Advice · Family

Picking a Disney Princess Costume

My 7 year old was invited to a Disney princess themed costume birthday party. She has her heart set on going as Moana. We’re white and I’m concerned about cultural appropriation. Should I make her choose a white princess? I assume other kids will likely be there and dressed as Jasmine, Pocahontas, Tiana, Mulan, etc. I guess I have other questions.

Is it that white kids should only go as white characters or that every kid should only go as their culture or white? Is it okay for an Asian child to go as Pocahontas, for example? Or is that cultural appropriation too?

I’m worried about bringing too much adult stuff onto a child’s birthday party. It wouldn’t surprise me that if I told my daughter she had to go as a white princess, that she would tell another white girl at the party that she shouldn’t have gone as Jasmine or something. Any advice is appreciated.

Because I am not a parent, I struggle with the best ways to address questions that ultimately come down to parenting choices. If an adult friend who is white told me she was dressing as Mulan for Halloween, I’d ask her why, and discourage it because cultures are not costumes.

That said, I recognize that it is probably hard to have that conversation with children, especially if you haven’t previously broached the topic of racism and cultural appropriation with your child. However! A white parent who is invested in this issue wrote about her own experience with her daughter wanting to dress up as Moana for Halloween last year. You can read the post here; I think it’s a solid piece with some concrete discussion options.

As for your question regarding the choices of people of color, I would return to the idea that cultures are not costumes. Of course, it’s also unfortunate that Disney has not chosen to share more stories of princesses of color.

Finally, to the last part of your question: what if your daughter says something to her peers about why you all decided that Moana wasn’t an appropriate costume for her to wear? Well … then she does. I don’t expect your child to be able to discuss the nuances of cultural appropriation (most white adults struggle with it), so it is possible it will create an awkward interaction or two depending on what your daughter chooses to say, and how the other children react. And I think that’s okay.

If this is a party where the parents are present as well, perhaps you could find an opening to bring it up? Something along the lines of “Yes, Suzy first wanted to come as Moana, but we had a conversation about whether we thought that made sense since our family isn’t Polynesian, and in the end she decided to go with Snow White.”

Depending on the parents you interact with, you may very well get an eye roll, or a loud objection about political correctness run amok. There may be parents of color there who disagree with the suggestions I’m offering here. There may be parents reading this now who think that this is all too serious and we’re just talking about Disney princess for crying out loud. Yes, it’s heavy for a children’s birthday party, but I’m not suggesting this be the main — or only — topic of conversation. It might take up two or three minutes and then everyone can move on. But in those few minutes, you can use it as an opportunity to interrogate your own feelings on race and culture, and how your children — and you — can best learn about other cultures without being disrespectful.

Parents: how have you handled addressing this topic — or similar issues — with your own children over the years? Do you have any additional suggestions for this parent?

3 thoughts on “Picking a Disney Princess Costume

  1. Thanks for the discussion. This whole thing is kind of fraught since there are obvious risks of offending folks and also risks in telling kids that race is so essentialized that they can’t have or dress as heroes from other cultures. My rule of thumb on these issues with my daughter is that it isn’t okay to dress as a “culture” but is okay to dress as a specific character from another culture as long as (1) it is obvious enough in the context that you are that specific character – probably okay at a Disney princess birthday party but not maybe less clear in other contexts (2) You don’t change your skin tone or use an “ethic hair wig” and (3) It doesn’t include sacred items that are considered blasphomas to use by that culture – which may eliminate some historical Native American options since for that culture most of their regalia falls into that category. I think for this case that would mean very specifically copying the necklace and outfit. Not perfect and part of why this as a birthday theme is pretty annoying.

  2. Dressing up as a specific Disney character is not cultural appropriation. It is not wrong for a black child to dress up as Sleeping Beauty. It is not wrong for a white child to dress up as Moana. Suggesting that it is only acceptable for a person do to something based solely on the color of their skin stinks of racism. The intent may be good, but the action separates us and hurts us as a society. Segregation is wrong in all forms.

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