“The Princess and the Frog“, OpenDemocracy.net, 7 December 2007
I wrote this piece as a blog entry for OpenDemocracy’s “16 Days Against Gender Violence” initiative. A much longer essay on the Princesses is forthcoming.
Earlier this year, in a move that made animation history, the Disney corporation announced the addition of a ninth “Disney Princess,” who-like her colleagues Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan-will do beautiful better than the rest. According to details released in April, a new film entitled The Princess and the Frog will be set in jazz age New Orleans, with characters that include a voodoo villain, a wacky Cajun firefly, and a jolly alligator. It will also boast a heroine that is black.
It’s about time, say social activists who have been crying foul about race in Disney pictures. They suggest that the glaring hole in the media giant’s newly consolidated pantheon of beauty cut to the core of social violences in America. More plainly, they’ve said that if Disney wishes to promote a comprehensive vision of beauty for its black girls-Nala from The Lion King isn’t going to cut it.
Disney has perennially visited the touchy intersection of pop and politics, gender and race. If the dustups over names alone in the months since development began are any clue, the topic is still quite prickly. Early reports listed the title heroine’s name as “Maddy”, a supposedly underclass name that has been changed, under protest to the crystalline “Tiana.” Likewise has the original title, The Frog Princess, been scrapped. Wild cheers went up from the race crusaders. And a good thing. No girl, brown or otherwise, should have to sigh herself to sleep with visions of bogs and bullfrogs. In fact, that sounds like a recipe for malaria.
In truth, the whole thing sounds like a recipe for cringing, should Disney fail the Herculean task it has set. As families (of all races, presumably) crowd around the box office on Christmas 2009, what will they see? What will they learn? I’d bet the farm that a Randy Newman Mardi Gras number is in the pipeline; the impact of New Orleans, the newly-racialized staging ground for this ambitious drama, is yet to be seen. In a best-case scenario, the story of the city and the girl will use fun and games to transcend race. But the proof is in the princess. I remain skeptical that Tiana, who in early sketches glows with an unalarming, brown-paper-bag complexion, will “represent” for young black women; her figure boasts the standardized curves of her colleagues; her hair is tamed, her manner silken. And let’s hope the supporting cast dies not devolve into jigaboo stereotypes.
I’m currently writing a long essay on the Princesses. It’s no news that such beauty projects bear a unique risk of psychic violence for girls of color. Disney’s message teeters on the knife-edge of uplift or objectification. But perhaps there is good here. The spectacle of royal perfection attempts to de-vilify the body of a black woman, whose course over the American centuries belies a wash of injustices fraught upon that body. Trying to disarm this imagery-tied equally to the spectacle of Saartje Bartman, her buttocks cruelly on display at the 1893 World’s Fair, and to the kitschy adoration of Josephine Baker on the Champs-Elysées-is a daunting, yet admirable task. A face like one’s own outside the mirror may be the largest known boost to self-esteem among young women. If black girls feel un-alone, counted-and not just counted, Princessed-this is surely a happy end to a somewhat toothless revisiting of the American South. Fingers crossed for Tiana and company, if not in hopes of a modern maiden paradigm, at least in contemplation of a post-racial childhood.