Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess

Article excerpt

This article argues that children's self-image is affected by the ways in which they see themselves in texts both verbal and visual, and that fairy tales play an important role in shaping self-image and the belief-system of children. The images found in fairy tales, therefore, have particular importance for children of color in relation to the internalization of White privileging. This article presents a comparative analysis of the Disney version of six classic fairy tales spotlighted in Disney's Princess: The Essential Guide against the "classic" source text versions: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp from the perspective of ideological/racial basis in the context of the goals of multicultural education. Findings from this analysis support the need for the development of critical literacy skills in children as well as in their teachers and highlight the importance of exposing children to transcultural literature.


The precise time that children begin to see themselves in relation to color as a racial marker and formulate ideas of the relative value of belonging to this group or that is debatable. Tatum (1997) suggests that identity formation in children of color in the United States travels a different path from that of children who belong to the dominant culture (i.e., White children). However, some researchers have indicated that children's literature, including picture books (Spitz, 1999; Yeoman, 1999), plays a role-along with other forms of print and electronic media such as television, magazine images, and movie-in providing visual images to children that give them cultural information about themselves, others, and the relative status of group membership. In other words, self-image in children is shaped in some degree by exposure to images found in written texts, illustrations, and films. Moreover, it is clear that children, if they are to develop a positive self-image, need to "see" themselves or their images in texts. Books, therefore, can serve to reinforce or counter negative notions of self-image in children of color. For example, Sims (1983) noted in follow-up research to Larrick's (1995) landmark study, The All-White World of Children's Books, that children of color were still underrepresented in books, and that where they were represented, stereotypical and pejorative images of children of color still prevailed.

The fairy tale is one of the longest existing genres of children's literature. Through the ages, children have formed mental images of the princesses and other characters depicted in these tales from their representation in the written text as well as in the illustrations that have often accompanied those texts. Fairy tales, therefore, have an important role to play in shaping the selfimage and belief system of children. Zipes (1994) frames six key features in how the fairy tale, originally written for adults, was institutionalized for children:

(a) The social function of the fairy tale must be didactic and teach a lesson that corroborates the code of civility as it was being developed at that time; (b) it must be short so that children can remember and memorize it and so that both adults and children can repeat it orally. . .; (c) it must pass the censorship of adults so that it can be easily circulated; (d) it must address social issues such as obligation, sex roles, class differences, power, and decorum so that it will appeal to adults, especially those who publish and publicize the tales; (e) it must be suitable to be used with children in a schooling situation; and (f) it must reinforce a notion of power within the children of the upper classes and suggest ways for them to maintain power, (p. 33)

The sixth framing feature or condition for institutionalization, the relationship between the fairy tale and the internalization of notions of power, enables us to recognize the impact that these tales can have on children of color. …

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