How I Got Radicalized

When Disney’s First ‘African’ Princess Looked Nothing Like Me

As a child, I loved Disney princesses. As an adult, my concern goes beyond the problematic stereotypes

Welcome to “How I Got Radicalized,” a series from GEN that tells the story of a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.

In the fall of 1998, as my big sister’s 15th birthday approached, we both huddled in excitement on the moss-green carpet of our home, watching cable TV as we awaited our mother’s return from a neighboring town. We lived in Bauchi, a city in northern Nigeria, and Mum had gone on a several-day trip to Jos, about two hours away. It was an unspoken family tradition for our parents to return from out-of-town trips bearing small gifts, like movies that had not yet joined the collection curated at our local Video Mars, a popular rent-a-video chain in northern Nigeria. Once Mum arrived home and we’d impatiently unpacked the bounty of fruit and vegetables bought at various markets along the Jos-Bauchi highway, she presented her offering: Disney’s Hercules on VHS. We watched it at least five or six times over the next couple of days.

This entire scenario played out multiple times during our childhood. We’d anxiously await VHS gifts from our parents, and upon their return, we’d become completely consumed by the films. But Hercules wasn’t like the other movies — it had Black women in it, more than one! In my childhood, I lacked a critical, analytic lens to interrogate why five Black women, all beautiful and singing gloriously, formed the entertainment backdrop for a white woman’s love story. It would take me several more years to grasp the gendered stereotypes within Disney’s go-to damsel-in-distress trope. Now, I understand a blunt reality: I was never intended to be Disney’s target audience.

This realization was cemented in early 2015 when news surfaced about a new film about a fairytale princess hailing from “Africa” who was inspired by problematic real-life events. I was based in the United Kingdom during the second year of my PhD, studying infection and immunity, and by that point, I’d dedicated myself to no longer be complacent in an inherently racist world. My daily ritual included keeping my finger on the pop culture pulse through news feeds on the laboratory computer during work breaks. This is where I first heard the disturbing story of a white American man who had traveled to the African continent to seize an “unclaimed” piece of land in the name of his daughter.

In 2014, Jeremiah Heaton set out on a mission to grant the wish of his seven-year-old daughter Emily, who wanted to be a princess. After finding out about nearly 800 square miles of terra nullius (“no man’s land”) between the borders of Egypt and Sudan known as Bir Tawil, Heaton set off to Cairo and obtained necessary paperwork from Egyptian authorities. He then made a journey to Bir Tawil and planted a flag in the ground, his daughter’s birthday present. He proudly proclaimed on Facebook that “Bir Tawil shall be forever known as the Kingdom of North Sudan. The Kingdom is established as a sovereign monarchy with myself as the head of state; with Emily becoming an actual princess.” Heaton was reportedly planning to create a “modern-day Garden of Eden” out of this land.

Disney saw this modern-day colonization event and decided to develop it into a movie. The Hollywood Reporter described it as a “unique princess tale inspired by the true account of an American man claiming a territory in Africa and proclaiming himself and his family its royal rulers.” This movie, entitled The Princess of North Sudan, swiftly received social media backlash. There’s been little news about the film’s production since. Had the movie moved forward as planned, it would have meant that the first live-action Disney princess from Africa would have been a seven-year-old white American girl.

In the films I watched as a kid, most Western movies sold every kind of stereotype about Africa, Africans, and African-ness. The mere possibility of seeing factual or accurately fictionalized representation had hardly even crossed my mind. I had great un-expectations around seeing my lived experiences on screen. Still, I found refuge during this era through VHS recorded tapes of Living Single, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Desmond’s, Martin, Nollywood productions, and many others. It was a delight to find the occasional animated movie made for Black people, like Kirikou and the Sorceress.

Even some small examples of progress on-screen often feel bittersweet. A little over a decade ago, my sister persuaded me to watch The Princess and the Frog. We were studying at university in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the time and part of our evening wind-down ritual was to indulge in watching some form of entertainment. I couldn’t believe that Disney had finally animated a Black princess. My sister’s excitement was infectious, and for one evening, I allowed myself the indulgence of childhood joy from animated scenes bursting with music and a Black princess’s love story.

What got to me was the audacity that modern-day colonization could once again be packaged in PG format and sold as a celebratory delight.

Over the decade since The Princess and the Frog came out, many have analyzed the movie’s subtle flaws, including how the protagonist Princess Tiana spends most of her on-screen time as a frog. This movie follows a familiar phenomenon in many animated films, where Black characters assume non-human forms for a significant portion of the movie. (It’s also worth noting that even if Nala, The Lion King’s much-loved heroine, was indeed considered a Disney princess from the East African Pride Lands, the character was still also an animal.)

The turning point in my journey came in 2016 when I realized there was no time to waste in using my voice. On the ninth of March that year, I wrote through tears, wishing my father a safe journey as he moved into the realm of the ancestors the day before. He had left most unexpectedly, mere months after I had discovered my voice and internalized my responsibility to use it toward racial justice. Suddenly, every question I should have asked him barged into my grief. And yes, regrets still linger.

My anger around cultural artifacts like Heaton’s colonial project and Disney’s proposed movie around it didn’t stem from me particularly wanting any form of Disney princess representation (even though I truly believe on-screen representation is very important for Black children). Instead what got to me was the audacity that modern-day colonization could once again be packaged in PG format and sold as a celebratory delight. This packaging keeps happening in everyday life. One of its many harms is how anti-Blackness is downplayed while Blackness, and in this case African-ness, is routinely erased. Disney, which was slowly progressing its princesses beyond the typical damsel-in-distress of times past, had not considered how problematic taking on The Princess of North Sudan as a project was. If only my dad were still around to talk through these issues. What would he have made of this persistent fuckery?

Migrant. Postdoctoral researcher. Teacher. Mental Health Advocate. Writer. Professional in the streets, loud on the sheets of paper.

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