Updated: Mar 28
Impossible? It's possible. 25 years ago, on November 2nd, 1997, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella premiered on TV. In the past, there were many adaptations of the beloved tale, but it was Whitney Houston’s TV production that truly made the magic come to life. The film was revolutionary, not only in its overall production value, but in its racially diverse cast. Cast as the humble princess herself, was the R&B singer Brandy, making history as the first black princess on screen. Likewise, Brandy’s prince charming was the first Asian prince (preceding Mulan’s Li Shang of 1998), played by Filipino-American actor, Paolo Montalban.
Prince Christopher was a prince who not only was looking for a beautiful princess, but also for someone who will complete him as a person. Montalban's portrayal of Prince Christopher was monumental: he was an Asian love interest and a complex lead character. Prior to the film's release, Asian men in the media were presented as either mysterious martial arts masters or de-sexualized side characters. Prince Christopher’s casting erased all of those stereotypes. His character was presented with an automatic romantic appeal. In addition to Cinderella’s storyline circulating a ball that intends to find the royal prince a wife, Prince Christopher is not only desirable because of his princely status, but also because of his humane yearning for a friend. This quality helped paint Asian men in a different light, as well as widened the possibilities for Asian actors. Montalban’s prince is considered a trailblazer and has paved the way for many other Asian love interests, including Henry Golding’s Nick Young, the prince in Kevin Kwan’s Asian version of the Cinderella story, Crazy Rich Asians.
In the film, we meet the two protagonists in the town market with the opening ballad, The Sweetest Sounds, which connects Cinderella and Prince Christopher’s yearning to find true love. The song was an original addition to the film added to include a meeting between the two characters before the ball to show their bond wasn’t merely superficial. The strong connection built between the two characters helped to normalize interracial love. Furthermore, Victor Garber and Whoopi Goldberg played the king and queen to Montalban’s prince, representing interracial families.
The Wonderful World of Disney’s Cinderella 1997 left behind a legacy that continues to impact audiences today. The celebrated multicultural casting opened the hearts of people of color, allowing them to see themselves in a whimsical fairytale, introducing the reality that anyone can be anything. “I see those people (other Asian actors), I see them doing these roles and they give me hope–they’ve given me back hope, saying ‘I can also do that’ because I’m seeing someone who looks like me in these shows and it’s very encouraging” says Paolo Montalban in response to the admiration received for his Prince Christopher. The continuation of multiracial casting preserves the cycle of hope that is promoted through on screen representation, planting dreams as well as the courage to pursue them. Broad on screen representation doesn’t only reassure the possibilities for aspiring API actors and actresses, but it also provides a different perspective of the API community that surpasses the racist stereotypes that past pop culture has built. In a way, on screen characters provide a preview to their audiences of who other people are and can be. When a young child sees an inaccurate portrayal of an ethnic minority, whom they’ve never met before, the character they see on screen represents the minority as a whole. This can later influence how they will see and treat others, asserting assumptions that could lead to offense. The way characters are portrayed affects more than the story, but also its audiences. We hope for more princesses and prince charmings of every ethnicity to continue to provide hope and save the day.
Editors: Sydney O., Joyce P., Rachel C.