Thursday, December 07, 2006

"But she wanted a tutu"

Writing the New Yorker's annual children's-book-roundup about ten years ago, Adam Gopnik took issue with Mimi's Tutu, by Tynia Thomassie and Jan Spivey Gilchrist. It's about a young African American girl who wants a ballerina's tutu, but her mother and family give her an African-styled dancing dress instead. Gopnik commented along the lines of "but she wanted a tutu," and went on to discuss books that serve adult agendas at the expense of children's wishes.

I've got two books he might want to take a look at:




One of the valuable results of the picture-book-folktale boom of the '90s was the publication of "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," etc. variants from around the world. We got to see folk heroes and heroines of many colors from many cultures.

But Disney will out, it seems. I can't decide if this is revolutionary or reactionary. On the one hand, it's Disney (Jump at the Sun is a Disney imprint), and the retellings are Disney-bland ("Beauty and the beast danced and played together"). On the other, the characters, as pictured, are recognizably African-American--Rapunzel's long hair is braided in dreads--not just sepia-toned drawings of white people. Does a little black girl have to want to be an Ashanti princess, or is she entitled to the Disney dream, too?

22 comments:

Monica said...

I picked up the Cinderella one a while back; I too have been a bit unsure what to make of it. Seems sort of like African-American Barbies. x

web said...

A fascinating question. My son is autistic, and I find myself wanting things for him I would never have exoected to want for my child. Participation and acceptance in popular culture can be pretty important.

Andy Laties said...

Well, the European artistic tradition never shirked at depicting Jesus as tall and white, etc. -- certainly most people have never seen a painting depicting an authentic Middle Eastern-looking Christ. That is: It seems to me that a culture-figure can be depicted any which way. I don't care about the "racial" characteristics of the characters in these versions, all I'm interested in is the books' authentic artistic merit, and THERE I suspect there may be some issues...

Anonymous said...

I agree with the African American Barbie comment -- it's feels more like an afterthought to please parents. Guess what, girls are still going to want the blonde, the "real" Barbie. I doubt African American and Latina girls will be drawn to these titles; after all, Disney kept the "real" Belle lily white for the film.

Melinda said...

I'd have to disagree on that count. I mean, we always pick up the dolls that look like us; wouldn't any child of color want to do the same?

I read one woman's blog about her experiences reading "A Wizard of Earthsea." And when LeGuin mentioned that Ged and his cohorts were dark-skinned, she felt such joy -- finally, a book written for her! With people who looked like her! And she found it so sweet. Why on earth would it be a bad thing for a kid to find a whole wealth of books like this?

I've been trying to see that the books I buy and the dolls I get for my kid are a mix of colors. But in doing so, I found that it is kind of difficult to get my hands on a picture book written with a black, Asian, or even Hispanic MC. I really have to dig for those puppies. (I figure her class at school is racially diverse, so why can't her bookshelf reflect that reality?)

And authors: all the kids out there in the classrooms aren't white. The books we write need to reflect that, too.

Just my two cents.

Melissa W. said...

I'd say this has less to do with desire to participate in popular culture and everything to do with little girls liking big poofy dresses. Anyone who has put on a big poofy dress and swirled around will understand the enormous appeal, regardless of your heritage. Witness the ridiculous amounts of money spent each year on elaborate weddings that at core serve one purpose: to showcase a fairy tale gown.

Roger Sutton said...

Melinda, don't forget the famous Kenneth and Mamie Clark study in the 1930s, though, which showed that given a choice between black dolls and white, both black and white children went for the white dolls. I don't know if this study has been replicated more recently.

A plug here for the Horn Book Guide online (www.hornbookguide.com). It's easy-peasy to search the database (of virtually all hardcover books published for children in the past twelve years and counting) for, say, picture books with African American characters. Give it a try.

I once went cd shopping with YA writer Bruce Brooks. After browsing awhile he said, "I've got your number. You like divas in big dresses." So count me in, Melissa!

Melinda said...

A database! I'm there.

Yes, I have read about that study. But don't you think that says a lot about our culture, how we prize what's white and good and hate what's black, so much that our values have become theirs? Because our values are better, and if you don't like our values, we'll hurt you.

It makes me think of that scene in "Whale Talk" by Chris Crutcher when the little girl takes a Brillo pad to her arms because her racist dad prefers his white son over her.

web said...

Don't discount popular culture - little boys like big poofy dresses too, for as long as they're allowed to.

My son is depressed by his GoodNites. Ugly grey action figure pictures. No fair. We sometimes decorate them.

O. Darklady said...

Melinda, isn't one of the joys of reading to get into someone else's skin for a while? Do we want to repopulate the shtetl with perky goyim so we can identify before we read say, Singer short stories? Do we need to change the heroine in The Color Purple to a white person so that we are inclusive? How patronizing is this? Do we relate to stories only if we share the same racial characteristics. Whtat happened to universal, huh? Huh? Where is our humanity. Oh the humanity. I don't care if someone thinks of new fairy tales but why repeople the old ones? A grown up wil worry about the child's cultural identity when a kid already knows who he is and wants to step into someone else's shoes for a while. And clearly poufy dresses transcend all. And any girl worth her salt will go with the character with the better haircut no matter what terrible thing she has done because good hairdressers are extremely hard to find.

O. Darklady said...

AND, Melinda, maybe we should Disney back to English 101 for Chaucer and amor vincit omnia. Or to have a chat with Elizabeth, always the Voice of Reason.

O. Darklady said...

That's should send Disney not should Disney which makes a kind of sense unto itself but we'll let it go at that.

Anonymous said...

From a librarian at a school with about 50% black and mixed race kids: The black girls love the Disney books mentioned as well as the Melodye Rosales books that are re-peopling of old favorites. Oh, the white girls check them out too!
The Rosales book 'Twas the Night B'fore Christmas, has the most beautiful picturese of a black family I've seen lately, check it out. The world is becoming very colorful, celebrate it.

O. Darklady said...

the world was colorful before disney told you it was.

Melinda said...

I hear what you're saying, darklady. But I just think the way we see the world is still lopsided, and it bugs me.

Then I'm like, Well, I want people to think about skin color so they will stop thinking about skin color. Which sounds bad. But I wonder, if the market gets better about having different characters from different races showing up on TV, in books, would that make a difference to how the next generation views the world? Would they not be jerks like my generation and my parents' generation?

Or would they find new ways to be jerks?

Man, I hate talking about race stuff. I feel like I have to tiptoe along. I don't want to offend anybody! But I still want to talk about it. I live in a racist little town and I don't want to be like them. And I'd like to find ways to make them change. Though ... that'd probably end up being like one of those bad relationships where the woman is trying to change her man ... that never works.

Am I making any sense, or am I babbling along like a fool again?

P.S. Amen to Chaucer.

O. Darklady said...

Well, melinda, I have to admit, Im not thinking of race, Im thinking more of literature and absolutes. In practical terms I dont know what the effect of disney repeopling its books are. I just find the IDEA that anyone of any race needs to see their own face on a character before they can relate to be repugnant. But then I dont think disney is thinking about bringing peace to race relations anymore than coca cola was with teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. They've just found another way to regurgitate and remarket the old books. But I am being so painfully earnest and obvious that I am boring myself so Im out of here.

O. Darklady said...

However, Melinda, because you seem like a nice person let me leave you with this last thought. If any bottling company tells you it's the real thing, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Melinda said...

Yeah, you know Disney's in it for the cold cash. Sorry I misunderstood before. If they would attach some halfway decent writing, it would be nice. But noooo.

Speaking of the real thing, I just ran into a website today that shows what happens to your body when you drink a Coke:

http://healthbolt.net/2006/12/08/what-happens-to-your-body-if-you-drink-a-coke-right-now/

I like to use Coke to clean corrosion off my car battery.

Anonymous said...

don't you folks ever look at actual books? For example, Havill's JAMAICA stories (JAMAICA'S FIND, Houghton 1986 and many sequels for k-3) Heroine is black but race is irrelevant to plot.

Melinda said...

One of my critique buds was working on a book in which one of the MCs was Hispanic. Had some agent ask her how her MC's race was relevant to the plot. We were like, only insofar as she is human.

rindamybyers said...

I think having a huge variety of books out there is a good thing--so long as all little girls and little boys too can have opportunities to consider make their own choices. Although, it does bother me quite a bit, deep down, as a person of mixed racial background, that so much emphasis (negative or positive, whatever, just the fact that it is even a concern) is placed in our culture on skin color. Why does how we look continue to so boldly define, in our culture, who we are? I personally detest the phrases "writer of color, people of color, artists of color, etc., especially as used in literary circles. My skin is white. If you scratch the surface, I have ancestors not so far back with dark skin. Where does a child with one dark-skinned parent and one white-skinned parent fit in? Or his or her brother or sister who may, just by the whim of genetics, be darker or lighter skinned that his/her sibling?

cloudscome said...

Does a little black girl have to want to be an Ashanti princess, or is she entitled to the Disney dream, too? I think she should want what she wants. She should know about the Ashanti for certain sure. We all need diversity in literature, culture, media, etc. It's beautiful and good for us white girls too.