When it comes to cultural sensitivity, it would be a dramatic understatement to say that Disney has a checkered past. Whether in colonized India ("The Jungle Book") or the “barbaric” Middle East ("Aladdin"), the animation giant has long denied its characters of color their full humanity. Case in point: The only Disney movie set on the continent of Africa to date, "The Lion King," didn’t even have any Africans in it, only animals -- and yet Disney still managed to inject racial and cultural stereotypes into the film.
And so it is that after a smooth eight decades of racist depictions, the studio recently announced the development of a new film, "The Princess of North Sudan," a story based on actual events that will be adapted for the screen by writer Stephany Folsom, hired earlier this month.
From the title alone, this sounds like a promising departure from history, suggesting perhaps a newfound respect for black characters and the African continent as a place populated by, you know, human Africans. Might this princess be different from Disney's long lineage of lily-white royals? Could the days of an archetypal Snow White in fact be coming to a close?
Alas, appearances can be very deceiving, and anyone who looks past the title of the movie quickly discovers this jaw-dropping central detail about Disney's "first African princess": She is actually white.
She's not African, either. Nor is she even a princess. She’s just Emily Heaton, of Virginia. Granted, she is adorable, and seven years old; so I hate to say this, but she’s also an entitled brat with a rich, spineless dad. She is the spirit animal for global white supremacy and American imperialist power. And now she’s slated to be immortalized by Disney.
As Princess Emily’s dad, Jeremiah Heaton, spoke to the Guardian last summer and explained her path to royalty. One night before bed, Emily, then a lowly commoner, asked her father is she’d ever become a real princess. This question thus faced dear old dad with a “dilemma.”
"I didn’t want to break her spirits, so I said ‘yes, absolutely,’" Heaton told the Guardian. “She had such a serious tone. I knew it meant a lot to her.”
Because she was six.
Emily has probably been raised on patriarchal Disney movies (of which canon she’ll eventually be a part), and her sense of reason and possibility are that of a six-year-old.
So Heaton started looking for a kingdom for his daughter to rule, and eventually he found an 800-square-mile tract of North Sudan called Bir Tawil, claimed neither by Sudan nor Egypt, with whom it shares its northern border.
With a flag designed by the Heaton clan, Jeremiah flew to Africa and traveled 14 hours by caravan to the largely uninhabited, barren region of Bir Tawil to proudly claim his kingdom. Explained his reasoning to the Washington Post, he reminded everyone that this is “exactly how several other countries, including what became the United States, were historically claimed.” Except, well, that’s not exactly how it was done. And, as the Guardian’s Bim Adewunmi points out, another Disney princess, Pocahontas, neatly sums up the problem with Heaton's colonialist logic:
“You think you own whatever land you land on.”
Heaton, though, contends that, unlike the Americas, his “Kingdom of North Sudan” actually is situated on uninhabited land. “Bedouins roam the area; [but] the population is actually zero,” he explains.
Then the population isn’t zero!
You do understand that Bedouins are people, right? They just don’t live in a way that you recognize. They’re nomadic, just like most of the native peoples before Europeans came to the Americas with their flags to plant. Oh, you stuck a pole in the ground? That totally trumps the Bedouins’ claim to their ancestral land. You’ve really thought this one through.
But Heaton explains that the kingdom will be a magnanimous one, a benevolent monarchy. “We’ll help each other out,” is the moral message of the new royals’ to their new neighbors. Just like the Europeans said in America! (At first.)
The kingdom’s Indiegogo page (it’s a free market country entirely for sale) describes its princess’ plan as such:
“Emily, having learned about hungry children in Africa from her elementary school teacher, stated very clearly, ‘Grow a garden as big as our country to feed people!’”
The kingdom sits on one of the most dry and barren places on planet earth; it’s Saharan sand when it’s not mountains. Nobody’s growing nothing there. Stop listening to your seven-year-old daughter’s ideas. She’s seven, for Christ’s sake. Before you claim a kingdom you need to claim a few pages in a book or two.
The Indiegogo page advertises all the ways you can buy into the kingdom and feed Africa. Poor fans of postmodern colonialism can get a bumper sticker for $15, while for $50,000 they can continue the tradition of putting wealthy colonialists’ faces on currency. Never mind that Heaton is really into Bitcoin (because of course he is) and the kingdom’s currency will be digital.
The Indiegogo page also lists the incipient nation’s proto-cabinet:
David G. Marmon is the Secretary of International Relations. Marmon, a well-educated lawyer and world traveler, runs an apparently successful firm that helps churches obtain tax-exempt status. Though much of Marmon’s travel has been for beneficial missionary purposes, he appears to once have been a Reaganite anti-communist, helping “Nicaraguan refugees escaping the Sandinistas” during the 1980s. Marmon’s website describes a man very much concerned with poverty, but then there are also biographical details like this: “I met with the sub-director of the National Guard, the ones behind the death squads—I sat in his office and had tea with him and was his friend.” This enigma will be in charge of relating to other nations.
The Surgeon General of the kingdom, Dr. James H. Schrenker, should more accurately be described as the Minister of Medicine—because his medical practice is Christian faith-healing, augmented by a hodgepodge of Eastern religion-sounding stuff like “auras” and “chakras.” He explains in his medical manifesto: “It is the essence of GOD in that it requires Faith; the magic bullet for medicine, because it heals; and the big bang for science, as it explains creation.” Pro tip: Penicillin is also a magic bullet. (Far be it from me to criticize Schrenker's take on Western medicine, which he denounces as being driven by “capitalist companies,” but something tells me that that disease-stricken regions of Africa need a little more than prayers to Jesus about malarial auras.)
All of this is by way of stating the obvious: These are people with little to no interest in Africa as a place that actually exists. Even the adults in the room -- as opposed to the literal children, whose whims are elevated to foreign policy directives -- are motivated by ideas that are, at the very best, precious and uninformed; and in any case undergirded by centuries of colonial violence, and decades of cultural whitewashing and misappropriation.
So of course the people at Disney want to animate it.
Still high off its eruption of racial consciousness in 2009’s "The Princess and the Frog" -- in which its first-ever black female protagonist spends a good portion of the movie as an amphibian -- the studio gobbled up the rights to Heaton's life story last year. Appropriately, the Internet freaked the fuck out.
Heaton told Foreign Policy that his family is “blessed” to be the subject of a Disney film. “In this process we have been able to make Emily a real princess,” he said. “She’s also a Disney princess.” He defended the decision to make the movie, for which he has been compensated handsomely by the entertainment giant, heaping scorn on the "academics" who have protested the valorization of his story.
"[M]uch of the criticism has come from what [Heaton] scornfully calls ‘academics,’” Foreign Policy explains. Otherwise known as people who actually think about things and don’t take intellectual direction from seven year olds.
Screenwriter Stephany Folsom also responded to the Twitter blitz following her hiring earlier this month. Taking on critics, Folsom assured everyone of her bona fides: “I've been to the Sudan. The people there are amazing.” Oh, she's been to Sudan! And its people are so amazing that she’s writing a screenplay about a place almost wholly devoid of Sudanese people and soon to be overrun with Americans. To her credit, Folsom remarked in another tweet that “colonialism is bullshit.” That tweet has since been deleted.
In another deleted tweet, Folsom continued: “There is no planting a flag in Sudan or making a white girl the princess of an African country. That's gross.” OK, so it’s a movie that isn't about what its only source material would suggest it is exactly about. Got it. (And I thought Charlie Kaufman wrote crazy screenplays.)
I hate to ruin it for everyone but here’s another spoiler: This movie won’t ever be made. Disney may be clumsy and racially clueless, but they’re not commercially suicidal. The story of the princess of North Sudan cannot be told without racism and colonialism, and no amount of sentimental nonsense keeps that from being the case, whether in the Heaton family or in the screenplay. You could salvage the title, though; just make the movie about an actual African princess. It’s a big continent. There has to be someone besides a middle-class white girl around whom to build a movie.