Disney's white 'African princess' film is beyond offensive

Jeremiah Heaton

Jeremiah Heaton Photo: Facebook

Jeremiah Heaton is a man on a mission. The father of three from the US State of Virginia made news last June when, in an astonishing display of unadulterated Caucacity, he travelled to an uninhabited strip of land on the Sudanese-Egyptian border, planted a flag in the desert, and claimed it for his very own.

And verily, the Kingdom of North Sudan was born.

Why? To fulfil his seven-year-old daughter's dream of becoming a princess, of course.     

Jeremiah Heaton and his seven-year-old daughter Emily Heaton.

Jeremiah Heaton and his seven-year-old daughter Emily Heaton. Photo: Facebook

"I didn't want to break her spirits," Heaton told The Guardian. "At that point I had no idea how to make it happen, but I couldn't let her down."

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So Heaton researched, and after sadly having to forgo Antarctica due to pesky laws banning land claims there, he turned his sights to Africa where he came upon the disputed strip of land known as Bir Tawil.

"It has been unclaimed for around 100 years," Heaton insists. "I just followed the same process as many others have done over hundreds of years, planted our flag, and claimed it."

Jeremiah Heaton and his seven year-old daughter, 'Princess' Emily.

Jeremiah Heaton and his seven year-old daughter, 'Princess' Emily. Photo: AP/ Bristol Herald Courier

That's right. A white man from Virginia, not content with merely buying his daughter a plastic tiara and assuring her, "You'll always be a princess to me sweetheart," actually claimed an-honest-to-goodness piece of Africa so she could be a real-life princess.

As writer Bin Adewunmi queried at the time, "Are white people still allowed to do this sort of thing?"

At that point, no one took Heaton seriously because the answer to what should have been a rhetorical question is an emphatic 'no.' No, white people are not still allowed to do this sort of thing.

Only someone forgot to tell the King of North Sudan because now he's back. Heaton is in the midst of crowd funding his campaign to secure his claim and make the Kingdom of North Sudan a Real Thing In The World. He hopes to raise $45 million.

He has also applied to the United Nations for observer entity status, appointed ambassadors in Europe, and recognised another self-declared micro nation, Enclava, in Eastern Europe.

In case that isn't enough white privilege for you today, Heaton has also struck a deal with Disney to turn his exploits into an animated, "fantastical" feature film to be directed by Morgan 'Super Size Me' Spurlock called, what else, The Princess of North Sudan. Leave it to Disney to validate this modern-day iteration of colonialism.

It's hard to know where to begin when it comes to unpacking this display of white entitlement. So, just for kicks, let's begin with the destructiveness of the princess myth.

Disney, let it be known, has never made a film featuring an African Princess, and, as some pointed out on Twitter, the studio's first black princess spent the majority of her film as a frog.

Unsurprisingly, people are less than impressed that Disney's first "African" princess will actually be a white, American girl. Once again, in spectacular fashion, people of colour are relegated to the sidelines in a tale to be set in their own continen

Let's be real. Despite all the effusive claims to feminism of Frozen and Brave, being a princess is still overwhelmingly a white girl's vocation. And little white girls are still being raised to think that being a princess is the pinnacle of feminine achievement. Never mind that the reality for actual princess of times past is far removed from the romantic notion we have of pampered layabouts. They were property. Bought and sold and married off like so much chattel.

There is also something vaguely obscene about attempting to introduce a new kingdom in a time where it is getting close to impossible to justify the royal families we already have.

Heaton has deflected criticism, claiming what he is doing is the "opposite of colonialism" because colonialism is "one country taking control of another to exploit its resources or people. What we're doing is designed to improve peoples' lives."

By this, Heaton means he intends to build a state-of-the-art agricultural research centre (which he modestly refers to as a modern-day Noah's Ark), where he is hoping to house more than 1,000 scientists to advance water conservation and agricultural science methods. Where he plans to get the $2bn (US) he expects the project to cost is anyone's guess.

While some of his plans are certainly laudable, someone needs to inform Heaton that colonialism isn't just about war, slavery, appropriation of land and resources, and genocide (although it is, of course, all those things no matter how the west still likes to sugar-coat its own violent history).

The essence of colonialism is the still-existent notion that white people are entitled to whatever they want. That this world is their oyster and the rest of us are either inconveniences to be swept aside or objects of pity to be "saved."

There is no other way to put this. This is not okay. A white man claiming a piece of a land in the very continent that has been ravaged by colonialism arguably more than any other, and which still bears the scars and open wounds to prove it, and proclaiming his family its royal rulers is an obscene display of white entitlement and privilege.

It is also the continuation of a legacy that has seen every corner of the globe upended in the insatiable pursuit of white men to own and profit from every slice of land they can.

It is beyond time the west acknowledged its true history. The wealth, the scientific advancements, the freedoms, and the luxuries: all of these have largely been the fruits of the profits of colonialist expansion.

We cannot change history but we can recognise it. And, at the very least, we can leave some of its more objectionable excesses –including crowning white people royal rulers of the very land they have stolen- in the past where they belong.