As a Young Black Girl, I Needed Cinderella to Look Like Me

Brandy Norwood’s Cinderella is a beacon from the past, a reminder that there is more than one way to exist and be validated

11.02.17

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.

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  • Caroline Christianson

    Emotions I had as a kid continue to be the most powerful and somatic experiences of my life. I love reading about those of others, especially when the writer is this thoughtful and reflective. Super lovely – thank you for sharing

  • silla

    Beautiful! Thanks for this.

  • Elif

    Great piece – I know how you feel. It’s why I love Master of None so much. I’m not even Indian (like Aziz), but have a somewhat Muslim background. That episode he did about the pork festival was the first time in my ENTIRE life I saw someone with kind of a similar background as me on TV, in a situation I may have been in. Close enough, I guess. I wasn’t jealous of friends growing up (over the fact that their backgrounds were so well-represented in the media, that is), but it all hit me when I realized what I actually missed/am missing out on, you know?

  • Gentlywithoutnoise

    Oh me oh my! I couldn’t believe my eyes I swear I clicked so hard I almost broke my screen! Especially here at manrepeller. God I’m always stating this same thing about this Cinderella version and about all the positive images of Brandy during her early years all together. With this movie and just everything Moesha gave us those six seasons so much so much…. anyway this just made my night and I will be forwarding this read to the group chaT I don’t know how to say thank you enough🙏🏾✨

  • Rachel

    This has always been my favourite interpretation of Cinderella!! I’m a white middle class woman so seeing myself in Disney princess has always been easy but there was always something about the utopian multiculturalism of this movie that I loved since it reflected the community I grew up in that as a kid I perceived as utopian. As an adult I can see it’s not exactly like this but this type of representation is so important, especially for young people and I wish this version of Cinderella would get more recognition.

    • Rachel

      Also totally going to rewatch this now

  • Brandy’s Cinderella is BY FAR the best rendition of the fairytale. I was obsessed with that movie, Whoopi especially. And the soundtrack was the bomb. I mean, “It’s Possible”!!! I need to make my little cousins (8 & 11) watch ASAP.

  • TinySoprano

    When I first saw this version of Cinderella as a child, I thought Brandy was the most beautiful person I had ever seen in my life. (And having just googled her again I can happily report that she still is) And this whole article articulates perfectly why the new disney remakes just ring so hollow, tone-deaf and unnecessary. We need more remakes like Brandy’s Cinderella!

  • Bo

    the only true Cinderellas are Brandy and Drew.

  • ValiantlyVarnished

    “As Hollywood continues to tell black women that our very existence is too much” Drop those truth bombs! This was a great piece.

  • phillyspice
    • Amelia Diamond

      Nov 2 was the 20th anniversary of Rogers & Hammersteins’ Cinderella 🙂 So a few publications published stories around Brandy’s Cinderella! I love R. Eric Thomas – he writes for us, too! Cannot wait to read what he has to say…

  • O

    This movie was VERY important to me as a child. I taped it watched it over and over and over and over since I was not used to seeing myself (re: black girl) portrayed in that manner (re: princess material). Brandy actually performed several roles that I looked up to in her heyday.
    Singing as I exit, “Impossible! For a plain country bumpkin & a prince to join in marriage…”

  • Truly one of my favourite childhood movies. Great to hear about it again and how important it was to so many people.

  • Holland Kennedy

    I watched this movie every single day for AT LEAST a year or two when I was younger. We really don’t give Brandy the immense credit she deserves, she’s a groundbreaker!! I still have the VCR of this. Brb about to watch it.

  • Miss Crystal

    I love this movie soooo much! In addition, as a mixed raced kid, just the act of showing so many interracial couples in a time when it was rarely, if ever, featured in tv and film was so wonderful. Back then, I was singled out for being weird and different and having weird and different parents (kids are cruel), so I really needed this.

  • spicyearlgrey

    LION KING AND BEYONCE HAVE COME TO SAVE US ALL

  • eizhowa

    My mother had a Cinderella doll with reddish curly hair and freckles. I identified with her so much, having both curls and freckles.

  • I always loved this movie! The music is so good, and Brandy had such a quiet grace about her.

  • Chelle

    I still sing (scream) the entire “Impossible” song alone in my apartment at least once a month

  • Zoe Penina Baker

    I LOVED this film (still do)! Every time I tell someone about it it I’m shocked it isn’t more well-known. Whitney Houston in that amazing winged turtleneck dress was my everything <3

  • This was great, thank you!