I know I am a bit late with this one as we are now done with Black History Month and starting Women’s History Month for March, but I’ve been writing this for a while and didn’t want it to go unpublished.
Of the twelve official Disney Princesses, only one is black: Tiana from 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. But twelve years before that, a made-for-TV musical really made history: with the 1997 version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, young singer/actress Brandy became the first black Disney princess. Her Cinderella was recently brought to Disney+ for streaming, allowing a new generation to appreciate this classic and its legacy.
The story behind Cinderella is quite interesting, and you can read more about it in Kendra James’s 2017 oral history for Shondaland. Whitney Houston had been wanting to do a diverse take on Cinderella, and it finally coalesced as part of the re-launch of ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney in the fall of 1997. The producers wanted to use a “color-blind casting” approach, resulting in a black Cinderella (Brandy) and Fairy Godmother (Houston) as well as a Filipino prince (Paolo Montalban) with a black mother (Whoopi Goldberg) and a white father (Victor Garber). Cinderella’s stepfamily also has black and white members. No mention of race is ever made, almost to the point of illogicality, as you can see women of many races trying on Cinderella’s glass slipper, which had clearly been originally worn by a black woman. However, the fantasy nature of the story makes it particularly easy to skim over this and suspend our disbelief.
This Cinderella succeeds on so many levels: it’s fun and funny and beautiful to look at, with songs that hit perfect emotional beats. It is such a satisfying take on the Cinderella tale that I included it in my Top 5 Versions of Cinderella. And of course, the representation for BIPOC was hugely important to a generation of little girls who could finally see themselves as a Disney princess, or in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Its legacy can be seen in many ways. We will soon be seeing another black Disney princess, with Halle Bailey cast as Ariel in the upcoming live action remake of The Little Mermaid. And another show now streaming owes it a debt as well: Shondaland’s Bridgerton, which cast black actors as members of Regency England aristocracy.
As a fan of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series of romance novels, I’ve really enjoyed the Netflix adaptation, and I think the casting decisions are definitely a strength of it. However, the discussion of race is slightly different than in Cinderella, mainly because there is one. There is clearly still racism and oppression in this world; part of the plot hinges on the old Duke of Hastings’ desire to continue his line and maintain their place in society. But I wasn’t sure if the show would address the issue head on until I watched the fourth episode, where Lady Danbury says, “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become.”
This is a reference to Queen Charlotte, played wonderfully in a greatly enhanced role by Golda Rosheuvel. The real historical Queen Charlotte has been rumored over the years to have had African ancestry, and while there is really not much evidence of this, it makes a great starting point for a reimagining of Regency England as a more diverse society in a contemporary way. There are some flaws with this approach to race, as detailed in this piece for the NYT by Salamishah Tillet, but while it is a bit shallow and puts the burden of racial issues on the black characters, it still results in a more representative show and allows some very talented actors to take on now-iconic roles that they might not have gotten in a more traditional casting method.
In general, Bridgerton is more in line with a contemporary approach to casting, called “color-conscious” as opposed to “color-blind.” The goal of this approach is to acknowledge the historical racial biases and discrimination in the entertainment industry while still striving for representation of BIPOC in media. Rather than ignore identity, color-consciousness celebrates it. The poster child for this is the stage musical Hamilton, a play about the white founding fathers that went so far as to put out an open casting call for “non-white actors,” turning American history multicultural. I think the success of Hamilton, and indeed Bridgerton, which is now Netflix’s biggest show ever, indicates the appeal of this strategy and I’m sure we will continue to see more of it in the future.
After all, as romance author Tessa Dare says, “If the world can agree on nothing else, at least 63 million households can celebrate the Duke of Hastings’ perfectly arched eyebrow.”