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How inspiration porn humiliates women in ‘The Truly Brave Princesses’
Sharing this post on social media? Use this description to make it accessible: [Image description: Illustration from ‘The Truly Brave Princesses,’ by Dolores Brown & Sonja Wimmer. A young orange-haired, be-caped girl with amblyopia sits astride a tall tree branch and looks off into the distance, a visual metaphor for the low bar of her ‘heroism’ in living with a disability.]
Dolores Brown & Sonja Wimmer
Picture book, Not Recommended
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This story is supposed to be inclusive. So why do we feel so alienated?
“I would love to read a longer review of The Truly Brave Princesses if you ever feel up to writing one. I checked it out from the library once to see if it was worth reading to my preschool classroom. I ended up deciding not to, for reasons I still can’t articulate. It was the strangest feeling, reading it…it had so much in it that I always wish more children’s books had, but it just felt…wrong somehow. ‘Tokenizing’ is one word that comes to mind, but that doesn’t fully encompass everything that felt off about this book.”
– Alyssa M., early childhood educator & disability rights advocate
Why it feels off: The Truly Brave Princesses is a bucket of ableism, internalized hetero-sexism, and model-minority bullshit.
Every woman in the book is presented like a spectacle in a carnival sideshow where the makers use targeted identities to entertain the reader and show off how good and accepting and progressive we all are. This is inspiration porn – using non-threatening, tokenized model minorities to make folks who control the narrative feel better about themselves.
Projects like this sum up that cringe-worthy affirmation of white-, able-, and cishet-centered motivational posters – It’s okay to be different!
Thanks for the permission, I guess?
Regarding the model minorities – the makers don’t even stretch – they highlight only the safest and most socially moderate ways to be ‘different.’ Lesbians and single women – but no openly trans or nonbinary femmes. A woman who proposed to her boyfriend (seriously that’s her only defining thing!) and a single mom – but no polya or blended families. A lady doctor, but no sex workers, working poor, or women who demand credit for emotional or domestic labor. For a book that gives a half-assed attempt at diverse representation, they just made such an overwhelmingly lazy attempt.
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Tokenizing under-represented women as a spectacle
The premise of this book is that these girls and women are the other – people who aren’t reflected in the mainstream media. By accepting who they are and not dying of despair or whatever, that makes them so brave. Truly brave.
The author couldn’t even be bothered to write a story or hook to engage kids. Every spread reads like a listicle of bland dating site profiles. The selling point of this lineup isn’t because the makers find these women fundamentally human and ordinary, but because they don’t. Creating a spectacle of targeted identities – a series of profiles presented one after another for your shock, awe, pity, and inspiration, betrays how the makers perceive each woman as imperfect and bizarre.
There are some moments for validation and reflection. If we reached (real hard), a kid could look at one of the women in this book and think – they are like me! It means something to have girls of size, and girls with disabilities to know they are worth reflecting in a story.
But do we have to get so…stereotype-y about it? Using targeted identities as a spectacle of caricatures, to sell books, is ultimately dehumanizing and further paints these highlighted details – She’s unmarried! She’s got a lisp! as traits of the other. Marking these identities as something that sets us apart and defines us, rather than just something that we are, in addition to being human.
On the surface – all these books start out with the same premise – humans are diverse little critters, and we all need to see ourselves as worthy of acceptance and celebration.
If TBP princesses makes us nervous to highlight and amplify targeted people – how can we do it without being so…gross?
Contrast TBP with the saccharine (but endearing) earnestness of 2001’s Different Just Like Me – in which a white girl meets new friends in a believably vanilla plot. The protagonist makes a genuine connection with each person – recognizing their difference from her but ultimately shows how much more they have in common. It’s cognitively appropriate for young readers, understanding that some folks (primarily younger kids and folks raised in the colonist/supremacist paradigm) wrestle with the concept of both/and. Two things can be the same in some respects, but different in others. One thing can contain contradictions. A girl can be both disabled, and capable and awesome.
The people the in Different Just Like Me aren’t presented like a lineup in a carnival sideshow, and they aren’t each defined by whitewashed, colonized standards such as marriage status. Mitchell stays in her lane and doesn’t pretend this book is written for anyone but people like her – a white, abled audience, but she touches on the concept of diversity with respect and curiosity.
Contrast TBP with 2016’s The People You May See, in which Sky actively solicited #OwnVoices interviews to amplify the voices of people who feel judged on the street, so she could boost their voices and break stigma. Interviews are presented in their own voices, speaking for themselves, not as representations of a monolithic identity.
Contrast TBP with 2017’s Lovely, or They She He Me, and similar books focusing on radical body diversity and acceptance, where fictionalized characters are celebrated in pride parade of solidarity and representation. Some stories, such as M is for Mustache, even reflect acceptance into the story as a literal, unapologetic pride parade. Affirming that folks erased from traditional media are unconditionally worthy of dignity and self-determination – and deserve to feel seen and connected as a part of the community – not as a spectacle for the mainstream’s entertainment.
Is this book actively malicious, or just willfully ignorant?
TBP swerves away from responsible representation into objectifying us is – falling into the trap of presenting characters in this story in what feels eerily like a beauty pageant parade or a series of dating profiles – as if waiting for the readers’ approval.
Unlike the older books, which all reached some level of connection and humanity, TBP stumbled and explodes in a fiery bingo-chart of denigrating, tokenizing model minorities, reductive stereotypes, and assumptions on how women’s identities still hinge on their romantic relationships (SERIOUSLY EW GROSS YUCK NO).
TBP was printed in 2018 (and a second edition in 2019 because we love half-assed garbage, I guess), plenty of time after the kidlit industry had been packed with good examples of how to celebrate diversity and boost #OwnVoices identities. Even if we pretend the makers were locked in a silo for the past 20 years and had no access to libraries, the internet, or communities like ours (I do this work for free and still white abled ladies come up with excuses!) a few minutes of pause would have given someone in the supply chain a moment of pause – right? At the very least – even if this is how Wimmer does inclusion in Europe (why oh why, as a European does she keep drawing pan-Indigenous person from Turtle Island!?), someone on this side of the pond should have been like ‘Wait hold up this isn’t gonna fly with disabled BIPOC in America.’
Baring some extreme ignorance and/or that silo situation I mentioned above, it’s hard to see this book as anything but an attempt to further stereotype and disempower people with targeted identities as the other. It feels like a Fox News sidebar article.*
But honestly – I don’t think this was malicious. I think this is just the same old stuff we keep finding in kidlit, over, and over, and over again – makers who want ally cookies, who want to capitalize off the wave of progress, but who don’t want to pass the mic. It’s just that same goofy white-centering that harms targeted people while patting our heads and telling us to be patient and complacent. A message far more dangerous than transparently malicious books we can see right through.
*If you don’t want to benefit Fox with more views and clicks – 80% of articles highlighting women are about their bodies or romantic relationships. The other 30% are just photos of AOC talking, maligning her as unstable ’cause she demands updates in legislation – which btw, is her job.)
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So what messages does this book send our kids?
[Video description: How The Truly Brave Princesses capitalizes on flattening targeted identities into stereotypes and feel-good inspiration porn, our deeper look at the elements, images, and text. Closed captioning available.]
[Video image still: Me, a disabled Chinese person, looking all like ‘wow so brave!’ sarcastically at a dead-eyed, inert, emotionless caricature of how the makers think a disabled Chinese woman looks.]
Is this #OwnVoices?
Author: Dolores Brown (she/her)
Illustrator: Sonja Wimmer (she/her)
I perceive both of these authors as white, cis, and probably abled. Given the span of identities they tried to cram in there (and they really tried to cover the gamut on conservative relationship statuses), I’m sure they must overlap with at least a few. However – they portray the most targeted and maligned identities in the book as condescending handi-capable Go Fund Me profiles, focusing not on what makes them interesting, what challenges they’ve overcome, or how they are badass, and more of a handful of attributes that (sarcasm) make them seem like normal people! (/sarcasm)
Not quite an MDA-telethon style bewareness campaign, but kind of like one of those parties where your Nice White friend shows you off as the token ‘diverse’ friend to show how cool and worldly they are. There are not end-notes disclosing who they hired as a sensitivity reader, nor whether they ran this by (or compensated) any #OwnVoices rights & representation advocates.
Who’s taking bets that A. They ran it by that one unpaid token ‘different’ friend who was pressured to and uncomfortable obligatory approval, or B. They didn’t even bother running this by anyone they tried to stereotype?
So in terms of representation I’m gonna go with…no. No this is not an #OwnVoices book.
Transparency & Cahoots!
I first found this book at our local library (which we support with donations), and later requested a copy to research for this post. If you absolutely must buy a copy to teach kids about critical reading and don’t have access to a library, learn how to support your local indie bookstore on Bookshop – but ugh, don’t support this drivel, buy one of those other books above instead.
How we calculate the overall awesomeness score of books.
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Stay Curious, Stand Brave, and Transform Justice
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But if your resources are limited – first support the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, an #OwnVoices BIPOC, gender-creative, Autistic-run organization which advocates and organizes to support rights for multiply-disabled and neurodivergent Black, Brown, Indigenous & LGBTQiA2S+ folks.