In 2007, Disney announced plans of releasing another 2D animation movie with the particularity of introducing its first Black princess to follow the long tradition of Snow white, Cinderella, etc.
Unfortunately, as soon as the first pictures and plot was introduced, controversy emerged; this also follows the long tradition of everything first black, first black president, first black Pope, first black James Bond, first black supermodel, first black billionaire, etc. Controversy always follows.
In the case of the Princess and the frog, which is the title Disney has chosen, the company has been walking on egg shells from the very beginning. It was first reported that the original name of the princess would be Maddy which some found offensive and stereotypical, and the original title “The Frog Princess” was simply racist. Maddy was then renamed Tianna, and the final title became “The Princess and the Frog.”
There was also the complaint that the only reason Disney decided to create a black princess was to take advantage of the Obama effect; just like Vogue magazine Italia decided to have an all black issue, the rationale was simple: Black is In, time to cash in.
Among the most virulent criticism that the December 2009 upcoming cartoon has generated, here are the ones that come more often:
1 – The location: New Orleans is a poor taste after the events of Hurricane Katrina
2 – The location: As Charlotte Observer columnist William Blackburn explains:
“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.”
3 – The Prince: Disney’s first Black Princess’s prince is white
4 – The prince: The prince is white, the villain is Black
I think the criticisms are well noted, but the argument could easily go either way, as many have pointed out. I understand where the controversy is coming from, but I seriously doubt that as presented, it will alienate the kid in me, and prevent me from watching this movie, and enjoy it if any good.
I have always been a fan of Disney, and still take pleasure in watching many of their classics today. I still marvel at the Lion King as if it had just been released, Mulan still cracks me out, while the Fox and the Hound is quite amusing. I only watched Bambi twice with almost 20 years between the two seeing, and will NOT recommend it to any child unless they’re old enough to drive themselves to therapy.
Despite my appreciation for Disney’s 2D movies, I have to admit that they have missed a serious opportunity with the Princess and the frog, and if they ever hoped to tap into the Black community at large, they missed the boat.
In reviewing all of Disney’s movies, I noticed a trend: the absence of Africans and African culture.
The tradition of Disney princesses has built into our young girls the fantasy of wanting to be a princess just like snow white, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. It has even affected some women into their adult life, as they are so misguided to still look and wait for their princes (Stop looking, we are not princes!).
Adding to the magical fairy tales, Disney has also ventured into the cultural aspect by offering to other cultures their very own princess or princess-like heroine. We have thus seen:
– Princess Jasmine of India in Aladdin
– Mulan, Woman warrior of China in Mulan
– Pocahontas, daughter of Native American chief in Pocahontas
Although not from Disney, Anastasia of Russia could easily join the identification row.
When it comes to Africa, what do we have? Lions, Zebra, Hyenas, etc….
Some may say, well, Disney has always had story with talking animals; I concur, so let’s look at some of them:
– Brother Bear: A Native American warrior is turned into a bear: There is Human sighting
– Bambi: Who killed Bambi’s mom? Enough said
– Lady and the tramp: The good lady had masters: there is Human sighting
– 101 Dalmatians: Did you not see Cruella Deville: There is Human sighting
– The Aristocats: A cat version of Lady and the tramp: There is Human sighting
– The Fox and the Hound: There is Human sighting
The closest thing to a human being in the Lion King is the monkey Rafiki.
There is only a second movie based in Africa, and that is Tarzan, and even here, the interesting notion that there is only white Tarzan (King of the jungle) and animals is quite odd because in the Jungle Book, Mowgli has the very same experience That Tarzan had; however in the Jungle Book, Mowgli finally meet his own people or shall I say native people when he is seductively swayed out of the jungle by the beautiful Indian girl.
For some reason, Disney has avoided handling the issue of African characters, although it didn’t have any problem creating non-white, non-European heroes. Is it the fear of mishandling or misrepresenting the African characters? I do not know, but the truths is that the legacy of animated princes and princess has a long-lasting effect in the personality building of our kids, and it is even reinforced in this days and time with their adaptation in theme parks.
Up to today, when little black girls would think of princesses, they yalla shoot would envision the snow white, Cinderella and sleeping beauty which symbolizes not only beautiful white women, but glamorize the European heritage of castles, knighthood, kingdom, etc…
While looking at the first picture of the Princess and the frog, the first element is corrected, since our little girls will now identified with princess Tianna; however, they will identified with the European image of princess, thus further alienating them from their cultural past.
Underestimating the cultural impact of personal identification is extremely dangerous because it is culture that reinforces the self-assessment of dignity and beauty. The tremendous work that has been done to restore the confidence of Black women in their own beauty is an example of what cultural alienation can do.
I sense that it is not only important for our little girls to see and identify with a black princess, but it is essential that they envision the African Black princess, and realize that their beauty is not only expressed by the adoption of a foreign standard of beauty. It is equally for young boy to appreciate that image, and note that like any other princess, the black princess is worth saving and serving.
I really wished that when the decision to bring forth a Black princess was made, Disney would’ve looked into the African culture, just like they went to India, China, or native America.
I wished they had done it, but I do not blame them. As I stipulated in one of my previous note, the responsibility to build our kids future is now falling on us, and as we’re witnessing, the previous generation is slowly passing the torch. It shouldn’t be Disney’s job to explore the richness of our history, or assume the job of offering our kids the fantasy they deserve.
I am sure that I will enjoy and appreciate “The Princess and the Frog”, but I also salivate at the idea that the stories of queen Zingha of Angola, queen Pokou, Tassin Hangbe or Ndette Yalla of Walo are there for me to explore. The richness of our culture and history is a treasure box to dig plots and themes.
To teach the fantastic world of African mythology and folk story is at our disposition. If Disney or any other is not able to tap into those vast resources, we can. I am sure that if I scan my Facebook friend list, I will find all the talent needed to offer our kids the heroes, princesses and adventures based on their own culture.
As challenging as it is to take advantage of our geographical natural resources, we must realize that we will not succeed unless we learn to utilize our human resources first. My pen and keyboard has already produced the African princesses and warriors; I unfortunately I also realized that I cannot draw my own finger even if my life depended on it. Collaboration is the name of the game; because it takes a village to raise a child.
Princess Tianna is Disney’s first Black Princess, alas she is not the African princess our daughters are… I nevertheless hope that with dedication, collaboration and hard work, we will offer our sons and daughters the princesses their moms never had, but always were…