There is a scene ten minutes into the new Disney animated film “The Princess and the Frog” when young Tiana’s mom and dad come into her bedroom to tuck her in for the night. The little girl’s father asks what she wants to be when she grows up, and she replies, eyes sparkling, that she wants to own a restaurant with him where they can make his delicious gumbo. Dad beams with pride, and then leans down to kiss his daughter goodnight. His loving, departing message is you can be anything you want, Tiana, if only you believe.
Even if this fairytale -- the first Disney film to ever feature an African-American princess -- ended right there, that imagery alone might have been the most defining moment for many Black girls. That’s because sparkling tiaras, frilly dresses and all the other trappings of a fairytale life aside, many of our daughters -- and our sisters and mothers for that matter -- desperately need to be told “you can be anything you want.”
Unfortunately, too many young Black women experience a life more like that of Claireese "Precious" Jones in Lee Daniel’s film Precious than that of Princess Tiana. In that movie, Precious is raped by her father, who impregnates her and gives her HIV, and is abused by her mother. Adding insult to injury she is abandoned by a society that cares little about the lives of Black women and children and devalues her physical appearance.
Yet remarkably, encouraged by others who see her promise and potential, Precious discovers her own beauty and learns to value herself. In the process she redefines and reconstructs her family, deciding: “If nobody who is supposed to love me loves me, then I can still love myself.” Precious resolves that she can still survive against all odds, no matter what she has been through.
The low self esteem that originally engulfed Precious leads some girls to seek love and acceptance in the arms of men who don’t protect them. Many Black girls have sexual relationships with men who are significantly older than they are, increasing their risk of STD's and HIV. This is just one factor contributing to last year's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that one of every two -- one out of two! -- African-American girls ages 14-19 is infected with an STD. And in 2006, Black teens between 13-19 accounted for 69% of new AIDS cases among teens.
Tragically, this picture does not get better with age: three years ago, Black women accounted for 61% of new HIV cases among women -- 15 times the rate of white women. And now, even in the era of a Black president, a Black princess and a Black woman (Oprah Winfrey) with her O.W.N. new television network, HIV infection is the leading cause of death for Black women ages 25 to 34, according to the CDC.
It’s a painful trend Delta Sigma Theta president Cynthia Butler-McIntyre believes can be reversed through the creation of more positive self-esteem-building vehicles like “The Princess and the Frog” -- films that teach Black girls that their features and skin color are beautiful, that no matter the length or texture, their hair is “good” hair. It’s the reason why, leading up to the movie’s release earlier this month, McIntyre’s sorority hosted special screenings of “Princess” around the country.
Members -- like thousands of other Black parents nationwide -- took their little girls to see the film, with many dressed up as princesses. Structural forces—-poverty, racism, horrible education, terrible parenting, etc.--can not be reversed through better self-esteem-building movies alone. There are two Black America’s today -- the Obama/Oprah/Tiana world and the Precious/Harlem/Washington D.C.’s 7th and 8th ward world. The latter exists in part because too many of us who live in or aspire to the former have abandoned those whom we left behind.
“The Princess and the Frog” shows our little girls and boys that African-American women are princesses and should be treated as such,” McIntyre explains. But Hollywood can’t be the only place we look in order to steer our children toward a brighter tomorrow. Ultimately the responsibility begins and ends at home. It is crucial that we encourage more fathers to stay in their children’s lives, regardless of what happened between them and the mothers. We must stop supporting the music that sexually objectifies and denigrates our girls, leading them to devalue themselves and put their lives at risk. We must keep pushing the message that condoms are their best friends, even if we’re uncomfortable with the frank talk.
More of us need to practice seeing the promise and potential of our girls, no matter what circumstances they are born into. We need to practice speaking life into their spirits and exposing them to activities, role models and situations with the intention of building their self esteem. Every Black girl needs to be told that she is both precious and a princess. And she needs to believe that she can be anyone she wants, including a Black woman without HIV.