Watching ‘The Doll Test’ for the first time was a harrowing experience. Comprised by the African-American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s, video footage of the test shows shocking footage of children innocently associating a white-skinned doll with positive characteristics and a dark-skinned doll with negative personality traits. Regardless of the country, the culture in which these children have been raised, and even the ethnicity of the child who is answering the questions, they collectively reach the same conclusion. What this is demonstrative of is an internalised racism and internalised inferiority that, although subconscious, is potentially fatal. If, in childhood, these children are indoctrinated with racial prejudices, what is there to stop these attitudes being carried forward into adolescence, into adulthood, and ultimately passed through generations? Something to consider when watching the dark-skinned girl child point to the dark-skinned doll and call her ugly.
Beauty is a concept that is ingrained into the mindsets of young girls almost from the moment of birth; to be beautiful is to be successful, to be liked in the eyes of men is to be successful. Beauty may, in itself, be a problematic measure of success, but it undeniably defines the self-confidence of the vast majority of young girls and women in our society. However, when the universally accepted definition of beauty is Eurocentric, and therefore whitewashed, there is little we can do in terms of providing the girl child of ethnic minority parents with this self-confidence.
It is arguably the role of media representation to, through the establishment of relatable, aspirational characters to build self-confidence; of course, Walt Disney’s filmic kingdom-ful of princesses punctuates every young girl’s personal development and self-awareness. Fairy tales, when told orally, allowed children the imaginative freedom to create a character within their own minds, but the translation of fairy tales into a visual, filmic medium means that the viewer is given a set visual image of the character, and thus perhaps a set image of what constitutes beauty. When only four of the eleven Disney princesses are ethnic minorities, seemingly created, according to The Daily Tugrum, ‘to appease minority viewers’, we have a huge problem in media representation. As the article goes on to claim, ‘a token princess is created and then producers are done with the minority.’ Film production companies, scriptwriters, directors, and perhaps everybody involved in the Disney filmmaking process is avoiding the responsibility they have towards an audience of young girls who are growing up in an increasingly multicultural environment. If children’s culture, through which they are socialised, does not undergo a timely evolution alongside social and demographic change, how can we expect children to adopt progressive values?
According to a study conducted by Kayla Meagher and Michele Neal on the influence of the animated faces of Disney characters on children’s perceptions, the issue of children relating negative characteristics to race is one amongst many. The study found that ‘villainous characters were significantly more likely to have darker eyes, arched eyebrows, thin and pointed noses, a widow’s peak, straight hair, wrinkles, and appear to be over 30 years old’. Whilst these may seem like relatively harmless descriptions of facial features, the final two of this extensive list have been nominated as reasons for which children also harbour negative feelings towards social groups such as the elderly.
To return to the previous point about beauty being a problematic measure of success, perhaps what we need to be teaching young girls is to celebrate personality traits outside physical appearance, such as intelligence, kindness and courage. Disney princesses, thankfully, also have these human qualities, but somehow these are always overshadowed by their beauty. We, as adults, are responsible for instilling certain values in children, and it is therefore down to us to redefine what self-confidence should be and where it should come from. Racism and ageism are just two examples of many when it comes to the ways in which human beings formulate prejudices against one another. Just some food for thought.
Written by @Sharlene Ghandi