Listening to an NPR feature on the Disney film The Princess and the Frog on opening day, I was struck by the uniformity of black opinion celebrating the fact that now we, too, could participate in the commodification of our images. The overwhelming sentiment was “finally” we can buy a Disney princess that looks just like us. This was on top of my previous shock about the Carol’s Daughter hair and body product tie-ins featuring the princess. This reaction—our eagerness as producers and consumers—is too simplistic. I mean, it is a reaction that essentially says we know we’ve achieved when we can participate in our own commodification. Then again, perhaps we truly are, finally, real Americans—willing to buy and sell anything.
Instead of offering a critique of market values or at least attempting to resist them, what we are witnessing is the celebration of the beginning of a process of brand loyalty and personal identity formation through products consumed—the branding of our children. Now for people whose ancestors have been literally branded this ought to spark concern not celebration. This seems a sorry state of affairs for people descended from people who constituted one of the first mass-market commodities and have witnessed first-hand the damage wrought by submitting to the ethics of the market place. As if the lessons of slavery aren’t enough of a lesson in the nature of exploitive labor and the extraction of profits from the bodies of black people, recent developments in the popular entertainment sphere should warn us about being too eager to assume that our presence in the market place is always positive and beneficial.
Numerous critics have cited the ways in which various contemporary black artists have become complicit in the reproduction of problematic representations as well as the erasure of historical context and radical politics for current images. In a really useful chapter of his 1999 book Pan Africanism: Exploring the Contradictions, William B. Ackah, suggests that, as a result of the dominance of American cultural productions globally, “American” representations of blackness become the dominant representations of blackness and often subsume other more progressive discourses on black identity and politics. If this is true, then African Americans in particular have a responsibility to exercise special care with regard to the images of blackness we consume and endorse (and not only in relation to everyone’s favorite whipping boys, rappers). In fact, given the extensive history of negative and , largely, uncontested representations of African American women already cited in Ikard’s blog “Why Baby-Girl Won’t Be Going to see Disney’s ‘The Frog and the Princess,’” we should be especially vehement in our rejection of this new commodification of black women’s bodies. That it is repackaged as a New Orleans “romance” should in fact heighten our attention to history since this was a space in which the murky ethics of trading in humans as commodities was amplified in the practice of the system of concubinage in which black women could trade their bodies and sexuality for a few of the privileges of freedom. Certainly this twisted conflation of commercial value with social equality can provide a lesson for us today.