Disney’s Princess Problem: Why “Princess of North Sudan” Highlights Need for Disney’s Princess Rehaul

Even though there are critiques about Lupita Nyong’o being a CG character in Star Wars Episode VI: The Force Awakens and people are annoyed with Avengers: Age of Ultron, Disney has, for the most part, been pleasing many fans with their Marvel and Lucasfilm acquisitions, along with their other Disney properties. But Disney has finally hit a wall with their upcoming film, The Princess of North Sudan. Why is this movie so offensive to many out there? Because the princess in question is a little white girl. 

Let me set the scene: The Princess of North Sudan is based on the irritatingly true story of a man from Virginia who wanted to fulfill his daughter’s wishes to be a princess. So, as The Hollywood Reporter states, he went to a part of Sudan called Bir Tawil, supposedly a “no-man’s land” of 800 square miles between  between Sudan and Egypt, and stuck a flag in it, claiming it the Kingdom of Northern Sudan, with himself as the king and his  daughter the princess.

If you are aware of the history of colonialism, you’ll know exactly why this is problematic: a person rolling up into a country and claiming even just a portion of that country as their own smacks of privilege. Of course, as Seventeen states, no government has recognized the new kingdom, and why should they? He’s just one dude and colonialism rules don’t fly anymore. At least, not in terms of claiming land where people already live.

But, for some reason, Disney decided it would be a great idea to create a film around the story, which is also problematic, because it  glorifies once again what history already glorifies: a white person claiming land that doesn’t belong to them, usually at the expense of civilizations that are already in place before the white person got there. Of course, Bir Tawil is land caught in a dispute and is labeled a “no-man’s land.” But still, for a man to insert himself in Sudanese and Egyptian politics just because he feels he can (and so he can make his daughter a princess)? What kind of feel-good movie is this supposed to be?

Since it is supposed to be a feel-good movie, and knowing Disney’s own problematic history of whitewashing history, would the people of Sudan and Egypt be rewritten as recognizing this piece of land as belonging to this guy and his daughter? Would the film make Sudanese and Egyptians kow-tow to these two foreigners? Let’s not forget the whole “princess” element; would the film’s Africans recognize a foreign white girl as their princess? There’s a host of things movie fans are worried about when it comes to this film. As you would expect, they went to Twitter to address their concerns. Or, if they have a blogging outlet, they wrote articles as to why this film is a terrible idea.

However, the screenwriter for this film, Stephany Folsom, has stated that the film will be anything but a fun romp through colonialism’s greatest hits. She asserted her aversion to colonialism in several tweets, but the tweets only served to confuse people more than allay their fears.

Folsom had gone on to say in a series of now-deleted tweets that the film will not engage in glorifying colonialism. “There is no planting a flag in Sudan or making a white girl the princess of an African country. That’s gross,” she wrote, according to Entertainment Weekly. She also discussed her trip to the Sudan, saying that the people were “amazing.”

So the question is, if the film’s not about colonialism, what exactly will it be about? I don’t think Disney will completely get rid of a white man claiming a piece of African land, but just how are they going to repackage this to reconcile the message of the film in their minds? I don’t know, but I do know that it’s high time for another movie studio to bring some competition to Disney’s stranglehold on the “princess” idea.

As mentioned above, Disney has a seriously troubled past when it comes to princesses. Pocahontas’ history was extremely whitewashed, especially in Pocahontas 2: Journey to a New World, in which they repackaged Pocahontas’ trip to England as, according to Biography, “a symbol of the tamed New World ‘savage'” as a noble trip to save her people and make further peace with the settlers, not to mention a way for Disney to create a fictional love triangle between John Smith and John Rolfe. Also eliminated was the fact that Pocahontas contracted tuberculosis or pneumonia from her visit and died on England’s shores.

The Princess and the Frog‘s Princess Tiana, the first black princess, remains a frog for most of the movie, and despite the legitimate argument that the film presents a progressive interracial relationship stance, there’s also the argument that Disney could have proven itself as committed to representing black excellence and missed an opportunity to create a black prince, especially since every other princess apart from Pocahontas have princes of their own race.

Without race, Disney’s princesses have been, up until recent years, pillars of outdated feminine ideals imposed by men. The suggestion that women should wait for their prince to rescue them instead of relying on themselves can be seen in classic princesses like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle (to some degree), Ariel (to some degree), and Snow White. Instead of teaching values such as depending on oneself and working hard to succeed in life (which is something Tiana teaches), these princesses are steeped in sexism. It would be one thing if these princesses only had enduring power during the times when women were completely subjugated by men, but in reality, these princesses are still popular today and celebrated for the same reasons they were when they were Disneyfied.

Proof of this is everywhere, but it can be seen particularly in the redesign of the princesses, featured above. Before, the line-up featured the princesses as they appear in their respective films. But now, even that’s not good enough. To be a princess, these characters have to be even more sparkly, adorned with even more jewels and culturally-inappropriate earrings and trinkets. Even the hair has to be longer shiner, and more flowing. These additions only reinforce the notion that a princess’ worth is only in aesthetics, not in their actual characterizations. This translates directly to how a little girl might interpret herself in relation to these princesses. If they aren’t pretty enough, sparkly enough, or have long enough hair, a girl might doubt if they are worthy of being called a princess, i.e. loved.

The Princess of North Sudan sounds like it could bring back tons of problems that have plagued the Disney Princess line and magnify them. Enter my call for another movie company to get in on this princess business. If Disney can create princesses that can sometimes do more harm than good, I call upon another company, a company that might not even be in existence yet, to see the consumers’ yearning for a different view of the princess (and the prince for that matter) and fill that void. I want a movie studio to really give Disney a run for its money and teach it a thing or two at the same time.

There are plenty of princess stories from cultures from all over the world, yet Disney has only covered a small fraction of them, most of them not involving non-white characters. I call on a rival studio to show Disney what’s what by creating a string of successful princess films that give voice to cultural difference and feminine strength. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask for. Hollywood might not see these types of stories as “marketable,” but I believe the audience is out there, and I do believe movies about culturally and socially diverse princesses will be heralded by audiences around the world.

That’s the end of my soapbox. I don’t think I’m alone in my sentiments, though. What do you think about The Princess of North Sudan? Which studio would you love to see give Disney a run for its money in the princess market? Give your opinions below.

 

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3 thoughts on “Disney’s Princess Problem: Why “Princess of North Sudan” Highlights Need for Disney’s Princess Rehaul”

  1. So the question is, if the film’s not about colonialism, what exactly will it be about? Taking a wild guess, about a man a his daughter who either arrive and suddenly being worshipped as royalty?

    About discovering that they are from a royal line they never knew of?

    At this point is anyone’s guess, but without a doubt is bound to be offensive. I think that the problem with the studios is a mix of the lack of women in all fronts, from writers to CEOs and this is how problem arises. Princess stories are for the most part outdated, but it’s unsurprising that they keep making them.

    What studio could come with a better Princess movie? No idea.

    Like

    1. You’re right about the lack of women in the business. There also seems to be a lack of critical thinking and how some narratives really do cause psychological harm. I wish Hollywood would learn from it’s mistakes, but that also means society itself needs to learn, and that’s a tall order. I sound a bit nihilistic and misanthropic, I’m sure. I waffle from optimism to straight misanthropy when it comes to writing about social issues all the time.

      BTW-love that Thranduil picture you’re using as your ID photo. That was the best part of the movie; Thranduil’s face was saying what I was feeling while watching that part of the movie.

      Like

      1. Agreed, there’s no critical thinking or if there is is being ignored, like “nah, all is good”.

        I join you in your wish in regards of Hollywood and society; I don’t think it’s nihilistic, it’s realistic. As society we have long ways to go before we claim true progress.

        Like

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