If you parent a little girl, the amount of time you spend with her can be scientifically measured by how many songs you know from the movie ‘Frozen’. Disney has merchandised childhood, meaning the making of local memories can barely be conceived beyond its corporate monopoly on everything from birth to birthdays.
Zi turned four on Saturday, and her little celebration was only missing the ‘Frozen’ Elsa outfit and bouncy castle. You can fight Disney, as I tried, insisting for the first two birthdays on cake and other decorations that were not marketed by US media to us in the Caribbean. But, you will find yourself alone in the wilderness of Santa Cruz while your mother google maps the country for Dora or Elsa icing designers, your mother in law invests in customary birthday paraphernalia, and no one else actually cares about the intersections of capitalism, post-colonialism and childhood.
After all, generations of Caribbean people inherited Disney characters as globalized symbols of play and joy, just as we once inherited British ones, identifying ourselves as world citizens this way.
And, it’s all done in Ziya’s name as if only a bad mother would deny her harmless normality, and deprive her of the chance to be like her friends with their own Disney themed birthdays. Indeed, little girls are astute observers of childhood status markers, and pre-school playgrounds feature complex conversation about gender socialization, class belonging, modernity and conspicuous consumption.
Thus, Ziya’s birthday cake icing comprised expertly made (and delicious) blond Elsa, blue icicles, silver snowflakes and Olaf the snowman, all proudly displayed on a humid, tropical afternoon. My mother requested a brown girl with black plaits be crafted from icing and placed next to Elsa in an attempt to mediate between Franz Fanon and ‘Frozen’, and I kept my politics to myself for family requires compromise, fantasies are part of childhood and I survived much Disney-defined fun, parties, toys and clothes with critical consciousness mostly intact.
I looked at it all thinking that this is why Ziya insists on being a princess when I explain the power of African empresses. I thought about the far fewer options for Caribbean-themed birthdays, with our own icons, myths and landscape, and how we repeat an old colonial familiarity with daffodils and practicing ‘proper’ English through the reading of British colloquialisms in books by Beatrix Potter. We celebrate escape to elsewhere, TV, overseas or other selves.
Teaching what we have learnt, survived and fondly remember, we establish the connections that craft our children’s sense of themselves and place, the lens from which they assess what is presented as who they are, and their practices of validating their own bodies, ecology and stories. It makes sense for bleaching creams to line Pennywise shelves, for government officials to defend a leisure complex, which turns its back on the existence of the coast whose mangrove it decimated, and for the meanings of development to be determined by FDI, or foreign direct imagination.
Feminism offered some future consolation. Disney is now stirring sprinkles of independence, fearlessness and sisterhood into tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland. In ‘Frozen’, the story doesn’t end with a prince, hapless damsel rescue or marriage as the happily ever after. Thank goddess.
This is how the world of a just-turned four, sapodilla-brown girl is defined by media, US corporate power, family, femininity, Caribbean feminism and more. Like Frozen’s Elsa, may Zi find the freedom to not hide who she has grown up to be. Like Anna, may she celebrate each year she grows into the hero of her own story.