At the intersection of pop culture, race and gender politics, there is the advertisement for Mercy Academy. Mercy Academy is an all-girl preparatory school in Louisville, Kentucky (USA) the largest city in the rather rural commonwealth. Recently the school released an ad campaign entitled “You’re Not a Princess”. The five piece print ad depicts pastel-colored icons of fairy tale lore: a glass slipper, a magic wand, a mermaid, a prince and of course, a princess. The drawings are minimalist and the people shown are faceless. Only the long, perfectly wavy hair and golden crowns surround the empty space on which the viewer is meant to project themselves. Each ad has a different tagline written in decorative script with sayings like “Don’t wait for a prince” and “Write your own story”. After looking at the ads and the accompanying video that showed empowered students talking about how much Mercy meant to them, I walked away with one immediate thought.
“They aren’t advertising to me.”
As a black woman, that’s not an antagonistic thought, nor one looking to “make everything about race”, for those concerned. That’s simply because on some level most every thing is about race. The question is whether we want to discuss it or not. (I’m not a believer in ignoring a problem in order to hope it goes away, but that’s an article for another day)
In 2012, Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr. gave a faculty speech to a group of graduating students. After his opening statement about the various kinds of special occasions to come in these young people’s life, he said the phrase “You are not special”. The speech was taped, put online and that line became the speech’s title. As you can imagine, the comment section for the video and any place it was shared became a hot bed of debate. Suddenly everyone was ready to dispense wisdom about whether that statement was detrimental to these celebrating youth or the best way to nip potential self-righteousness in the bud. McCullough ended up on several talk shows fielding questions from sensationalist hosts, angry parents and child psychologists alike.
In May, nearly two years after the speech was given, I heard an interview with McCullough on the radio. During the in-depth interview, he explained how surprised he was by the reaction and that most people formed their argument around the title alone. That he wrote the tongue-in-cheek speech specifically for that audience and had no idea he was being recorded, let alone that his speech was going to be shared with the world. He went on to explain that the Wellesley High School students needed to hear that speech after spending twelve years in the almost all white, privileged, upper middle class culture that told them otherwise. He felt it was his responsibility to explain how the world really works, that people don’t hand out rewards merely for participation nor do people always celebrate when you do your absolute best. That “{For} as hard as you’ve worked, you also lucked into plenty, including your parents and your country.”
David McCullough made a note near the end of this interview saying that if he was facing a different kind of audience – a poorer one, a racially different one, in a different kind of city or town even – he would have said something completely different because that’s not the message they would need to hear.

In the same way, Mercy Academy’s ad was crafted for a specific audience. Advertisers have the foremost mission to figure out how to address their needs in line with the service being advertised. The southern part of the United States is known for being steeped in traditional values and Kentucky is no exception. Mercy Academy’s ad looks to dispel that limiting view and empower girls to think outside the box of possibilities for what it means to be a successful woman in the world. A worthy message to be sure, but it also inadvertently hits on a particular issue in our racial society.

The default for fairy tale princesses is white. In a land of mystical creatures, magic and far away kingdoms, the most variety shown amongst the human characters is in the shades of hair color.

I grew up loving The Little Mermaid, but never did I picture myself as an underwater princess as I also didn’t picture myself as a lobster or fish. They were fine characters going through an engrossing enough tale, but that was their story. Like many women of color, I never felt in or of that fairy tale world. When women of color are depicted they are very hard working, as subservient roles tend to not be easy ones.

All of this to say, there is a subset of girls out there that still need to know that they could be a princess. To be more exact, valued, prized and unapologetically celebrated like a princess. While this might sound like I’m coming down hard on the ad, I’m not. I’m looking to clarify to whom they are advertising. Of course this ad campaign is not solely aimed at white girls and that Mercy Academy doesn’t have a “whites need only apply” disclaimer at the end of their ads. But because it is aimed at “princess culture” and because that has been overwhelmingly depicted as white, it is most often absorbed and digested by a white consumer market. After years of being told that they are worthy of being rescued maidens in line to rule their land, white girls – and the girls of color that actually were able to personify princess culture for themselves – certainly need to be shown that they can also rescue themselves, that success doesn’t have to come with a crown. So, to that extent, the almost all white print and video advertisement does its job perfectly.
Mercy Academy just happens to not be advertising to me this time.