Originally published on Medium.
What does happily ever after look like for the little black boy growing up in poverty, or the young Hispanic girl looking for someone to love her? The stories of our youth are responsible for shaping the adults we eventually become. I know this to be true because of the way in which fairy tales helped me to formulate beliefs about the world and my place in it.
Once upon a time…
Growing up a child of the 90’s, I spent a lot of my time in front a television screen watching VHS tapes. Most of the tapes and television networks I watch as a child were products of Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. My collection of VHS’s included all of the classics: Disney’s Cinderella, Hercules and Peter Pan.
These were the stories that showed me a world beyond my small bedroom. Naturally, I would do my best as a child to try and insert myself into these story lines.
“What would it be like to marry royalty”?
“If only I had muscles like Hercules, then everyone would like me!”
“I wish I were whiter… Then I could live happily ever after too like the characters in the movies”
These thoughts turned into hopes, which then turned into wishes. I can remember being a child and trying to understand why I wasn’t as deserving as the white characters who enjoyed a happily ever after. I would do push ups to look like Hercules and even believed that marrying someone rich was the inevitable goal (I mean let’s be honest, that is still the goal of some adults today).
Now that I’m older, I have more life experience to understand why I felt the way I did and where my stories may have steered me wrong. Growing up and not seeing a character that looked like me in the stories made it very difficult to relate. Not seeing a black man as the prince, made it hard to believe that I could be one. Never seeing a portrayal of a gay character, made it impossible to believe they even existed.
Unfortunately, things haven’t changed much since I was a child. Data suggests that the entertainment industry could do far more to achieve greater diversity in film.
Researchers from the University of Southern California studied the 700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014, excluding 2011, and analyzed the race and ethnicity of more than 30,000 characters to reveal diversity in film. The findings showed that for nearly a decade, filmmakers have made virtually no progress in portraying more characters from non-white racial and ethnic identities.
With such disheartening numbers it leads one to wonder, will I ever connect with a film or character?
Cinderella can SANG!
Still in search of what I could identify as my “happily ever after”, I stumbled upon a film that would provide that and more: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The film stars Brandy Norwood as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother. Finally! Finally, I had found a character that was black having one of the most iconic happily ever after’s.
The film also features an extremely diverse cast. For the first time, I saw a multiracial cast of characters in a fairy tale, not to mention interracial love at the helm.
And I mean… Whitney Houston… THE Whitney Houston. Magical.
Two Frogs & A Tear
Years later another fairy tale gave me a similar break through: Disney’s Princess and the Frog. After watching the film, something happened as the closing credits began to roll, I broke down and cried.
I didn’t cry because it was a heartwarming and riveting tale of friendship and dreams. I cried for the little black boy in me who had been missing that representation for all of his childhood. To this day, watching the film makes me emotional. I now feel that my niece won’t have to wonder about her inadequacies in the same way I did as a child. She has characters she can relate to and that look like her.
While a traditional happily ever after isn’t reality for anyone, the stories and imagery that accompany them are. The beliefs and dreams that are a result of such images are life changing. It warms my heart now to watch television with my niece and see more diversity in the shows she watches. But much work is to be done as there are many underrepresented groups whose stories must be shared.
What are some films you remember seeing as a child that made you believe in a happily ever after?
Check out our new Unheard podcast episode for a conversation as host James Burge discusses the impact of relatable images to children of color with guest Donica Snyder. In this episode, they explore the importance of diversity in fairy tales and fictional stories. Listen, as the two discover what happily ever looks like for minorities.