Over the past few years, Americans have gotten used to the phrase “for the first time in history.” As in, for the first time in history we have a woman running for president, or a black president, or Dr. Pepper flavored with vanilla and cherry! Indeed, the past decade has taken much joy in transcending out-dated injustices.
In the same spirit, Disney recently released its first full-length animated feature with a black princess in, “The Princess and the Frog,” a twist on the classic fable of the princess who overcomes her prejudice toward frogs and, with a kiss, turns the enchanted frog back into a handsome prince.
Many commentators, activists and filmgoers expressed concern about the film prior to its release, worried about how Disney would handle, or mishandle, the characters. And their concerns were certainly warranted. From the jive-talking crows in “Dumbo,” to the ode to the good ole days of American slavery in “Song of the South” and the terrifying lack of African characters in their more recent “Tarzan,” Disney’s record on race is, at best, a travesty.
So, how did “The Princess and the Frog” turn out? Does it live up to the hype, for better or for worse? Are we a post-racial America or still hopelessly mired in our past?
Tiana, the titular princess, is the first princess without a father – he is killed during World War I. This is significant both because it’s most often the mother who is absent, and because of the cultural politics surrounding black fatherhood. Although it is emphasized throughout the film that the father was a “good” black man, it is as though Fate in the Disney universe can’t abide a black father surviving the first act (as with Mufasa in “The Lion King”).
The specter of the “no-good” black man haunts the film, which is not a first for Disney. Tiana’s father was exceptional because he wasn’t shiftless and conniving, which implies that such is the natural condition of black men in America. After all, the villain in the film is a voodoo huckster trying to gain control of New Orleans by killing the jolly, rich, white landowner (voiced by John Goodman), as though it were a good thing that the rich white man owned New Orleans in the first place!
Tiana is the first princess whose dream (and may I emphasize dream) is to open a small business, a restaurant. Disney princesses have always been transcendent figures. Ariel escaped her known universe, Mulan escaped repressive gender norms and Pocahontas escaped closed-mindedness and embraced the new (of course, in the world of Disney it is the Indians who must learn to accept the whites). For Tiana, though, her only dream is to work hard for the rest of her life. As in “Song of the South,” Disney still can’t imagine a black character happy unless she is hard at work (with or without pay).
It is the first film to completely disavow the power of magic in favor of hard work, grit and determination, all the while being steeped in magic. The audience gets both messages: wish on a star but don’t count on no star to make yo’ dreams come true. The film manages to be Disney’s most vividly animated, magical story, but it’s anchored in a work ethic that never appears in other films. It is as though they told Cinderella to keep working for her stepmother because someday all that hard work would pay off.
Tiana is also the first Disney princess to spend most of the movie completely disembodied. Did animating black features become so taxing on the animation team that they had to make her switch species until the very end of the story? It should be noted, also, that the moral of the story is (for some reason) a heavy-handed endorsement of marriage. The spell can’t be broken without a wedding, why does telling a black story do this to Disney? For the other princesses, marriage is the cherry on top, not the whole sundae.
This is all not to say that the movie is bad – for a children’s movie it’s pretty remarkable, but it is disturbingly racist as well. Aside from how it euphemizes Jim Crow segregation and lynch law (the black and white characters just so happen to sit in different parts of the trolley, live in different parts of the town, and sit at different tables at Tiana’s restaurant), the creative team is simply incapable of telling the story.
So what does the movie say about America today? Perhaps that we are not simply stuck in the past, but that the past is not, in fact, in the past. That the movie can be so race-conscious and race-clueless at the same time is a perfect analogy to an America obsessed with its own newness. Perhaps for the first time in our history we’ll be able to admit that we can’t escape our history.
James Bliss is a fourth-year women’s studies, political studies and African-American studies triple major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org