“The Princess and the Frog” and the critical gaze

crossposted from Racialicious; written by Racialicious contributor Shannon Prince

Two years ago while I was studying abroad in Paris, my younger sister called me from the U.S. giggling that she had delicious news to share with me. She announced breathlessly that Disney was creating its first black princess movie. Despite the fact that I was a sophomore in college and my sister was a senior in upper school, we all but swooned.

Oh, I had my reservations – as someone who is African American, Native American, Asian American, and English American, it seemed that Disney had misrepresented the better part of my various heritages. I’m not even talking about the crow named “Jim Crow” in Dumbo or Peter Pan explaining that sexual attraction “makes the red man red” – I’m talking about superficially pro-multicultural films such as Pocahontas whose moral seemed to be that the indigenous warriors who fight in defense of sovereignty are just as wrong as imperialists fighting wars of conquest and Mulan which taught the valuable lesson that Chinese people are cool, if misogynistic, but the Huns are a mass of gray-skinned, barely human, rampaging savages. (The Huns were even seemingly identical in many frames, lending credence to the stereotype that the individual members of some Asian ethnic groups cannot be told apart.)

Given Disney’s history, it’s no surprise that criticism of The Princess and the Frog began early. Some elements of this criticism I found more valid than others. At first I saw no problem with protagonist Tiana’s original name “Maddy,” although some people said it sounded too similar to “mammy.” However, once I learned that “Maddy” was a maid, the phonetic similarity between her name and the slave title did seem as though it could be unwieldy. A voice actor’s tongue wouldn’t have to slip very much to say “mammy” while ordering Maddy to do a chore, and in such a context, the name “Maddy” seemed both deliberately inappropriately evocative and easy for the audience to mishear. On any account “Maddy” struck me as decidedly less whimsical and resonant than “Ariel,” which is of Shakespearian provenance, and “Jasmine” which is a treasured flower in the Middle East, but I’m not quite willing to label as Disney racism what might just be my own cynicism. (Disney did not have to name its other six princesses as they had names already from their original fairy tales i.e. Cinderella or from history i.e. “Pocahontas” was the real nickname of Matoaka.)

Just as Disney changed the name of its protagonist to “Tiana” (which, to me, sounds much more appropriate for a fairy tale princess) it has also changed her from being a maid to being a prospective restaurateur. I had been on the fence about our heroine’s role as a southern belle’s maid. Yes, it’s cannon for fairy tale protagonists to begin their stories having low status, but a black heroine who is a domestic could be legitimately read not as a fairy tale trope but a reinforcement of real world racial denigration. Some may claim that it would be historically accurate for a 1920’s black woman to be a maid, but Disney doesn’t even care about historical accuracy when animating actual history (for example, Pocahontas.) Disney films often include generic European landscapes and eras and anachronistic details and social conventions. Let’s consider Beauty and the Beast. Did French peasants like Belle’s dad really have the time and resources to invent complicated gadgets? Should Belle have had access to so many books or even have been literate? If Disney allowed history to delimit their characterizations, at her age Belle should have been out of her father’s home and in her own thatched roof house with a husband and a couple kids– and had far less teeth. Deciding to suddenly be historically accurate while telling a fairy tale about a black princess seems a little suspect. Not to mention after decades of singing candlesticks and flying carpets, it’s a little late in the game to start claiming a commitment to realism.

Although I didn’t agree completely with all the criticism directed at the film, I was disturbed when some whites were angered by some blacks having concerns with The Princess and the Frog, framing Disney, and white society as a whole, as the victims of unreasonable blacks who weren’t content with the gift Disney, and by extension, post-racial America, had given them. It is important to remember that Disney’s aim is not to serve any community but rather its own bottom line. Creating The Princess and the Frog is not a handout to black people any more than all the films starring white princesses were special gifts to white people. We didn’t beg Disney for a movie with a black princess nor is there any onus on us to be content with the movie or any aspect of American society out of gratitude or to remain silent in the face of issues we see as needing improvement because someone decided to throw us a bone. The condemnation of black criticism from some whites suggests that black people are peripheral citizens or customers who are eternally the recipients of aid and should be perpetually grateful.

What’s especially unfair about those who condemn blacks who criticize The Princess and the Frog is that whites, as a race, are not condemned as ungrateful or otherwise for critiquing the numerous white Disney princesses (or society at large.) Whites have taken Disney to task over white princesses’ independence, agency, body size, beauty, and intelligence among other things. There are academics and writers who have built a discipline out of critiquing Disney – particularly its princesses. While some whites now paint Disney as a desperate corporation scrambling to alter Tiana and assuage the endless demands of blacks, they fail to note how Ariel was the headstrong response to white complaints about obedient Cinderella and Belle was the feminist response to white criticism about willing-to-give-up-her-voice-for-a-man Ariel. Whites have made countless demands about their heroines, and Disney has altered their creations in response to those demands. Yet whites also know that if any given princess isn’t pleasing, in a few years another will be created. This is the first and most likely last black Disney princess. After all, while Disney repeatedly makes white princesses, it has yet to create more than one princess from the same minority ethnic group. In that light, it’s important to get Tiana right on the first (and probably only) shot.

Another charge levied at black critics of The Princess and the Frog is that they are trifling to “waste time” getting agitated over cartoons. But the fact is all media, especially those directed at children in their formative years, shape how people see and interact with the world. That’s why fairy tales have morals and Sesame Street has educational value. Children are especially malleable by media because they haven’t or have just begun developing critical thinking skills and are just getting their first and foundational impressions of the world.

Disney recognizes the power of media. The company has often used its films to political ends. For example, Donald Duck was placed in a series of World War II films designed to make children passionate supporters of American troops and enemies of the Nazis and the Japanese army. Then later, Donald Duck was used in the films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros to promote Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy towards Latin America. Clearly, if cartoons were “just cartoons” Disney wouldn’t make such films.

I have my own concerns about The Princess and the Frog. First, Tiana, the black princess, is paired up with a white prince (or at least a prince who looks white and is voiced by a Brazilian actor who also looks white) who has to save her from a black villain. Some might argue that portraying interracial marriage in film is good – but why then weren’t any of the white princesses given non-white princes to save them from white villains? And since Disney doesn’t give white princesses non-white princes, isn’t this interracial relationship at the expense of black boys who deserve a hero just as much as black girls deserve a heroine? Originally the prince was explicitly reported as being the jazz-loving monarch of a European country. By giving the prince an olive, but still white, complexion and a Brazilian accent, Disney gets to go forward with their original white hero yet make him ambiguous enough to not be unequivocally criticized as white at the same time. Furthermore, there’s a disturbing racial subtext to this plot. As intellectual Gayatri Spivak says, one of the main justifications of colonialism has been “white men saving brown women from brown men.” Here, that racist and sexist notion is invoked. The plot also follows Disney’s pattern of making their evil characters more “ethnic” and darker than their good characters. For example, the Chinese have wheat colored skin in Mulan while the Huns are dark gray. Aladdin is tan with European features while Jafar is brown with Arabic features.

My most serious concern, however, is the way voodoo religion is treated in the film. The prince is turned into a frog by a bad voodoo “magician,” the black villain, and when Tiana’s attempt to save him by kissing him turns her into a frog as well, the two of them must seek the aid of a benevolent voodoo priestess. Most of what people know about voodoo comes from inaccurate information both in fictional entities such as books and films and in ill-informed news stories where in a far-flung country (even one outside of West Africa, the home of Vodoun) the latest depravities of someone labeled a “witch doctor” or the perversely violent beliefs that have taken hold of a population are called voodoo. Voodoo isn’t seen as a specific religion but as a synonym for magic or superstition in a variety of broad contexts. It’s analogous to a film showing white characters adhering to wacky/sinister beliefs a scriptwriter invented and the film referring to it as Christianity or news media referring to any odd or egregious action taken by white people of any faith as Judaism.

Vodoun is a West African religion that was carried by slaves to the Western hemisphere, primarily Haiti and Louisiana, where it became known in its new forms as voodoo. Voodoo is a complex syncretic belief system that draws on African traditions as diverse as those of the Ewes and Dahomeys, the faith of the indigenous Tainos, and Catholicism and Islam. The foundation of voodoo is not charms (which attract the most outside attention) but monotheistic faith, belief in saints and spirits, and a focus on moral values such as charity and respect for the elderly. People do perform rites for protection and defense, but suffice it to say that voodoo is not about being a magician or a fairy godmother. Yet the rites performed in voodoo, when not exoticized and exaggerated past any semblance of accuracy or entirely fictionalized, are typically considered superstitious magic by non-practitioners while rites in Christianity – such as the belief that you can lay hands on people and cast devils out of them or anoint people with oil and heal them – are not.

To underline how offensive The Prince and the Frog’s version of voodoo is, imagine if another religion were treated as a system of enchantment that could be employed for good or for ill. Imagine if the prince had been changed into a frog because a Catholic priest, referred to as a magician, who is wearing a Roman collar but seems to exist in a separate universe from the actual tenets of Catholicism, sprinkled him with cursed water from a baptismal font, and the only way for the prince and Tiana to save themselves was for them to get the pope-wizard to feed them magical communion wafers. It’s because voodoo is an African religious system that it can be treated with such license as though it weren’t a real religion like Christianity or Hinduism.

The last thing that concerns me about The Princess and the Frog might be termed Esmeralda’s Eyes syndrome. In the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which had its own racial problems, the Romani woman Esmeralda, in the film referred to as a gypsy, has deep brown skin, black hair, and bright green eyes. Now I know that people whose skin isn’t beige, including those among the Romani people, don’t necessarily have brown eyes – my own great-grandfather was a golden skinned man with lovely baby blues, but Esmeralda’s eyes didn’t have the naturalness of Sharbat Gula’s. The vivid aquamarine shade of Esmeralda’s eyes jarred distractingly with her skin. As a child watching the film I was struck by how my sister and I would have had a heroine, or at least a hero’s love interest, with exactly our features if only Esmeralda’s eyes had been brown. So many girls, whether they were Romani, black, Pacific Islanders, or South Asians, could have finally seen themselves reflected in a Disney leading lady if that one small detail had been changed. I felt, rightly or wrongly, as though Disney had made Esmeralda’s eyes green to keep girls like me from identifying with her, to thwart us, to show that in order to be beautiful or worthy of headlining a Disney film you had to have at least one European feature, and animators were determined to provide Esmeralda with one even though it clashed alarmingly with her other features. I felt as though Disney were saying to whites, “Yes, Esmeralda is non-white, but not really.”

How does this relate to The Princess and the Frog? When I read the plot of the film I felt disappointed to learn that the heroine spends a significant chunk of the movie not as a black princess at all but as a frog. After decades of waiting, would it be too much to actually see an hour and a half of a black princess on the screen? I can’t help but think that Disney would never hide a non-black princess away in animal form for a large part of a film – maybe because they never have. This is a fairy tale with a white prince and a black princess who, for much of the movie, isn’t a black princess at all. Perhaps in the scenes where Tiana is hopping around in her toady body whites in the audience will forget how melanin-endowed she was in the movie’s opening and identify with her. Still, I can’t help but wonder if The Princess and the Frog came down with a case of Esmeralda’s Eyes syndrome – if this was Disney’s way of saying to white audiences, “Yes, Tiana’s black, but not really.”

Despite the fact that I’m an arguably political person, I can still remember the elation I felt when my sister told me Disney was making a black princess. Even while I knew about Disney’s poor track record with race, I was willing to put everything aside and start them off with a blank slate. One of my favorite songs is “Part of Your World” and the scene in Beauty and the Beast where the Beast gives Belle the castle library still makes me smile. Disney magic is potent. For many young girls Disney is a primary root of day-dreams and imaginative play. They are invested in the stories Disney tells and the characters Disney invents. Disney’s images, songs, and stories become deeply rooted in American culture and people’s family and personal histories – that’s why a visit to Disneyworld is an almost mandatory event in American childhood and people scramble to get Disney films before they are locked away in the “Disney vault” as though they were precious treasures – for many people they are. The idea of Disney’s prodigious musical and artistic skill focused around a black princess delighted me – so I regret that I’ve had to switch from wonderment to wondering why the trailer reveals that the film’s obligatory animal sidekick is a firefly who is missing teeth – and the ones he has are crooked. (I mean, really, Ariel gets a calypso-singing crustacean, Cinderella has mice that can sew, and the black princess gets a raggedy half-toothless firefly – when she isn’t spending the movie being the animal sidekick herself. Sorry, I’m through with my digression.) Even despite all this the little girl in me who still wants a pair of glass slippers hopes that Disney will get it together and produce a movie worthy of the generations long wait of all the black girls, some of them now grandmothers, who have been hoping for a black princess.

But maybe I’m just believing in fairy tales.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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