Disney’s First Black Princess

30 03 2009

The Princess and The Frog

Disney is returning to it’s original 2D animation style to introduce a new 2009 feature, The Princess and the Frog.  The film is based loosely on the book The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker.  This film will be the first traditional animation feature in the Disney animation series since 2004’s Home on The Range.  And it is also the first Disney musical since Hercules.

The film supposedly began under the working title The Frog Princess and the princess’ name began as Maddy.  Maddy was originally listed on the casting call sheet as a “chambermaid.”  However, the film title was changed to The Princess and The Frog and supposedly the princess’ name was changed to Tiana.  Tiana’s occupation was also reportedly switched from chambermaid to waitress.  

But it seems that Disney is denying the claim that the information was switched.  In a press release, the Disney PR department said:

…There is incorrect information being circulated about Disney’s 2009 motion picture The Princess and the Frog (whose previous working title was The Frog Princess)

The central character is a young girl named Princess Tiana. The story takes place in the charming elegance and grandeur of New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter during the Jazz Age . . . Princess Tiana will be a heroine in the great tradition of Disney’s rich animated fairy tale legacy, and all other characters and aspects of the story will be treated with the greatest respect and sensitivity.

This American fairy tale is several years away from completion and the creative process is ongoing . . . unfortunately much of the information that has surfaced, including the casting breakdown . . . is inaccurate. When we do casting calls we frequently use substitute information as we don’t want details out about the movies. Therefore that information you have is incorrect.

One thing Disney does admit was that the title was changed.   It has been argued that the new title was chosen because it has been perceived as less derogatory to black women because it does not imply that the princess is in some way ugly.  Many people believe that the name and occupation were in fact changed due to a media outcry against racism in the film.  Some critics noted that the name “Maddy” calls to mind the word “Mammy,” an offensive stereotype of African American women.  And the portrayal of “Maddy” as a chambermaid for a spoiled white girl was considered insulting.  The name may have in fact been changed due to this outcry, and many people seem to agree that the new name for the princess is more fitting because it is more regal and “ethnic” sounding.  

In reaction to the film’s preliminary information, Jennifer Daniels from BET wrote:

As it turned out, my ‘Boys’ could write a better story than this.  

Our plucky young Black protagonist, Maddy, as a chambermaid. There’s also a plantation owner, two practitioners of voodoo – one a Magical Negro, the other a villain – a singing alligator, and score by the whitest White man to ever rest his head in the Big Easy, Randy Newman. (Were the Neville brothers & Harry Connick, Jr., busy?). Knowing Disney, I’m sure there’s a dead parent somewhere in the mix. The living parent, Maddy’s mother Eudora, is also a maid. Somebody turns into a frog. Oh, and the prince is White.

…A movie like The Frog Princess, with its touching tale of a po’ Black chile (sic) being rescued from the Big Black Voodoo Daddy by a great White hope in the pre-Civil Rights Movement South not only offensive and ignorant of history, but highly insensitive as well.

It does seem that many people do consider the presentation of a black princess in a Disney movie to be a long overdue bit of progress, even if the portrayal might be problematic.  But some have been hailing the film with headlines such as “Princess Maddy Repairs Disney’s Racist Reputation.”  This is taking it more than a little bit too far.  Simply having a black heroine (who of course conforms to standards of beauty and thinness) and a Latino (maybe?) prince (who is buff, handsome, and strong looking of course) does not mean that the film is racism-free.  And of course the couple is heterosexual!

William Blackburn from the Charlotte Observer stated:

This princess’ story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community. And then they throw in the voodoo theme [the fairy-godmother character is a voodoo priestess] and an alligator sidekick. When you put New Orleans, alligators and voodoo together, there’s no beauty there.  

Whereas it has been argued that the use of New Orleans as a backdrop is insensitive, on the other hand some seem to see the film as a positive for New Orleans, taking the spotlight off of the devastation and putting it back on the beauty of the city and the culture.

Another debate has arisen about the prince’s race.  From what I’ve read, it seems that the prince is supposed to be Latino, but some people argue that he is white. Others say that the prince was originally supposed to be white, but his race was later changed to Latino after the public outcry.  While some see the portrayal of the interracial relationship as progress, others would have preferred a black prince.  One commenter on filmschoolrejects.com said:

What is wrong with the prince being black?? Why MUST he be anything but?? I don’t want my daughter growing up with fantasies of a white guy “rescuing” her. It kind of seems that the “prince” in Disney movies is usually white though, even with the other “ethnic” “princesses”

Another commenter wondered if Disney was just trying to “kill two birds with one stone” by including both a Latino man and a black woman, when neither group has been represented in Disney films before.

I have to say I’m a little nervous about the film’s content, but I’m also really excited to see it.  The animation looks absolutely beautiful, and it will certainly be something to blog about once I actually have seen how the plot actually plays out.

So, what do you all think?  Is the inclusion of a crazy voodoo-practicing villain, a jazz-singing alligator, and a Cajun firefly friend with only four teeth just more Disney  racist stereotyping?  Are you buying Disney’s supposed argument that the information circulating about the character’s name and occupation was false, or do you think the changes were a product of a quick panic that Disney might be seen as racist?  Is the use of New Orleans as a backdrop offensive or brilliant?  Is the inclusion of an interracial couple progressive or problematic?  And last, is Princess Tiana a monumental and progressive step towards racial inclusion in Disney films, or is she just another racially stereotyped, ultra-feminine, skinny heterosexual girl to instill children with unrealistic expectations of romance?


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2 responses

30 03 2009
Stephanie

The picture of the princess looks like they took Belle and just colored her in dark brown. Disney, you have failed us.

30 03 2009
angryblkfeminist

I actually wanted to blog about this! I’m pretty upset about the prince being light-skinned. They had no problem for making the “ugly” voodoo lady dark as all hell, but the HANDSOME prince has to be light skinned?! What the fuck? Black men are so often portrayed in a negative light in the media. We always seem them as some comedic relief, or some gangster, or some sex-crazed guy who is a womanizer. The white princesses got their white princes of the same colour; why not the black princess!? As a black person it is so rare to see a relationship between two black (or simply darker skinned) people that isn’t surrounded or affected by some major negative aspect (he’s abusive, she’s a nag, etc) and it’s frustrating that they decided to just have light skinned prince.Also, I have to reiterative how pissed I am how long it took for Disney to get a black princess. Every other fucking race had their own princess before us! To be fair, Mulan isn’t American, but STILL. I had the fucking LION KING growing up. And Nala wasn’t even enough to focus on – I had to admire Simba! or Mufasa! Or Rafiki! I know that the Lion King is my FAVORITE movie ( I can’t resist), but remembering that I had to have a fucking stuffed animal of a LION when I was young was annoying when the other little girls could dress up as Pocahontas/Mulan/Jasmine or a white princess. I really hope Disney chooses to have more princesses over the years and expand. Can we not just have one princess for the “coloureds” and have a bunch of white ones? It seems like (as the OP has said) that Disney is just trying to get by through fulfilling their “quota.” Let’s get a salad bowl going! But I won’t hold my breath. I hope other people are not fooled that the production of this ONE movie erases the racist history of Disney. Just as having one black president doesn’t erase the existence racism in this country.

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