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As a child I adored Disney films.
Whether it was The Lion King (1, 2 and sometimes 3) Anastasia or Mulan, my eight-year-old self would sit crossed-legged, a little too close to the screen, eyes filling with glee at the sight of the shooting star flying across from what I thought was a ‘G’ all the way to the spark it left at the ‘y’.
I knew a magical story was about to unfold before my eyes.
I’d sing along to every chorus and immerse myself in my favourite characters’ lives. But it wasn’t long until I realised something. None of the women I idolised looked anything like me, and most importantly none of the princesses did.
I’d sit and wonder why I didn’t look like any of them. Was it the texture of my hair? The proportions of my nose? I was forced to conclude that the requirements of princess-hood meant having straight blonde hair and blue eyes.
Growing up in Essex in the early noughties, the media and my societal surroundings showed me daily that my Black beauty was not accepted as the standard. No matter how I wore my hair I drew attention – and not the kind I coveted. Curious girls would ask to touch my natural coils, while boys would liken my protective braids to that of Medusa.
So imagine the excitement, the unincumbered joy little I felt, when Rodger & Hammerstein announced their reimagining of Cinderella in 1997 with R&B singer Brandy playing the titular role.
For many it was just another version of the glass slipper story, no big deal. But for me, watching it for the first time meant finally being seen. There Brandy was, Black, beautiful and centre stage. I could hardly contain my disbelief.
She graced the screen with a gorgeous micro-braided hairstyle, identical to how I would often wear mine. At first, I was confused; a Cinderella that looks like me? I thought, thinking back to having my hair compared to spaghetti at my predominantly white school. How is it possible that she could be the main character?
But once the confusion subsided, in its place grew a warmer sense of familiarity and elation. She was stunning, she was talented but most of all she looked like me.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first time I had felt truly represented in pop culture. Not just by Brandy, but also by her co-stars Whitney Houston and Whoopi Goldberg. All three ladies commanded the screen, proudly wearing their hair in Afro-centric styles.
Whoopi, casted as a whole Queen Constantina, wore a crown beautifully framing her locked dreads while Whitney’s curls glistened with gold, as she belted out the famous Impossible sequence in her role as Fairy Godmother.
But beyond the three main characters, the multicultural cast was undoubtedly ahead of its time. A Black princess, a Filipino prince with a Black mother and Caucasian father, the Italian prince’s aide… it was a sea of people with different skin tones, cast in their respective roles because of their talent and skill, not because they fulfilled a diversity quota.
The result was an authentic, culturally rich experience that transcended the screen. Even casting my mind back now, it’s not lost on me how special a moment this was.
I haven’t seen or experienced anything like it since. Yes, I’d be remiss to deny that the multicultural cast of the recent Bridgerton had echoes of this sentiment. And yet, the Netflix period drama failed to cast a Black woman in any main character speaking roles.
It also disillusioned some viewers by feeding into the white saviour trope, by having Lady Danbury declare that ‘love conquered racism’ simply because the King married a Black woman.
While watching I was acutely aware of the events of that year; George Floyd and more closely, Meghan and Harry. Events that proved that this flimsy declaration simply was not true. It was ludicrous and honestly a little insulting and so, with this line, I felt all airs of sweet escapism come crashing down.
I know for some, Lady Danbury and Marina would be considered ‘enough’ but for me, their casting fell flat. Whilst the talking role of Marina was played beautifully by mixed race actress Ruby Barker, it wasn’t lost on me that she was an outcast, seen as a burden and once you add a scandalous pregnancy – you’re left with a walking stereotype.
Whilst Lady Danbury, though beautiful and strong, was also unmarried. She was depicted as a strong matriarch for Simon rather than as a desirable woman or ‘fair maiden’ deserving of love. Neither of these women connected to me.
For me, purposeful and honest representations of Black girls remain few and far between. For instance, imagine the disappointment of hearing that Disney was finally centering a film around its first Black animated princess, in The Princess and the Frog only to realise she was indeed an amphibian for 90 per cent of the film.
This is why Brandy’s Cinderella (as it is so fondly called) remains so important to me, and the many Black girls who look like me. It told us that not only are we beautiful, just as we are, in our melanated glory, but we are worthy of fairytales and love. That we too, could wear the glass slipper and princess tiara atop our braided tresses.
Black girls deserve to have that Cinderella moment too, they deserve their fairy tales even when it seems that the rest of the world has deemed it well… Impossible.
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