Who is the best character in Black Panther? You might think this is a matter of opinion, but unless your opinion is Shuri, alas — you are incorrect.
Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, is the brilliant, impeccably-dressed, hilarious genius behind Wakanda’s technical prowess. She’s designer of the Black Panther suit and the deliverer of the movie’s best, most quotable zingers.
An especially thrilling prospect for Shuri’s admirers: Shuri is a princess in a Marvel movie. Marvel is owned by Disney. By the transitive property of royalty and synergy, it would appear a new Disney Princess is due for a coronation.
Black Panther premiered on February 16. Faster than you can say “colonizer,” the internet was ablaze with praise about how Shuri is a new kind of Disney princess, the Disney princess we deserve, the best one ever, no, make that the greatest one ever. To borrow a line from another Disney movie, it’s not very hard to see why.
The Disney Princess business is no frivolous enterprise: It’s a $5.5 billion empire built on games, toys, clothes, dolls, bedding, accessories, school supplies, arts and crafts, and literally any surface onto which the gleaming, poreless faces of Disney’s heroines can be plastered. With billions on the line, it is no simple matter for a character in a Disney (or Disney-owned) film to transcend the property of her origin and land on a lunchbox next to Jasmine, Belle, Tiana, and the rest.
So what does that mean for Shuri? Fans may call her, colloquially, a Disney princess. But is she an official [sparkly stars emoji] Disney Princess™? If not, what would it take for her to become one? And is “Disney Princess status” the real prize for the Black Panther‘s girl genius — or is it savvier for Marvel, and for Disney, to let Shuri stand on her own?
Once upon a time, in the year 2000…
Our tale begins in a simpler time, when you could still just stroll right up to the gate at the airport and easily be transported to a faraway place of magic, wonder, and happily ever afters: Phoenix, Arizona.
Disney’s new chief of consumer products, Andy Mooney, fresh off a stint at Nike, was in town to attend a Disney on Ice show. Upon arrival, he was struck by the swarms of young fans wearing princess costumes of their own design. They were scrappy, adorable, and — most importantly — a missed retail opportunity.
“I saw these girls ages 5 and 7, waiting to go see the show in full regalia — tiara, shoes, the works,” Mooney later told Bloomberg. “I asked the mothers, ‘Where did you buy this?’ They said, ‘Well, we had to make this. You don’t sell it.’ I said, ‘If we made this, would you buy it?’ They said, ‘Loads of it.’ ”
Until that point, Disney sold each princess within the context of the movie in which she starred: Belle was marketed with the Beast, Snow White with her seven dwarves. Speaking with Bloomberg, Mooney recalled “the prevailing wisdom at the studio” was that selling characters isolated from their standalone stories “would destroy… the value of their films.”
Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, a senior executive at the company, was wary about the Disney Princesses concept, according to Drew Taylor, who ran the Disney Insider blog for Disney.com from 2015 through 2016 (which he describes as “a compendium of nerdy, deep-dive-y Disney stuff”). “He thought they would ‘weaken the individual mythologies,'” Taylor said.
As a protective measure, Disney instated some ground rules, which are in place to this day. One: Princesses aren’t allowed to look at or interact with each other. Next time you see a Disney Princess backpack, notice that the characters aren’t making eye contact. They appear photoshopped together, as if each is completely unaware that the others exist.
Princesses are also required to wear dresses while they’re in official Disney Princess mode, which is disorienting for fans of Ariel (best known for being a mermaid with fins) and Mulan (whose entire movie hinges on her decision to disguise herself as a male soldier), but them’s the breaks. And those dresses need to be different colors. In case you’ve ever wondered why Aurora, who wears blue in Sleeping Beauty, is portrayed on Disney Princess gear, and even on re-issued covers of her own 1959 film, in a dress the color of Elle Woods’ resume, it’s because Cinderella — whose film was released in 1950 — got to keep her fairy godmother-gifted blue ballgown.
Save for a handful of toy commercials, there was virtually no marketing plan for the Disney Princess brand. Within three years, sales of Disney Princess merchandise exceeded $1 billion.
Who gets to be a princess?
The creation of this franchise meant Disney executives needed to reckon with “the question of, who is actually a princess?” said Jim Hill, a Disney historian and entertainment reporter.
Is “Disney Princess status” the real prize for the Black Panther‘s girl genius — or is it savvier for Marvel, and for Disney, to let Shuri stand on her own?
Mulan and Pocahontas, for instance, aren’t technically princesses in their films (though Pocahontas is the daughter of the chief of the tribe). But Disney was eager to include both girls, Hill said. At the company, “there was a sensitivity [of], ‘how many white blonde women can we have in this group? We need to bring in some people of color.'”
The first Disney Princess merchandise featured eight of its stars: Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White, Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan.
Since the Disney Princess brand was born nearly two decades ago, only three more stars have ascended to formal Disney Princess status: Tangled‘s Rapunzel, The Princess and the Frog‘s Tiana, and Brave‘s Merida.
Nala might nuzzle with Simba in The Lion King, but she doesn’t make the cut, because only humans get to be princesses. Ariel, a mermaid, gets in on a technicality: By the time she marries a prince, she’s a person. Moana isn’t a princess yet, but she’s likely one of the next to be initiated.
“There was a sensitivity [of], ‘how many white blonde women can we have in this group? We need to bring in some people of color.’”
Also on the outside of the formal princess castle are Frozen‘s sister stars, Elsa and Anna. You may recall that Elsa and Anna’s parents get killed off early in a shipwreck, as the mothers and sometimes even fathers of Disney protagonists are wont to do. So Elsa and Anna aren’t princesses — they’re queens.
As any Meghan Markle worth her messy bun will tell you, becoming an official princess is a complicated, protocol-laden matter. So it goes with entry for these female characters into the highest ranks of Magic Kingdom. “They have a huge process of inducting these characters into the Disney Princess line,” Taylor said, complete with “a royal coronation at Disney World.”
Part of that world
Setting aside the fact that, were Shuri to be inducted, she’d still have to wait her turn behind Moana, there are a few precedents standing between Shuri and Disney Princess status. (Disney did not return requests for comment.)
There’s never been a live-action Disney Princess, nor has there ever been a Disney Princess plucked from a PG-13 movie. Another key factor is that Shuri exists in her own clearly-defined world — as opposed to the eleven official princesses, who all share “an aesthetic sensibility,” as Taylor put it, allowing them to coexist in a fuzzy, cohesive, fairy-tale fantasy land.
Even within the princess’ respective films, Disney is awfully flexible about where and when the characters reside. Think: Over what land does Prince Eric actually reign? In what woodland glen does Snow White play house? The new, live-action reboots of these animated classics keep up the tradition of playing fast and loose with those details of setting, luxuriating in the flexibility fairy tale logic provides.
In 2015’s Cinderella, characters are dressed as if they each hail from different points across the time-space continuum, with Cinderella wearing the standard cinched-waist-full-skirt look that evokes the animated original while Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother, as fashion blog Tom and Lorenzo put it, is “consistently costumed exactly like a grande dame from Hollywood’s Golden Age.”
Last year’s Beauty and the Beast is ostensibly set in France — the provincial townspeople greet each other with a “bonjour!” every morning — but most of the actors, including Emma Watson’s Belle, speak with a British accent. At one point, Le Fou refers to Belle’s “je ne sais quoi” to Gaston, who replies that he doesn’t “know what that means,” even though, what with living in France and all, he presumably speaks the language.
Some Disney Princesses do call a real time and place home: Pocahontas takes place in North America in the early 1600s; Tiana lives in Jazz Age New Orleans. But an animation and storytelling style frees them from those constraints. There’s room to fudge it so all eleven princesses smiling side-by-side on a Disney Princess bike share a when — “once upon a time” — and a where — “a faraway place.”
When it comes to the merchandise, “they’re trying to artificially create an environment where these characters could conceivably be in the same place,” Taylor said. “If you squint the right way, they look like they could be.”
But such vagueness is not suitable to Shuri, whose homeland of Wakanda is depicted in Black Panther in vivid, gorgeous detail. Its glory and its specificity are inextricably linked. And unlike most Disney Princess movies, which deliberately sidestep the question of when and where the story is taking place, Black Panther is anchored in, and interacts with, the real world in the present day.
The princess and the profit margin
When Disney acquired LucasFilm in 2012 for $4 billion, Hill said, and with it the Star Wars franchise, George Lucas was promised there would be no meddling from the Mouse. “You have the might of the Disney company behind you but you can stay pure and control your own stories,” Disney assured Lucas, as recounted by Hill. “We’re not going to make Princess Leia wear a Mickey Mouse hat.”
Those guarantees remain strong, even as Disney spends hundreds of millions of dollars building Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attractions at both Disneyland and Disney World, expected to open in 2019. You won’t see any Disney or Marvel characters mingling with Star Wars heroes when those attractions open to the public. “When you walk through the door of that, it’s pure Star Wars,” Hill said.
In 2016, when Carrie Fisher died, “There was a push in the fan world and in the company: Could Princess Leia become a Disney Princess?” Hill said. “And in the end it was like, look, we’re working on this whole ‘separate silos’ idea.”
So when you consider the potential of Shuri being crowned (tiara-ed?) a Disney Princess, it’s not just a question of whether Disney wants to scoop her up. Marvel, which Disney acquired in 2009 (also for $4 billion), would also have to want to let her go.
And that seems unlikely. Each of these entities — LucasFilm, Marvel, Pixar — may be owned by Disney, but each is controlled by powerful, opinionated individuals who, in turn, control their own stable of characters.
“As much as they’re a big happy family, these are controlled by different aspects of the company with large personalities at the head of the segments,” said Taylor. “Disney is very respectful of the creatives that head these different divisions, because they don’t want to piss anybody off.”
“I would look to see Disney taking these characters and saying, ‘Screw folding them into the Disney Princesses. This is a franchise all by itself!'”
The only reason Merida, Brave‘s Pixar princess, crossed over was because “John Lasseter was installed as the creative head of most of that side of the company” and green-lit her inclusion, Taylor added.
It’s more likely that Marvel will mirror a move by LucasFilm: The new Star Wars initiative, “Forces of Destiny,” brings together “all the strong female Star Wars characters” in products and animated shorts, Hill said, in a very Disney Princess-esque way: They share real estate at the Disney store, but “they don’t interact.”
Expect to see a similar move for the women of Black Panther. “You think about all the little girls going to the movie and seeing this brilliant, funny scientist who repeatedly saves her brother, and a fierce royal guard like that,” Hill said. “I would look to see Disney taking these characters and saying, ‘Screw folding them into the Disney Princesses. This is a franchise all by itself!'”
“I’d be surprised if in a year we didn’t see, from Marvel TV animation, a TV series built heavily around those characters, a series of shorts, certainly lots and lots of retail,” Hill said. These efforts would feature not just Shuri but Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female military force.
Hill also expects Shuri will be marketed alongside Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Captain Marvel (played by Brie Larson and slated to hit theaters in 2019), as a nod to Marvel’s female heroes.
While there are creative geniuses to indulge and stories to serve, at the Walt Disney Company, all major decisions ultimately serve one master: Consumer products.
Take Frozen. Though the narrative justification exists for not swapping their ice queen crowns for princess tiaras, the issue is less a matter of plot than of pragmatism: Frozen mints so much money that it is a franchise unto itself. The film alone made $1.3 billion worldwide.
Taylor ticked off all the Frozen projects that initial flick has spawned: “There was a Christmas special, a short film, there’s a ride at Epcot. In California we have a Frozen theatrical show at Disney California Adventure.” Not to mention all the costumes, dolls, toys, and retail, or the stage musical, which began Broadway previews last week. Elsa and Anna lead too massive a money-making machine to be curtailed by inclusion in the princess pantheon.
When it comes to Shuri, Disney is “very anxious to capitalize on the popularity of this character,” Hill said. Of course, Marvel is, too. And the best way to do that is probably not to get Shuri on a beach towel with Ariel and Aurora.
For Shuri, Wakanda is better than the Magic Kingdom
The fundamental question is not “Why can’t the Disney Princesses let Shuri in?” It’s “What would being a Disney Princess do for Shuri?” The answer is: not much.
For older properties like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, association with the Disney Princess brand is vital. “The Disney Princess [line] is the only outlet if you want a Sleeping Beauty doll or something these days,” Taylor said. It’s not like the brains at Disney are cranking out new products to indulge parental nostalgia. A character like Aurora “is not in the forefront of anybody at Consumer Products mind,” Taylor said.
“What does she get out of being a Disney Princess? The other Disney Princesses get the fact that they’re on bedsheets for the first time in 50 years.”
Much like the live-action reboots, the Disney Princess line is “a way of modernizing older characters” by including them with the newer characters the under-ten set today have actually seen in the theaters. “That’s how they keep that brand fresh.”
Shuri, on the other hand, is an international phenomenon. Shuri is one of the breakout characters in a breakout title from the movie-theater-monopolizing force that is the Marvel extended universe. Shuri isn’t throwing rocks at the Disney Princess castle window, pleading to be let inside. Shuri is looking at your Disney Princess sandals and yelling, “What are THOOOOOSE?”
Unfortunately for Disney, the company wasn’t really prepared for Black Panther — and especially for Shuri — to be such a smash. At the 2018 New York Toy Fair, the world’s largest toy trade show, almost all the Black Panther action figures, masks, and products were of T’Challa in his Black Panther catsuit.
“Disney just got caught flat-footed by this,” said Hill. “They knew they had something big, but they never knew it would be this huge.”
So the real retail wave of Shuri stuff won’t hit for another nine months or so. But sooner than that, Taylor said, “They’ll put out soft goods: bedding, t-shirts. that takes less time. So look for your Shuri t-shirt at Target soon, I’m sure. If there’s one thing Disney knows, it’s how to maximize profitability and consumer awareness for things that are already organically popular.”
Aside from retail, the other big place to watch for Disney’s Black Panther plans is its theme parks. “That’s a pretty big indication” of the investment Disney is making in a property, Taylor said. “The characters in the park are a good bellwether for what is going on in that franchise.”
Taylor pointed to the millions Disney spent building a Norway pavilion in Epcot where Frozen‘s Anna and Elsa could meet and greet their fans. The duo was so popular — typical wait time in line: five hours — that, in 2014, Disney relocated the attraction to the Princess Fairytale Hall at the Magic Kingdom, where guests could reserve meeting times. See if Shuri “pops up” in similarly-styled Epcot spot, Taylor said. “There’s lots of ways they can test these things without kind of announcing it.”
“Disney just got caught flat-footed by this. They knew they had something big, but they never knew it would be this huge or that it would arrive at this moment.”
The parks are where “Disney is in the process of trying to exploit” its ownership of Marvel and LucasFilm, Hill said. “Just last year we saw them swap out the [Twilight Zone] Tower of Terror attraction for a ‘Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout!’ ride, and that was hugely successful.” In 2016, when the ride was announced, Disney Imagineering executive Joe Rohde told USA Today that the Guardians-themed attraction was “a first in what is going to become a whole new universe in Disney California Adventure.”
Prowl through the Disney Auditions website, where the casting requirements are incredibly specific — they’ll list “the exact heights of the women they’re looking for,” Hill said. “Like, Snow White has to be shorter than Pocahontas” — and you’ll see “they’re already casting for people to play the Black Panther characters in the parks.”
With so many other places where Shuri, and Black Panther, can shine — and bring in the billions — the Disney Princess line feels less like a place to which Shuri should hope to ascend and more like a legacy brand Shuri is smart to avoid.
“To me, a lot of the Disney Princesses are Disney Princesses because they are lacking some kind of relevance in modern pop culture that they’re given thanks to the induction in this group,” Taylor said. “But she does not need that. She’s already a modern woman who is strong and has all the benefits of what her culture and her place in society has given her. What does she get out of being a Disney Princess? The other Disney Princesses get the fact that they’re on bedsheets for the first time in 50 years. But she already has all that!”
Sticking Shuri next to Snow White might help the latter shake off the cobwebs she’s collected since her movie first hit theaters in 1938. But Shuri has little to gain by association with a property whose cultural dominance peaked sometime between FDR’s second and third terms.
“It would make the other Disney Princesses much hipper, but it doesn’t do a lot for her,” said Taylor. “I don’t think she needs them.”