There has been a lot of talk about “Disney’s first black Princess.” Several critical race theorists have weighed in negatively about both the fact that the main character, Tiana, is not in fact a Princess and her would-be Prince Charming is “not a man of color.” People looking deeper also questioned the racial narratives behind making her a cook and her mother a seamstress. And while critical race theorists were tearing apart the not-so-hidden race messages of the movie, white feminist bloggers and white mommy bloggers begain to weigh in about the problematic nature of the Princess fantasy Disney sells to little girls. While their critique joined a long line of criticism coming out of the multiculturalism movement in early childhood education and the feminist literary movement, the amount and consistency of these critiques seemed suspect given that white feminists were writing so avidly about debunking princesses right when the first black one in Disney history came along. The hype from both camps seemed destine to doom this movie to limited release and even more limited market success. Those of us who teach media were particularly wary of the implications since the failure of a black princess would be just as racialized as the discussion surrounding her.
It was with this reticence in mind, that I and a few of my black academic friends went to see The Princess and The Frog this afternoon. And for all the hype surrounding and disparaging the film, both I and the mostly child audience of the film were pleasantly surprised.
Myths and Facts
Before beginning a proper review, it seems only fair to get some of the misinformation surrounding the film out of the way.
Myth: Tiana is not a Princess and she is the only non-princess in Disney princess lore
Fact: Some of Disney’s most beloved princesses have taken the same route from obscurity to princess that Tiana takes in this film: Cinderella and Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Like these women, Tiana starts out as an ordinary young girl and becomes a Princess through marrying a Prince. (However, this does not excuse the re-writing of the fairytale in a way that seemingly punishes Tiana for reaching above her station in life, a comment that is actually made to her in a different context in the film)
Myth: The Prince, Prince Naveen, is white
Fact: Prince Naveen is from Maldonia a fictional place that allows Disney to side step the race issue. Naveen’s skin is light brown, as is that of his parents the King and Queen. He is also voiced by Bruno Campos a Brazilian born actor living in the U.S. who has made a name for himself playing mostly Latino characters.
Myth: Tiana is a cook (implied, a servant for rich white folks)
Fact: Tiana is an aspiring restauranter and waitress who works for a black owned cafe. She does make binets for her childhood friend Charlotte’s Mardi Gras Party b/c it provides her with the down payment for her restaurant.
Myth: this is another antiquated princess narrative from Disney that encourages girls to want to be pretty and married instead of successful in their own right
Fact: Tiana’s father teaches her that she should dare to dream but always follow it up with hard work and she even sings a song about hard work as one of her few songs in the film. While the implications are racialized in many ways, they run counter to a sexist princess narrative. While she does consider giving up her dream of a restaurant for Prince Naveen, which is problematic, ultimately she works toward having both even when both seem out of reach. (And as my mom pointed out last night on the phone, Tiana does not even want to be a Princess, her friend Charlotte does & Charlotte’s pursuit of princess status is a running joke in the film.)
Tiana and her friend Charlotte la Bouff grow up together in New Orleans dreaming of fairy tales and happy endings. Though their lives intersect through the skilled service work that Tiana’s mother does for the la Bouff family, & the resulting friendship between the girls, they live two very different lives.When they reach young adulthood, Tiana wants to fulfill her dream of owning a restaurant that will not only showcase her cooking but also the music of New Orleans and “bring the community together from all walks of life.” Charlotte wants to be a Princess. And as their two dreams intersect, both girls find themselves coming face to face with a Prince. Tiana’s journey transforms her into a frog, where she and her frog prince endure the trials of both swamp and Vodoun to find what their true hearts desires are and how to be better people.
Race and Gender (& Class) Meanings
Tiana lives in a seemingly lower middle class neighborhood with her doting father and mother. Her father, a world war I veteran works multiple jobs in order to save for a restaurant and teaches Tiana how to cook. He dies before he is able to afford the restaurant, but not before he passes the dream on to his daughter. Both he and Tiana’s mother also teach her the value of hard work and kindness.
Charlotte La Bouff on the other hand, is born rich and spoiled near rotten by her father, “Big Daddy”. She has an endless supply of princess dresses for dress up, made by Tiana’s mother, and gets everything she asks for: puppies, kitties, parties, etc. As both a child and a young adult, Charlotte is a ridiculous caricature of former Disney Princesses, cherub cheeked, swathed in pink, vacuous and prince obsessed. She is so intent on marrying a Prince that she misses all the signs that she is about to marry a fraud and even resigns herself to wait for a 6 year old to come of age so she can marry him. (A joke that written out raises all kinds of flags.)
While she is clearly a parody of the old princess myth that is Disney’s bread and butter, she is also a troubling racial character. In many ways it seems as though the writers of The Princess and the Frog are being less satirical with Charlotte’s dewy pink skin and bright blonde hair wrapped around a package of cluelessness, ignorance, and “some day my prince will come” and are more likely unable to imagine how to lift up Tiana as the alternative, or more authentic, Princess figure without making her white counterpart a joke. Rather than critique the non-existent princess narrative of Tiana’s storyline, mainstream feminists should move into the realm of intersectionality and question why this binary exists. How does it perpetuate a failure of sisterhood across race by relying on a one up-one down model in which one group of women will always be a joke? And how is that joke undermined by race and class narratives that have Charlotte achieving her goal of Princess at various stages of the film, while Tiana is reduced to a mucus producing frog? (Even at a costume ball where Charlotte is clearly dressed as Cinderella, Tiana wears the costume of a simple maid-servant, as if even in her wildest dreams there is no room for her at the Princess table; which runs counter to the point of the movie or to the dreams of success and community building that are central to Tiana’s character.)
That said, Tiana and Charlotte do manage to stand up for one another in this film. When Tiana is literally put in her place by two white male realtors and subsequently crashes into her binet display ending up on the ground covered in food, Charlotte comes out of her cloud of princess dreams long enough to help Tiana up and get her a real princess costume to wear from her collection. And when Prince Naveen tells Charlotte that he is really in love with Tiana but will marry her anyway to help Tiana get her restaurant, Charlotte refuses the deal and instead offers to help the lovers reunite because she wants Tiana to be happy. This kind of friendship, though problematic in its class and cluelessness, is still more than we are often offered in relationships between rich white women and working class black ones who have at one time or another worked for them, especially when a man is involved.
As for Tiana, she finds Charlotte’s dreams of becoming a princess and her class privilege blinding her to how out of proportion her life is amusing. She wants her friend to be truly happy and actually helps her to find a Prince. When she and Prince Naveen start to have feelings for one another, Tiana does her best to ward them off, out of loyalty to Charlotte. And again, while we can question the way these gendered decisions are raced and classed, I think it is important to recognize a plot point that encourages girls to look out for one another in a world where most movies and music (Taylor Swift, Avril Levign, etc.) encourage tweens to compete with one another and steal each others boyfriends/love interests.
Disney made a point of telling everyone how much effort they put into learning and recreating New Orleans culture(s) for this film. In many ways this is where they get race really right while also still perpetuating the one up-one down racial narrative mentioned above. Both the jovial pomposity of Big Daddy la Bouff and the dignity of Tiana’s family ring true to NOLA. Disney gives us an African American community infused with both good and bad Vodoun, upper, middle, and working class people, and neighborhoods with that typical New Orleans connectivity. The diversity amongst the black community in this film is probably the best Disney has offered and certainly more than most young people will get in children’s programming not made for public funded television.
While I initially balked at Mama Odie’s inhuman looking facial features, movie line actually has a post referring to her looks as “the mascot for popular turn-of-the-century pantry product, Mama Odie’s Sambocakes and Waffle Batter“, her character’s mix of humor and aged-sometimes-saged advice is spot on. Almost everyone in the black community, at least those with Southern roots or childhoods lived in long time black communities, knows an elder like Mama Odie. She is also a clear counterpoint to The Shadow Man at the core of the story. Where he represents those who do evil with Vodoun, Mama Odie only uses her connection to the spirit world for good and guidance. Her character is a critical intervention to the existing negative image of Vodoun in popular media. In the audience in which I watched the film, she also helped take some of the “scary” out of the movie for young viewers. My only real complaint about Mama Odie is Disney’s lazy recycling of Sir Hiss as Mama Odie’s companion, a creature she tongue kisses at one point (eww) and who facilitates jokes about her failing eyesight at others.
There are very few white people in this movie. Their diversity is less recognizable as most are upper class and also caricatures. While some moments, like the racist and classist interaction Tiana has with her potential realtors, ring true, others seem to buy in to the binary mentioned above.
Perhaps the most complexity amongst the white people in the film comes from Prince Naveen’s servant, Lawrence. Like typical Disney “man-servants”, Lawrence begins the movie muddling along trying to balance all of the Prince’s needs while being largely taken for granted. Unlike many of his predecessors however, when Lawrence is given the chance to pass as Prince Naveen and gain wealth and power for himself, his kind-hearted-scolding and hard-working demeanor gives way to class antagonism and bitterness. Lawrence and Dr. Facilier, the Shadow Man, are two sides of the same coin. Both men are working class people who resent the easy life of the rich and want an even easier solution to rectify their class status. Both have allowed bitterness based on actual class antagonism as well as their own failure to challenge it, to taint the way they see the world and the people around them. And both have made deadly deals to take what they are unwilling to work for. While this provides some of the strongest class critique Disney has offered us in similar fairy tales (Robin Hood aside), it also perpetuates the bootstraps myth that permeates the film. The idea that hard work alone will change the class structure, particularly in New Orleans, is ridiculous and Disney does very little to really question the problem while providing us a semblance of critique.
Both the Cajun fireflies and Tiana’s family represent the other end of the working class spectrum in the film. Both are hardworking and loyal. However, they do represent a return to more simplistic versions of “the noble poor” that often permeate Disney films. Worse, the cajun fireflies all have some version of crooked teeth or tooth decay that levels some of the worst stereotypes of working class whites in the bayou. Yet they are also really compelling characters. For one of them, there is a Bambie’s mother moment, that left the children in the audience where I saw the film in tears; at least one set of young girls asked their mother to leave the theater before the Bambie moment, anticipating it’s arrival and I overheard one of them say “this is going to make me cry, I want to go, I want to go right now!”
Perhaps the only real failures in this film are sadly both the music and an ongoing Saarje Bartmen moment. The songs in this movie range from sophisticated to overly simplistic in musical style. The kids in the audience, who were the majority, only began to sing along once and at least once were completely disinterested in the music. I can’t tell if this is a testament to Disney choosing a more sophisticated musical and image pallet for certain sequences or a testament to the radical changes in NOLA’s music scene as a result of Katrina. What I do know is for a studio that makes a living on the blending of music and image, this movie’s sometimes failure to resonate is telling.
There is also a running “big butt” joke in this film. Lawrence is a portly servant whose large features are proportionate when white. When he transforms into our brown Prince however, there are moments when the magic stops working and Lawrence’s butt expands to ridiculous proportions in comparison to the rest of his body. His big butt is meant to make us laugh and is a key sign that he is unfit &/or an impostor. Later, a cajun firefly will sing a song about his big glow in the dark butt and make constant reference to it. While his cajun identity means that he is to be read white, and his light is essential to helping them get through the swamp in the dark, the butt jokes are once again meant to mark him as backward – lower class, less educated, etc. Not only is the linking of phenotype and legitimacy are problem in general but the particular reference to big butts that has not appeared in any other Disney film, seems like an unavoidably glaring stereotype tied back to “comedic” renderings of Saarje Bartman.
As always, there are also no queer characters in this movie. Instead, Disney offers us a homophobic joke at the beginning of the film. Tiana is riding the street car when her seatmate decides she is so pretty he wants to give her a flower. When he turns to get the flower, she exits the street car, leaving her seatmate to turn around only to seemingly offer the flower to a large man standing beside Tiana’s seat. The man frowns with all the homophobia a non-speaking cartoon can & the other man shrinks back in his seat. I’m unclear why filmmakers continue to use brief and completely unrelated oppressive jokes as filler in their films but it is not only wrong but completely unnecessary to telling the story. Gives us real gay characters or none at all please.
Despite my misgivings about this movie, I thoroughly enjoyed The Princess and The Frog. What it gets right, it gets really right and what it gets wrong is in general minor, though noteworthy. Despite the largely white feminist criticism of the film as some wishy-washy princess daydream, Disney has in fact offered us a strong, independent, woman who never gives up her own dreams of success for stereotypical gendered ones of marriage and princess status. Tiana becomes a Princess by default not by design and the film is very clear about her real dreams and her real accomplishments. Unlike other Disney Princesses, Tiana saves the Prince not the other way around. On that level, this is a good film for young girls looking for ways to become empowered women.
Critical race theorists have some cause for concern, as does anyone invested in deconstructing class, but not for any of the reasons that have circulated the internet. Many of the racial failings in this film are in fact with the white characters not the black ones and the failures with black characters are more than compensated for by the positives. There is certainly room for improvement on all sides of the color line in this film, but I would caution trashing it all together. My audience was made mostly of young white children and they were riveted by Tiana and invested in Charlotte doing the right thing when Prince Naveen tried to make his bargain with her. To me this makes this film worth supporting, because it is Disney’s first black princess and that princess has the same narrative sway with children, regardless of race, that any white one has had. Given that Hollywood segregates it films, advertising, and even its funding for films geared toward adults, the multicultural impact of Tiana cannot be under-estimated.
Ultimately, I was moved by the characters, cried over “Bambie’s mom”, and rooted for Tiana along with all of the young ones in the theater. And when the film was over, every single one of those children and many of their parents clapped. Equally important for me, some young black girls walked out of the theater before me and my black female academic cohort got up to leave, they looked at us with the flush of excitement from the film still on their faces. For a brief moment, they stopped and stared, and then smiled. While I count Disney’s black princess as significant in the shift to ending racism in this country right up there with the black president who minimizes or avoids discussing race, it was still a very telling moment.
The Princess and the Frog is open in wide release now. You can see it at most theaters. If you haven’t seen it yet b/c of the disparaging on the internet, you should go and then stop by here and tell me what you think.
all images are the proprty of Disney Corporation co 2009 except the final images which is fan art from David Kawena on Deviantart.org