I can never be Cinderella, but I can be Misty Copeland: Why Representation Matters for Children

queen elsa

Samara, the 3-year-old girl dressed as Queen Elsa from the Disney motion picture Frozen. Photo from the Huffington Post

Last month, a 3-year-old aboriginal girl attended a Disney-themed event at a shopping center in Melbourne, Australia and dressed up as Queen Elsa from the film Frozen.

A woman she did not know addressed the child, questioning why she chose to dress up as the snow queen since Elsa wasn’t black, and the little girl was.

This unknown villainess–now painted as the Maleficent of Down Under–was right, to an extent. Queen Elsa is not black, and this little girl can never look like Queen Elsa. She can’t look like Cinderella, Aurora, or Mulan either.

But what’s wrong in this picture isn’t the realization that a brown girl can’t look like a white fictional character.

If we look at this from an adult’s perspective, it seems disturbing. We interpret it as, “How can you tell a child she can’t aspire to be powerful, independent, confident, and overcome insecurities much like Queen Elsa? Why can’t she embody those same character building personality traits seen in Ariel, Snow White, and Rapunzel?”

But let’s look at it from a child’s-eye-view.

At two, three, four, maybe even five years old, how well can they distinguish fiction from reality? I’m no psychologist, but I can tell you I was seriously upset when Mufasa died in the Lion King, like many other kids my age who saw his tragic end in theaters. For some kids, the line between what’s real and what’s not is blurred. Just look at the concept of imaginary friends. To some, these are as real as mommy and daddy.

Dressing up and playing pretend is an important part of the development of the human brain. It activates the creative, where children can fly to the moon or ride a dinosaur or talk to turtles.

When I was little, I not only dressed up as Disney princesses but also as a news reporter. I had my desk with a type writer, suit, and clipboard. And when mom let us play with the video camera, as soon as the red light came on, I’d say, “Welcome. My name is Michelle Conerly. Here’s the evening news.”

So while no, this little girl can never look like Queen Elsa, where are all the Disney princesses that do look like her? Why are her options so limited?

This is why representation matters.

Misty Copeland, a talented African-American ballerina, was recently named the first black female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. Before, the only images I had ever seen were of white ballerinas. Not to say that there weren’t black, asian, or latina ballerinas. I had just never seen them in the media before.

Growing up, there were fewer than a handful of actresses in TV and movies who were mixed-race like me that actually showed one parent as white and one parent as black. There were even fewer judges, teachers, athletes, singers, and CEOs.

I’m not saying you have to see someone like yourself in the career field you want to be in to aspire to do that, but I can’t explain how…comforting it is to see the Soledad O’Briens, the Sonia Sotomayors, the Jeremy Lins and Jackie Robinsons of the world being inspirational figures and breaking the color barrier.

Let’s let our children dream and play and aspire the way they want to, whether that’s as a princess of an ice kingdom or president of the United States. Because in the end, we want to raise a generation of game changers, right? We want the media to bette represent what the world actually looks like, and to do that, it starts with a child’s imagination.

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