It’s been 73 years since Disney’s first princess – Snow White.
Since then we’ve seen Disney producing a string of mostly lily-white princesses, with the occasional exception, since 1992, of Jasmine (Middle-Eastern descent), Pocahontas (Native American) and Mulan (Asian). Now the company has finally freshened-up its politics: for the first time, the fairest of them all is black.
In The Princess and the Frog we meet Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose): a strong-willed waitress in 1920’s New Orleans who dreams of opening her own restaurant. This ambition already distinguishes her from most other flat Disney princesses whose dreams almost always involve a white wedding with a handsome prince. But it is not just her ambition that distinguishes her: Tiana is one of the few princesses that is not (technically) rescued by a prince. Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) is a jazz-loving royal who visits New Orleans, but is turned into a frog by a voodoo trickster. Surprisingly, Disney decided not to make him black, but rather Creole and with a French accent. This sparked the New York Times of 29 May 2009 to write: “Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince.” Tiana puckers up to the frog prince, but the suave royal doesn’t appear – instead, Tiana also shrinks into a frog. Together the two frogs must now cross the Southern swampland in search of another witch doctor to reverse the spell.
It is here, by turning the two people of colour into frogs, that Disney skirts around the racial issues in the film. “Disney may have wished to reach out to people of colour – but the colour green wasn’t what we had in mind,” wrote The Guardian of 28 January 2010.
The film seems to have been bedevilled by racial criticism from the beginning. The initial idea was for Tiana to be a chambermaid called Maddy – a name that reminds all too well of the derogatory Mammy.
Some critics have even criticised the locale. “Disney should be ashamed,” William Blackburn wrote in The Charlotte Observer of North Carolina. “This princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies, Hurricane Katrina, to beset a black community.”
Yet, despite the criticism, Disney’s first African-American princess has also been met with great joy by others. “Finally, here is something that all little girls, especially young black girls, can embrace,” Cori Murray of Essence magazine wrote.
But Murray added, “Disney is not bending backwards to be sensitive … It wants to sell a whole lot of Tiana dolls and some Tiana paper plates and make people line up to see Tiana at Disney World.”
Disney has never been known for being politically correct. After all, it’s fantasia, sing-along stuff – that certainly gets into kids’ minds – but isn’t subject to any reality checks. Maybe, at least for kids, The Princess and the Frog can be the start of films aimed at a non-racial future.