From a black “Little Mermaid” to a black “Sleeping Beauty” in Rio de Janeiro play, black female characters in children’s cultural productions is still important

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Note from BW of Brazil: The recent dust-up over the announcement that a young, black woman would become Disney’s new Little Mermaid gives us proof positive that the dominant society still doesn’t recognize the privilege of so many areas of society being represented by persons with white skin, even in the world of fiction. Occasionally, I hear people attempt to try to reverse the scenario by asking, “how would it be if black characters/personalities were to suddenly look white?” Not a good argument when we consider the fact that this has already happened numerous times in Brazilian and American media productions, as has already been documented in a number of important news outlets.

As a child, I didn’t reject seeing white characters in televised cartoons or comic strips (arguably, I had no choice if I wanted to watch them) but I also felt a much stronger identification with characters that looked like me or people I knew in my neighborhood, which was all black. I often wonder how the dominant society would feel if suddenly all of the images they saw on TV and in films were all black. The point here is, when nearly everything deemed as important in society is represented by people who look like you, it’s something you don’t even have to think about.

For me, the issue has come even more important since I had children of my own. On a daily basis, going through a seemingly endless list of cartoons that they love to watch on Netflix, the only cartoon that I’ve seen that features a predominantly black cast of characters is Motown Magic. The series Doc McStuffins features a lead black character that is a doctor and does feature other black characters, but I haven’t seen enough episodes to say if the cast has a black majority. Granted, I’m not saying that I’ve actually researched this, but I AM saying that if you check out the Netflix kids’ section, you will see what looks like hundreds of titles appear on the screen to choose from and just judging from the logos, the dictatorship of whiteness becomes apparent. The next time you sit and choose cartoons for your children to watch, think about this. 

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“Wanted: Black Dolls!”: The Importance of black female characters in children’s cultural productions

By Mariana dos Reis

“Wanted: black dolls!” The song “Bonecas Pretas” by singer and actress Larissa Luz, illustrated by a video, inserts a critique of the toy industry that makes the existence of the representation of the black girl in dolls invisible.

Bonecas Pretas- clipe de Larissa Luz
Still from “Bonecas Pretas” video by singer/actress Larissa Luiz (center)

In this way, the publishing market for children’s books and pieces also monitored, for years, this shortage of publications or artistic productions that portrayed the representation of the black child in their narratives. When present in such stories, they appeared in the condition of supporting roles of subordination, either in the domestic scenes or expressing humorous characteristics, illustrated in situations of humor or ridicule of their personalities. This, when these characters do not appear in mute narratives or linked to representation of the colonial period of slavery.

In the infant universe, this erasure of the existence of the female black character is even more pronounced in the face of the codes of whiteness reinforced by the media culture industry since the 1980s, be it in children’s programs, television commercials or cartoon representations. Who doesn’t remember the desire of every Brazilian girl to be a Paquita on the Xuxa show? The realization of this childhood dream in Brazil would only materialize from the attendance of pre-requisites aesthetically demarcated hegemonically: ser loira, de olhos claros, pele clara e de preferência, possuir cabelos lisos (be blonde, with light-colored eyes, fair skin and preferably, have straight hair).

This hierarchy of the construction of the notion of “beautiful” and of Eurocentric culture as universal can be noticed through the exposition of these infantile characters in histories that fix the idea of discrediting of the place of the black girl from the racial, social and aesthetic point of view. Black Brazilian culture does not seem to exist in children’s books, and when these stories prioritize a female character with traits of Brazilianness, they choose the mestiça (person of mixed race) as the protagonist. This scale of aesthetic hierarchy is attributed to the processes of branquitude (whiteness) in our society.

The researcher Lia Schucman points out that the category of branquitude is understood as a position in which the subjects were systematically privileged, with respect to material, economic and social accesses, generated by the effects of escravidão (slavery). Therefore, understanding branquitude is to understand racial inequality from the standpoint of countless white, individual, or structural prerogatives. In this sense, aesthetics and culture is also a way of representing racism in the face of forms of power structures. Thus, to be read as “branca” or “white” in Brazilian society is to receive positive attributes, either by aesthetic or symbolic conceptions, the latter reverberating the idea of success, progress and formation.

In turn, the “lightness” of being a menina ou mulher branca (white girl or woman) in the logic of capital, favors their substantial conditions of existence and this choice is assumed through the representation of most of the fictional children’s characters. However, due to the intense debates promoted by groups of black representation in social movements and the boiling over of academic research productions about feminismo negro (black feminism) and racial ethnic relations, this perspective on artistic and literary productions has changed.

In this way, the ethnic racial debate was also incorporated by the younger generations in the face of contact with social networks and the emergence of references of encouragement in their conviviality, be it in their universe of family, friends or public figures of reference. One of the references of generational public figures is the Hip Hop singer, MC Soffia, 15. She addresses themes in her lyrics such as feminism, empowerment, and blackness. With verses like: “Little black girl, exotic is not beautiful/You’re not cute/ You’re a queen” from the single “Menina pretinha” (Little black girl), MC Soffia questions the beauty standards imposed by society.

MC SOFFIA - Menina Pretinha
Still from MC Soffia video “Menina Pretinha”

It’s important to emphasize that one of the most emphasized discussions in the universe of black girls currently undergoing schooling is the acceptance of their cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair), which they call a “crown”, naming black friends with similar locks as “rainhas” (queens). This aesthetic marker, for decades, has encouraged many cases of low self-esteem or depression of black girls who felt rejected by social collectives. However, nowadays this audience for children and teenagers has not only incorporated their self-acceptance, but has also demanded from the spaces of production of culture, a greater representation as the deconstruction of stereotypes in the characterization of black characters.

One of the great discussions, both in the academic field of studies on “Black Feminism” and in the spaces of militancy is the overcoming of the colonial perspective of the existence of the “princess” and the “fairy tales”, elements of Eurocentric bases, in which the female character is always waiting for an enchanted prince or a perfect ending. Although this paradigm-breaking condition presents itself as an ideal for the emancipation of black girls, most references to stories told to them throughout childhood have followed this trend. It’s also important to emphasize that Brazilian children have a multiplicity of social, territorial, religious, family and ethnic backgrounds and experiences that record different visions of these fairy tales. The singularities of children’s experiences allow these stories to be told in countless ways.

Sleeping Beauty
Disney’s ‘Bela Adormecida’ (Sleeping Beauty’) (left) is playing in Rio de Janeiro starring actress Silvia Patrícia (right)

These re-readings of “classics” with the insertion of black female characters have recurred in the cultural production spaces of today’s children’s segment. One of the examples is the premiere of the play A Bela Adormecida (Sleeping Beauty) at Teatro dos Quatro, in Rio de Janeiro, under the direction of Alexandre Lino. The plot included as protagonist of the story, a black actress, with pele escura (dark skin) and cabelo crespo black (an afro). A graduate in Dance from UFRJ, the actress Silvia Patrícia, who emphasizes the importance of black characters in children’s theater: “Contemplates diversity because it brings a new look to what was considered normal, white, European. A new Bela (Beauty) brings a new possibility to show that there are other types of beauty, of representation (…) They are readings that show the author’s experience and touch the hearts of people regardless of age and ethnicity.”

Atriz Silvia Regina
Actress Silvia Regina of the play A Bela Adormecida (Sleeping Beauty) – Photo: Personal Archive

When referring to her experiences as a menina negra na infância (black girl in childhood), the actress recalls, “I have always been supported by my family about being black, being proud of my origins and roots. Tanto é que eu era a única negra de black, de tranças e fui estimulada (So much so that I was the only black woman with an afro, with braids and I was stimulated). When I went to tdo the audition of the Municipal Theater School, I thought I was the única bailarina negra (only black dancer) and I saw the photo of Mercedes Batista, who was the first black ballerina of the Municipal. I discovered that there were black dancers but they were not so acclaimed. From there, Mercedes Batista became a reference for me!

Researcher Sylvia Soares recently defended her Master’s thesis in Education by addressing, in her study, the theme of the importance of black female characters in children’s literature. The work was guided by Professor Giovana Xavier, a professor at the Faculty of Education of UFRJ and coordinator of the study group Intelectuais Negras (Black Women Intellectuals), which relies on references from theoretical intersectionality, black feminisms and decolonialities.

Speaking about the importance of her research in today’s universe, Sylvia emphasizes “that we have a high number of black female characters in all roles (princess, heroines) and preferably positive references and protagonists. Because what we had in most of the children’s stories was the presence of black female characters objectified or subordinated. And also remember the question of erasing the individual identity of the female characters in the book Menina Bonita do Laço de Fita (Beautiful Girl in the Ribbon) that was a super famous book, you realize that the character doesn’t even have a name and most of the characters have one.”

Thus, she concludes by pointing out the relevance of the positive references of female characters to the new generations. “Positive references, inspirations and good examples broaden our perspectives of life. If we think of the characters in the novela (soap opera), the characterization of black women as maids or slaves is bad for the references of the new generations. So it’s important that we have this representation in all genres: book, theater, cinema.”

Pesquisadora Sylvia Soares
Researcher Sylvia Soares – Photo: Personal Archive

The most recent world news on this subject is the casting of black actress Halle Bailley, who will play the character of Ariel in a version of The Little Mermaid, with animation actors by Disney, a company that rarely hires black actresses for the role of princesses. Most of the mermaids here in Brazil are portrayed as white, even Yemanjá, an orixá of African descent. The positivation of the most popular mermaid’s reference in the world as black boosts many black girls who were not represented, with the desire to be mermaids now.

Montagem feita com a atriz Halle Bailley e sua personagem, Ariel
Halle Bailley, Disney’s new ‘The Little Mermaid’

Finally, it is up to us, pedagogues, cultural producers, activists, basic education teachers, intellectuals and parents to confront the white supremacy that produces the invisibility of the references of our black children and conditions Eurocentric standards as universal. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie proposes in the book Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, a training for parents who wish to raise their children within a feminist and ethnic racial perspective of a fairer world through the sharing of daily experiences with their  filha negra (black daughter). May we also follow these steps through the choice of children’s cultural productions that embrace ethnic racial diversity.

Source: Notícia Preta

About Marques Travae 3147 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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