Art and Entertainment

princess tiana, princess and the frog
Matt Stroshane-Disney/AP
Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose greets six young Princess Tiana fans (right) and the
Princess Tiana character as she will appear in the Disney theme parks (far left) at the
2009 National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Convention in Tampa, Fla.,
Aug. 6, 2009.

Disney Film Raises Questions About African-American Identity

December 14, 2009 03:45 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Disney is being praised for featuring a black princess in the new animated film “The Princess and the Frog,” but some critics say the setting and characters reinforce stereotypes.

A Long-Awaited First for Disney

For the first time ever, Disney has created an animated film with a black female main character. “The Princess and the Frog” opened in November in New York and Los Angeles, and reached theaters throughout the United States last weekend. Many have praised Disney for finally creating a character like Tiana, but others say the film still reinforces stereotypes.

“The Princess and the Frog” has received mostly positive reviews and “is also generating plenty of buzz in the black community,” which has long taken issue with Disney’s princess ideal, according to Chuck Barney of the Contra Costa Times. The first non-Caucasian female animated star was 1995’s “Pocahontas,” featuring a Native American heroine. Since then, explains Barney, Disney has featured Chinese, Hawaiian and Arabian leading ladies in animated features, but Tiana breaks new ground.

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker started working on the film in 2006, and commentators have scrutinized every characteristic of Tiana, including her hair, skin tone, “ethnicity of her suitor” and the film’s New Orleans setting. Disney sought guidance from Oprah Winfrey, who provides the voice for Tiana’s mom, and “held early screenings for the NAACP and other organizations,” according to Barney.

The film is a remake of “The Frog Prince,” a Brothers Grimm tale, and plays out in a bayou in 1920s Louisiana, according to The Huffington Post, which provides a video clip from the movie.

Opinion & Analysis: Long live the classic fairy-tale storyline?

Tiana may be groundbreaking, but “The Princess and the Frog” somehow still “strenuously avoids” discussion of race, Manohla Dargis writes in a review for The New York Times. The story’s admirable arch hinges on Tiana’s wish to open her own restaurant and the hard work required to do so. But in the end, “[t]he prince, disappointingly if not surprisingly, becomes not only Tiana’s salvation but also that of the movie,” Dargis writes.

Reaction: Girls’ responses vary; Prince controversy

After a screening of "The Princess and the Frog" in the San Francisco area, Michele Norris of NPR’s "All Things Considered" asked young girls in the audience what they thought of the film. Responses ranged from pride that the princess was black, to insistence that Tiana’s race didn’t matter at all. One respondent said of Tiana, "It made me happy that she kind of looks like me,” while another simply appreciated that Tiana “found a way to make her dream come true.”

Adult critics were less charmed by some of the film’s attributes, most notably the absence of a black prince. Brazilian actor Bruno Campos provides the voice of the prince, who “has been described as olive-toned,” according to The Times of London. Others said setting the film in New Orleans and including a “voodoo queen” character played into “black stereotypes.” But a Disney representative told The Times, “New Orleans is an ideal setting for an American fairytale set in the jazz age — it’s all part of the fabric of the story.”

Reaction to “The Princess and the Frog” in some ways mirrors the response to “Precious,” a film released in November about an obese African-American girl that is sexually and emotionally abused by her father, and is illiterate. Regarding backlash to the film, Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University professor of black popular culture, told The New York Times that “people are suspicious of narratives that don’t put us in the best light,” a suspicion rooted in “a long history of negative images in popular culture.”

African-American Identity

Is the assumption that a Disney movie can influence the identities of African-Americans unrealistic?

Some think the film’s “influence is overblown,” Megan K. Scott writes for the Associated Press. Tracy D. Sharpley-Whiting, a professor of African-American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt University, told Scott, “There is far too much invested in the idea that Disney has somehow affirmed black women and girls with this production.”

African-American writer Walter Mosley touches on issues of self-realization and American identity that blacks face in his 2003 book “What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace.” According to NPR, Mosley’s father never considered himself “a full American citizen” until he was shot at by German soldiers “with the same vengeance that they targeted white GIs” in World War II. Mosley said he “had a similar breakthrough about his American identity on Sept. 11, 2001,” when he realized he was being targeted alongside white Americans.

Related Topic: Blacks in pop culture

Mattel’s new “So In Style” dolls aren’t simply white dolls painted brown. According to Kristin Tillotson, writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the new dolls “have varied skin tones as well as lips, noses and cheekbones in slightly differing shapes.” The dolls’ hair is also textured, unlike typical Caucasian Barbies.

Biography’s Celebrate Black History feature includes “200 Notable Icons of African American History.” Pop culture categories include Artists & Writers, Entertainers, and Musicians & Singers that displayed excellence.

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