”
It’s not that the film itself is a problem; it’s everything that goes with it. Look at almost any group of children playing and you’ll know what I mean. Regardless of colour or ethnicity, the preferred games for under-10s involve princesses and superheroes. We are talking almost exclusively white models of fantasy play, here. The Little Mermaid. Spiderman. Captain America. Princess Sofia. These are the characters and storylines that sell, and research shows that there is a direct correlation between hair and skin colour and the shelf success of Disney dolls. Cinderella, Ariel and Belle remain eternally popular among all children. Jasmine and Tiana, less so. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white? Well, actually it does if you want to shift the merchandise. And is there a single non-white Marvel hero? Okay then, Black panther. Point taken? Very few little girls are dressing up as the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, regardless of their own skin colour and ethnicity. Little boys all want to be Iron Man, don’t they? He’s cool. But let’s flip this narrative on it’s head for a moment and consider my four-year-old son, who loves football. We speak French at home and it was very important to him to find a French footballer to idolise, so we introduced him to Paul Pogba. Now, his bedroom is covered in Pogba posters and Manchester United is has usurped his dad’s beloved Olympique de Marseille, purely because Pogba plays for them. Paul Pogba is black and it kills my son every day that he can’t – truly – be ‘like him’. No amount of gel can make my son’s floppy European hair imitate that bleached Afro mohican that looks so ‘bad-ass’. Is this what it feels like every day for black children playing at being white heroes?
“Is there a single non-white Marvel hero? Okay then, Black Panther. Point taken?”
I was wondering what really is the answer here, because the challenges are so embedded. The National Curriculum alone fails at the first hurdle by offering our multicultural kids a white Euro-centric vision of the world through literature, history, geography, and more. Disney’s just a drop in the ocean. But it feels like the right time to mention other books and movies you could be engaging your children with if this post has resonance for you. There are some great stories with non-white heroes out there. Julian is a Mermaid. Baby Goes to Market. Young Heroes. Zoey and Sassafras. Anna Hibiscus. And what I love about this last one is the way that, rather than placing black characters into a white context, Anna’s white mother and mixed-race family are transported to Africa, where they are embraced by the family and equally embrace the African culture of Anna’s extended family. It is being white that is different here, although not in a negative way, and that is a delicate and important balance to reflect. For older teens and young adults, how about The Hate You Give or Rainbow Milk? Of course, when it comes to movies, any millennial will remember the movie Cool Runnings which was actually more than a caricature of Jamaican culture; it was a movie about a group of black people and we didn’t see much of that in the 90s. But films have moved on and there is a world of non-white films to explore if you look beyond the mainstream cinema listings. The Karate Kid. Wadija. City of God. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Akeelah and the Bee. The Golden Blaze. Do try to get your kids seeing storytelling in colour, whether they are black or white. Iron Man can be anyone at all. And princesses don’t all have tiaras and ringlets. That’s a good lesson for everyone, to begin with.