Hold the applause for The Princess and the Frog

12 Nov

Six decades after making the racist Song of the South, the Walt Disney Corporation has finally made reparations with the highly touted release of The Princess and the Frog. There you have it, folks. America’s first black Disney princess.

Her name is Tiana (Her name was originally Maddy, but writers changed it because it sounded too similar to Mammy). She likes long walks by the bayou, and her turnoffs include evil voodoo priests and waitressing.

Many critics are giving Disney a pat on the back for the historic release of this hand-drawn cartoon movie that is set in the 1920s era of New Orleans and centers on the life of a black waitress and her subsequent misadventures as a frog. Well, this one Disney lover, who waited patiently through the Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and limitless others, is refusing to applaud.

Not that I expected the first black Disney movie to be a shining example of changing popular culture in the age of Obama, but come on.

After watching a free screening of the film, it became apparent to me The Princess and the Frog perpetuates countless stereotypes and is a slap in the face to generations of young girls of color who waited their turn in line for a black Disney princess they could post up to their walls, stick onto their notebooks and wear on their clothes.

Strike #1: The setting of the movie is in Jim Crow-era New Orleans where Tiana works as a waitress struggling to make ends meet and wistfully waits for her prince to come. (The original cut had her working as a maid, but then, once again, as they did with her name, they changed the story line to make her waitress.) How many more times will African-Americans be portrayed as waiters and waitresses and butlers and maids? It’s time for Disney to move out of the service industry and into the 21st century. Many African-Americans are contributing to society not with their hands and their labor, but with their brains and their intellect. I know The Princess and the Frog is just a stumbling, baby-step beginning, but it would have been nice to see a pop culture representation of blacks not include the South, scrubbing dishes or Jim Crow.

Strike #2: The voodoo priest who turns Tiana and her prince-to-be into frogs gives an inaccurate portrayal of the voodoo religion, painting it as evil and frightening. Voodoo is a West African religion that was carried by slaves through the Middle Passage into Haiti and Louisiana. It draws on African traditions, Catholicism and Islam, and contrary to what the movie would have you believe, is not about devious charms and spells. Voodoo focuses on saints, spirits and moral values, and true voodoo bears no resemblance to the superstitious, fictionalized voodoo highlighted in the movie’s witch doctors and Cajun fairy godmothers. The exoticized vilification of voodoo in The Princess and the Frog begs the question of whether Christianity or Judaism would ever have been portrayed the same way.

Strike #3: Did I mention that Tiana spends most of the movie not as a black princess but as a frog? Yes,  the central plot of the movie is that she’s trying desperately to become human again, but would it have killed the Disney writers to not hide Disney’s first black princess away in an amphibious form for two-thirds of the movie? It’s all too easy to forget her skin color is a mahogany brown when for most of the movie, she’s hopping around as a ribbity green. Making Tiana a frog for most of the film removes the prevalence of her race and makes it harder for white audiences to identify with her as a black female.

That’s three strikes Disney. You’re out.

Disney is more than just a company, it provides millions of children with a world view that they will carry around in their minds into adulthood. Is this the impression of the world we want them to see? It’s time to step up to the plate Disney and accept responsibility. You may have moved eras beyond Song of South, but you still have a long way to go before you reach the 21st century in racial representations. You can start with giving black girls the Disney princess they deserve.

People will argue that at the end of the day, it’s just a movie designed to entertain kids. However, it does so much more than just entertain; it brands the imaginations of future generations. And what small imaginations they will be if all they’re exposed to are aged stereotypes? Maybe one day Disney will get its act together and provide our impressionable children with culturally competent representations that glorify instead of gloss over our world’s diversity.

Or maybe it’s just time for me to stop living in a fairy tale.

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One Response to “Hold the applause for The Princess and the Frog”

  1. robin cf April 8, 2010 at 7:31 am #

    Maybe I’m biased because I’ve always had the Disney channel and I grew up in New Orleans, but I don’t see a problem with the movie.

    It stepped beyond the typical “bad voodoo” movie plot by including a positive character. I know voodoo is a deep and intricate religion, but many educated adults can’t wrap their heads around the concepts after talking to actual priests, I doubt a Disney film could ever give a decent portrayal of any religion. If nothing else, kids suddenly have this (rare in pop-culture) concept that “it’s not all bad.”

    It stepped beyond the typical princess-plot by making her a girl that really works toward a goal. Yes, I’m Black. I’d love to see a Black princess born into wealth like Aurora or Snow White. However, I was glad to see a girl that, despite taking his help when offered, wasn’t sitting around waiting for her prince to come. Plus, have we all forgotten Cinderella was an unpaid servant? Snow white cleaned up after strange men?

    Tiana isn’t the first princess to scrub a counter.

    As for up-to-date, modern portrayals of Black people:
    The Disney Channel has many shows, now, with multi-racial casts and characters.

    I’m also one of those “can’t please ’em all” people that thinks Disney would have “messed up” any movie about a Black princess. Had she been in some fantasy world where race didn’t matter and she simply happened to be brown, people would say Disney was ignoring the issues. Had she been in a modern setting, people would say Disney was ignoring our past.

    No matter what decisions Disney made, this is a great step. They can only improve, from here.

    I would hate for backlash to discourage the company from ever making another Black princess. Decisions (from name-changing to plot adjustments) already show that Disney keeps an ear open and actually -does- attempt to do what’s best.

    I hope your reaction and similar reactions translate as “Do better” instead of “Don’t do anything else.”

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