Before Princess Tiana, before Cookie Lyon and before the black female heroines of Shondaland’s TV lineup, there was Brandy. Twenty years ago, on The Wonderful World of Disney, Brandy Norwood became the first mainstream black princess when she starred in the third television adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Cinderella. With the late, great Whitney Houston in the role of fairy godmother, there to let Brandy’s Cinderella know her dreams were “quite possible,” watching (and re-watching) the film was a formative experience for me as a young black girl.
From the Disney animated classic to the 2015 live-action retelling, the simple fable about remaining kind and pure of heart has been adapted over and over. After Hilary Duff found her Prince Charming in Chad Michael Murray, Selena Gomez, Lucy Hale and Sofia Carson found theirs in subsequent spinoff films. Drew Barrymore was a feminist Cinderella in Ever After who fought her way out from under Anjelica Huston’s thumb. The Cinderella story has even been gender-bent on a handful of occasions, too.
The cultural fascination with this (originally quite macabre) fairytale might come from its escapist nature. Who wouldn’t want a soulmate to swoop in and whisk them away from the stresses of their difficult life? It’s a fantasy that rings especially true for me as a black women. I’ve been told for years that my looks and ambitions make me the least desirable type of woman to men of all shades. I don’t necessarily need to be saved, but I do need to be valued and loved.
This particular adaption holds a special place in my heart because it was the first time I was given direct access to the fairytales I grew up on. Rather than needing to project onto Ariel or Belle, the girl with the gorgeous dress and happy ending looked just like me. For once, I didn’t have to wish for blond hair or pillowy red curls to inject myself into the fantasy. With her long, black braids, dark skin and broad nose, Brandy resembled me and the women I loved. Brandy as Cinderella gave me something to hold close to my heart when I was inundated by beautiful princesses with “skin as white as snow.”
This adaptation of the Broadway musical made such an impression on me because it put a black girl at the center of all the pomp and circumstance I’d been conditioned to pine for. Twenty years later, Disney princesses still hold cultural cachet. The iconic animated princesses have been remixed into everything from hipsters to mean girls. Right or wrong, Disney still has the power to dictate what many little girls aspire to. That’s why the introduction of Moana, the first Polynesian princess in 2016, was a welcome addition to the canon.
Rediscovering Brandy’s Cinderella as an adult is a special kind of joy. Seven-year-old me wasn’t as impressed with the casting of this film as I should have been. This little made-for-television film is packed with heavy hitters, from Whitney Houston in her prime as the ever-encouraging Fairy Godmother, to the iconic Bernadette Peters as the scenery-chewing Lady Tremaine, Victor Garber as King and the legendary Whoopi Goldberg as the Queen. It’s easy to overlook how quietly diverse the movie was for a time when conversations around representation weren’t happening with the urgency they are now. I was a teenager before it occurred to me that a black woman and a white man probably wouldn’t have a Filipino biological son (the prince was played by actor Paolo Montalban). Those details were lost on me because the fantasy was so delightful.
Looking back, it seems a miracle the film exists at all. Even if onscreen representation for black women has improved, it hasn’t done so without years of casting us as fat, loud, angry, bossy characters first — a stereotype that persists today. As Hollywood continues to tell black women that our very existence is too much, Brandy is a beacon from the past, a reminder that there is more than one way to exist and be validated. She’s long-standing proof that representation matters.
It’s perhaps more significant than it should be that Brandy’s Cinderella is a love story. The performance of “10 Minutes Ago” in the film still makes me emotional, because even 20 years later, it remains rare to see a black woman, especially a dark-skinned black woman, be celebrated that way. The idea that she’d want to make someone “ring out the bells and fling out my arms and to sing out the news” out of love for her is sadly, still novel. It’s never been difficult for black women to be seen as sexually desirable — that idea alone comes with its own historical baggage. But to be truly prized and cherished? To be romantically loved? That’s a tiny revolution.
Catherine Young is a freelance writer from Trinidad and Tobago. She believes cake is better than pie, leggings are pants, and Magic Mike XXL is a slept-on classic. If she ever writes her memoirs, they will be called, “Sometimes I Sleep On The Floor.” Read more of her writing on her website, or say hello on Twitter.
Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage via Getty Images.