Months before the film officially hit theaters, black women everywhere were already referring to Princess Tiana of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog like her last name was Obama. That’s how momentous the arrival of Disney’s first black princess felt to us. And while we could compare this landmark animated character to the decade’s other cultural trailblazer, I think Tiana is less President Barack Obama and more Will Smith. I imagine that somewhere in the land of happily ever after, she’s saying to Cinderella, tiara fully cocked to the side while sliding on a pair of black Ray Bans like Smith in Men in Black, “You know the difference between you and me? I make this look good.”
I’ll admit I went to The Princess and the Frog fist-clenched, fully prepared to hate it based on the speculative criticism of multiple writers over the past year leading up to the film’s release and my own angst about the cartoon. I’ve waited 26 years to see myself reflected onscreen by Disney, longing to break through the negative self-image the lack of a black princess has reinforced in my life. With only Oprah and a few others to latch onto as a high-profile black woman in America who is the star of the show, I’ve often thrown myself into playing the role of strong, supportive best friend or faithful employee rather than the leading lady in my own life. Black women are never leading ladies; that plotline isn’t available to us. We don’t get the prince or live happily ever after; we don’t get swept up in fairytales. At least that’s the implied message Hollywood traditionally has sent to us.
And that’s why I was anxious going into a special New York screening of The Princess and the Frog. For me, there was a lot riding on the movie’s success. But ten minutes in, I was hooked, squealing with delight between handfuls of popcorn and elbowing past 6-year-olds to take a photo with the lovely actress dressed up as Princess Tiana after the screening.
You see, Tiana is a not only a black princess — she’s a <em>necessary</em> princess who will likely serve as an inspiring heroine for countless young girls for years to come.
That said, I still feel some of the shots against the film, like those outlined by my primary criticism of the film prior to seeing it. In retrospect, given how sleazy and morally askew this handsome prince was drawn, I’m glad he wasn’t black. We don’t need another negative image of black males., are completely valid. The Creole-speaking firefly may indeed perpetuate negative stereotypes of uneducated black southerners. The voodoo spiritual elements of The Princess and the Frog‘s villain are much darker and more realistic than other Disney bad guys. I was particularly surprised by the strong sexual innuendos from the philandering prince and the “bosomy” women of the movie. But ironically, the lack of an African American prince didn’t bother me, and that was
However, despite its failings, The Princess and the Frog will quickly be added to the cartoon canon alongside other greats like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. The movie is fun, with bold characters, colorful music, and flawless pacing. And if the giggles and mile-wide smiles from the little girls I saw leaving the theater are any indication, it’s a delight for kids to watch.
And while the movie will undoubtedly hold a specially nuanced appeal for black children who will laugh over references to cousin Pookie and the grandma firefly who’s light goes out like a hearing aid, it should be noted that this film is relatable to all children, whether urban or suburban. This isn’t to say I want to set aside Tiana’s ethnicity as a Variety reviewer suggested, saying that The Princess and the Frog “revolves around a lovely maiden who, headstrong though she may be, is in the end so blandly honorable that her ethnicity is pretty much beside the point.” I disagree — her ethnicity is exactly the point.
Imbued with rich African American cultural values, Princess Tiana redefines what it means to be a princess. There’ll be no waiting for a prince to break the spell or a plump godmother to fulfill her dreams. Tiana is a strong black woman: responsible, sassy, and dedicated to her family. Our princess is fiercely independent. And it’s this aspect of the movie that will charm black female adults who have longed to see a princess they can relate to grace the screen. Tiana reflects the honor and pressure felt by black women to fulfill the dreams of their family, safeguard their culture, and place the needs of others before their own.
And it’s on this point that Disney should be applauded. Historically, Disney has done well to take the cultural constraints placed on children, particularly girls, and release the locks. Cinderella proved that a poor background and step-family drama couldn’t hold her back from her dreams. Belle (of Beauty and Beast) learned looks don’t count in matters of the heart. And Snow White learned hope could come alive by a single kiss. And now Tiana comes at a critical point in the evolution of black culture to teach us that the dreams of our ancestors should empower, not burden us, as all viewers are reminded to leap into the joy and fantasy of life in the midst of responsibility.
Smart, beautiful, modern, and full of class, Princess Tiana wears her tiara well.
Film images courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.