Even in the Fake Kingdom of North Sudan, Disney Princesses Are White
Jeremiah Heaton wanted to start his own kingdom to make his daughter a princess, and ended up being called a colonialist. But that didn't stop Disney from wanting to make a movie about it.
Last June, in order to fulfill a promise to make his daughter a real life princess, Jeremiah Heaton planted a flag in a trapezoidal stretch of unoccupied territory between Egypt and Sudan and claimed it as his own.
The move was a birthday gift to his seven-year-old daughter, Emily. Heaton called the territory, which is claimed by neither Egypt nor Sudan and is known as Bir Tawil, the Kingdom of North Sudan. The move prompted outrage in the Twitterverse, where users derided it as “foolishness” and “colonization.”
Heaton told Foreign Policy that much of the criticism has come from what he scornfully calls “academics” quick to label his project modern-day colonialism. The purported country is named on no official maps and recognized by no nations on earth, including Heaton’s native United States.
Less than a year later, Heaton looks he’ll have the last laugh: Disney now plans to make The Princess of North Sudan, a movie based on his family’s story, and Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me will be one of the producers.
It’s a strange new phase of an exceedingly strange story. Heaton’s plan to lay claim to this unchartered territory first went viral after he posted a photo of himself next to the flag last June. The story was soon picked up by the Bristol Herald Courier, and then by the Associated Press.
The story was brought back into the limelight this fall with news of the Disney deal. On Wednesday, the Hollywood Reporter said the movie would be written by Stephany Folsom, whose previous works include 1969: A Space Odyssey or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon, sparking new anger over the fact that the first African Disney princess would be a white girl from Virginia named Emily.
But in a conversation with FP Thursday, Heaton, a Virginia farmer who runs a mining-safety company, said anyone calling this project colonialist is “living through the lens of racism.”
“Academics at universities saying this is modern day colonialism, really that’s a euphemism for racism,” he told FP. “I can’t help any more that I was born in America as a white man than an Asian person born in Asia can [help that].”
His purported establishment of the Kingdom of North Sudan was legal, he said, because the territory belonged to no one.
“The definition of colonialism is the invasion of one country by another country for exploitation of resources and goods,” he said. “I don’t represent the U.S.A. and that area was abandoned.”
Today, the family is mainly just concerned about getting all the plans they have for their kingdom up and running.
A self-described group of science lovers, the Heatons want to use the land to create a sustainable opportunity for food production, an idea that originated with Princess Emily.
“Once she understood it was in Africa and correlated that information with the fact that her elementary school teacher does missions work in Africa…and we were in the same neighborhood as children who didn’t have a lot to eat, in her very simple terms said she wanted to grow a garden big enough to feed everyone,” he said.
Heaton, whose wife is a middle school science teacher, admitted the area, which is one of the driest in the world, is not the most ideal location to start a garden.
“There’s a reason people don’t live there,” he said with a laugh.
For now, they’re proceeding slowly. The first step, Heaton said, was declaring his borders and proving the area doesn’t have a history of being controlled by any other government. The second, which he says he did when he planted his flag last June, was to announce to the world his intention to govern the region. The third and fourth steps are where it gets trickier: It will need to be occupied and have trade relations set up with its neighbors. Considering even Heaton describes it as “inhabitable,” and neither Sudan nor Egypt have legally recognized the country as a state, that might be difficult.
Although Heaton acknowledges it’s “nothing but a barren desert” that is currently “no good to anyone,” he dreams of building a large energy production facility there to supply surplus energy to both Egypt and Sudan, who he says are both in the midst energy crises. In his conversation with FP, he didn’t specify what kind of energy would be produced there, but did say it would be renewable.
According to Heaton, Egypt is making a push for foreign investment right now, and he thinks his faux-country is “really on the same path.” He also wants to use funds to set up what he’s called the “Agricultural Research Center” to house scientists, including water purification specialists and climatologists, who will use their time to find solutions to food insecurity in the region.
This week, the family launched an IndieGoGo fundraiser to help fund the project. For a donation of $15 you get a bumper sticker, for $25 an honorary title of nobility. But if you want to name the capital city, that’s going to run you $1.75 million.
Heaton said that while they’ve only raised $4,100 so far, he thinks he will raise more than $15 million by the time the fundraiser ends in 42 days.
“I might be the sovereign king, but I see myself more as the fundraiser-in-chief,” he said.
In fact, Heaton isn’t all that thrilled he had to make the country a monarchy in the first place, but the family is already working out those political kinks.
“The only reason there’s a monarchy is that’s what I had to establish to make Emily a princess,” he said. “We’re gonna go to a constitutional form of monarchy where we are just figureheads for the state and the people who actually live there will run things so our titles will be strictly ceremonial. As king I just rule over my kids.”
As for the Disney movie? A spokesperson for Disney confirmed plans were in the works, although there isn’t a script yet.
Heaton’s family feels “blessed” to have a “neat” relationship with Disney, but the movie project is only a tiny smidgen of what they have planned for the Kingdom of North Sudan.
“For us the movie deal is five percent of what we have going on,” he told FP. “If our life was a circus, it’s the tent at the farthest end of the midway, and that’s the truth.”
“In this process we have been able to make Emily a real princess,” he said. “She’s also a Disney princess.”
Photo Courtesy of Jeremiah Heaton’s Facebook