One of my friends–and a fellow mom of a child with Down syndrome–wrote on my Facebook wall this morning. She wanted to share information about a mom, Keston Ott-Dahl, who has started a petition in an effort to encourage Disney to depict a princess with Down syndrome in a future film. The Orlando Sentinel reports that Ott-Dahl’s daughter, Delaney, who has Down syndrome, loves Disney characters but is not able to relate with any of them, presumably because none of them have Down syndrome.
As most of you know, I too, have a Disney-loving daughter who also happens to have Down syndrome. She’ll turn fifteen next month, but still she is every bit as caught up in Disney’s beloved movies and characters as she ever was.
At two, she had a thing for Pooh; her favorites have changed over the years. She went through an Ariel phase.
She loves her Disney favorites so much that she can quote on demand any given scene from the movies that she adores. This from a child who is limited to thirty minutes of screen time each weekday–two hours on the weekend. She can quote the movies not because she spends hours zoned out in front of the TV, watching in a zombie-like state. She can quote the movies because she watches as an active participant, taking in every inflection in a character’s voice, every sweeping movement, every bat of every eyelid. Without a doubt, she completely inserts herself into the stories that unfold on the screen before her. And when her TV time draws to a close, she opts not to let the story stop when the screen turns off. Instead, she grabs whatever props she can find and she goes outside or into her room and–line for line–she reenacts her favorite scenes. And, boy, I’m here to tell you that this kid can insert herself into the part. There was this one time, during her Brave phase, that we had a painter over at the house delivering an estimate. Cassidy was in her bedroom, right in the midst of acting out one of her favorite scenes, the part where Merida discovers that her mother has been transformed into a bear. In her room, Cassidy screamed a blood-curdling, tippy-top-of-her-lungs sort of scream: “BEAR!” The painter froze in place, eyes wide with concern. Jeff and I, meanwhile, waited for him to continue with his pitch.
“Um, do you need to check on that?” he said.
We were dumbfounded for a second on what he was talking about. And then Cassidy screamed again. “Oh, that,” Jeff said. “No, she’s fine.”
I suspect that our nonchalance might have been interpreted as poor parenting. But we knew something the painter didn’t know. That is: our Cassidy was up to serious business back in her bedroom that day, entrenched in a role. Had we interrupted her, I can assuredly tell you that she would have been completely annoyed by our presence. It’s nearly impossible, after all, to flex one’s imagination when your pesky mother keeps interrupting.
My point is this: my daughter’s trouble is not in relating with one of Disney’s characters, it’s in relating with so many of them.
Over the years, Cassidy has grown to love so many of Disney’s characters: princes and princesses, wooden boys and mermaids, pirates, clowns and even one overgrown beast. She has grown to love each of them for different reasons, none of which have a thing to do with Down syndrome. Cassidy doesn’t even know she has Down syndrome. She doesn’t know because it’s a label I don’t want her to wear. Never–not once–has she come to me and asked why she’s different than other kids. Not a single time. While it’s true that her chromosome count proves that she does indeed have Down syndrome, I don’t feel the need to set her apart in that way. More importantly, though, I don’t want her to set herself apart that way.
Cassidy relates with Pinocchio’s desire to be included. She relates with Rapunzel’s adventurous spirit. She relates with Merida’s fierce resolve. She relates with Ariel’s curiosity. She relates with Pocahontas’ uncharted life and with Mulan’s independent spirit. She has compassion, like Belle, and an ever-present rumbly in her tumbly like Pooh bear. Indeed, Disney has created characters that my Cassidy can relate with and–in all honesty–I’d rather she relate with a colorful spectrum of characters than just one who wears a label.
Earlier this year my oldest daughter was accepted as a character performer in Disney’s college program. Our family gathered around the dinner table one night and discussed which character Torri might get to portray. While the majority of us stuck with characters that Torri had a physical likeness to, Cassidy had her mind made up. To her, the only reasonable character Torri could possibly portray was a certain princess from New Orleans: Tiana. Never mind that Tiana is black. Cassidy, you see, thinks beyond skin color and cultural background, height and weight and, well, chromosomal makeup. She sees straight to the heart of Disney’s characters and falls in love with them not because of their chromosome count, but because of who they are.
It’s exactly the way I hope the rest of us will see her.
Disney employs some of the world’s best storytellers. Storytellers who birth beloved characters by weaving together the mundane with the unexpected, the carefree with the oppressed, the meek with the bold. There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that were Disney to create a character with Down syndrome, he or she would be absolutely extraordinary–just like all of Disney’s characters. But here’s the thing: if that character existed, it would probably mean more to me as the mother of a child with Down syndrome than it would to Cassidy, someone who walks in those shoes every single day. That is not to say that I’m opposed to Disney developing a princess with Down syndrome, not by any means. I have no doubt that such a heroine would bring tears to my eyes. Still, I won’t be signing the petition. I just don’t feel it’s necessary.
Disney may not have a princess with Down syndrome. But I do. And she’s princess enough for me.