Disney’s First Black Princess

Princess Tiana and the FrogMonths 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.”

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More Tiana Drama

pop circumstance impactYou’ve got to wonder if Disney is starting to have second thoughts about producing a film with an African American princess. A few weeks ago we told you about the drama surrounding the upcoming release of The Princess and the Frog, a new animated film featuring Disney’s first black princess. Well, people still aren’t quite sure what to do with Princess Tiana.

First there was a bit of hubbub over her name and occupation, which were ultimately changed from the supposedly slave-sounding “Maddy” the maid to “Tiana” the chef. Then, as The New York Times reports, there’s the controversy over setting the fairy tale against the backdrop of New Orleans and the fact that the story finds Tiana (spoiler alert) spending ample screen time as an amphibian. Now TheRoot.com has raised the conversation to a whole new level, questioning whether we need another princess in the first place. Writer Monique Fields muses, “Whatever in the world do princesses do? More importantly, how do they get paid? Real life is not a fairy tale, and few folks live happily ever after. So just what are we telling our girls when we dress them up in frilly dresses, dust them with makeup, and put glitter in their hair before they really know who they are?”

While we can grant that some girls do get stuck in the princess narrative, spending their lives searching for Prince Charming, doesn’t it feel a bit like Fields is missing the point? The fantastic nature of these stories quite intentionally inspires a sense of whimsy in young women. Girls are supposed to be left asking what if a pumpkin wasn’t just a pumpkin? And what if people weren’t always what they seem? In that world, a frog might be a prince. Candlesticks might actually dance. Perhaps something good we can’t see or touch or hear is moving all around us all the time. Besides, Disney has never pretended to peddle realism.

Whose House? Run’s House

Just when it felt like the only black family on television lived in the White House, Rev Run and the rest of the Simmons family are back for a sixth season of Run’s House on MTV. Catch the premiere episode on Monday night (10 p.m. ET/PT) when the family takes us on their Hawaiian vacation. We’re curious to see if this will be the episode where Rev Run and his wife Justine deal with their son’s recent arrest or if we’ll have to wait until later in the season to see how JoJo is punished. The oldest son from Rev Run’s first marriage and aspiring rapper, Joseph “Jo Jo” Simmons, was arrested last month for drug possession and resisting arrest but was quickly released on his own recognizance. Guess we’ll have to wait and see. Until Monday, check out the following preview for the new season:

Carrie Prejean: The Final Chapter?

It looks like the Carrie Prejean saga may finally come to an end. On Thursday, Donald Trump and Miss California USA pageant officials officially fired the Miss USA contestant citing failure to uphold her contractual duties. Despite Prejean’s insinuation that the decision was made because of the political controversy surrounding her stance on same-sex marriage, Keith Lewis, the executive director of Miss California USA, tried to remain clear that Prejean’s termination had nothing to do with her beliefs. “This was a decision based solely on contract violations including Ms. Prejean’s unwillingness to make appearances on behalf of the Miss California USA organization,” he stated. Prejean told TMZ.com she was “shocked,” which left us wondering if she’s the only person who didn’t see this coming. The entire state of California is embroiled in a heated debate over gay marriage with the passing of Proposition 8 last November and the recent decision of the California Supreme Court to uphold the ban on same-sex marriage. After publicly taking such an unpopular position on the gay marriage issue, and further aggravating the situation by joining forces with the National Organization for Marriage, was she really surprised that pageant officials leaped at the chance to let her go? It’s a shame she may not have carried out her responsibilities faithfully, at least for the sake of being above reproach. Did all the attention from traditional marriage supporters go to her head? In any event, this now gives us time to get reacquainted with that other statuesque blond. You know, the one who actually won the Miss USA pageant. If only we could remember her name.

Obama’s Gospel Tribute

When President Barack Obama starts jonesing for a little musical entertainment, all he has to do is say the word and the line of A-list singers ready to serenade him stretches from the White House to the Washington Monument. But as of Tuesday, President Obama’s access to instant personal entertainment just got even easier. On Tuesday, Central South Distributors released a special tribute CD to honor the first African-American POTUS called A Gospel Tribute to President Obama. The album features Israel Houghton, Juanita Bynum, and Donnie McClurkin, among others. In a tribute to First Lady Michelle Obama, Kelly Price and Shirley Murdock also appear, singing “The Curtain’s Raised.” Check out the CD at Amazon or ilovegospelmusic.com.

Facebook’s Taking Names

For all the Facebook addicts out there, get your fingers ready. On Saturday at 12:01 a.m. the popular social networking site will allow users to claim their own personal Facebook usernames and URLs. With a potential 200 million people competing simultaneously to stake a claim in cyberspace by snatching up their own name, you’re going to need to type fast if you want to be able to “own” www.facebook.com/YourNameHere. We’re not exactly tech savvy enough to know what all this means, but we’ve heard that The Daily Beast is comparing this massive domain grab to the Oklahoma Territory land run of 1889, minus the horses and dust. If you are on Facebook, be sure to become a fan of UrbanFaith. We promise we won’t poke.

Princess and the Frog still shot: Disney.

Surprised by Hannah Montana

hannah montana movieThere’s been a lot of chatter recently about Disney’s upcoming feature The Princess and the Frog, since it represents not only the studio’s return to traditional hand-drawn animation, but also the arrival of Disney’s first black princess. Though a little late to the party, this is still a welcome milestone for the mega-media company and for its lucrative Princess brand. For years, African American daughters, and their parents, have wondered if there would ever be a princess that looked like them. Now, this December, we’ll finally be able to answer in the affirmative.

But there’s actually another Disney character who’s become a role model of sorts to many little black girls, including my own 9- and 6-year-old daughters. And, as is often the case, she’s not whom you might expect.

I’m talking about Hannah Montana.

It’s been several weeks since my daughters and I went to see Hannah Montana: The Movie and I still find myself thinking about the film. Is it because it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen? No. Is it because it offered a compelling gospel message? Nope, that’s not it either.

One of the reasons the film has been on my mind is that it has caused me to think a lot about what makes the Hannah Montana character, as portrayed by 16-year-old actress/singer Miley Cyrus, have such widespread appeal. What started out just a few years ago as cute but cheesy Disney Channel show about an ordinary teenager (Miley Stewart) who leads a secret life as a pop-music superstar (Hannah Montana) has evolved into a huge brand that includes a multitude of licensed products, including such items as apparel, backpacks, books, clocks, shoes, toys, and even toothbrushes.

But here’s the kicker: Hannah Montana’s fan base isn’t just made up of straight-haired, light-eyed, fair-skinned girls that look like her; it transcends race and culture and includes girls of all skin tones, with different hair types, from a variety of ethnic groups and nationalities. Just look around the next time you’re in a large crowd where families with young girls are present; you’re bound to see someone of color wearing a piece of clothing bearing the trademark Hannah Montana guitar or butterfly motifs or emblazoned with her popular “Secret Pop Star” motto. Even the Obama daughters danced to Cyrus’s songs at a Disney-produced inauguration concert for kids.

It’s not surprising that the Disney show has become so popular. It features likeable characters and storylines that viewers can connect with easily. No, the average fan doesn’t reside in an upscale, California beach town as the main character, Miley Stewart, does. And it’s unlikely that many of them will ever become pop superstars. But girls still find the show — which is centered on the awkward situations Stewart gets herself into in every episode — entertaining.

And the show is not just a time-killer I give my kids permission to watch while I clean the house. I like it, as well! As a matter of fact, I often catch myself laughing at and repeating some of the one-liners and expressions articulated by the show’s characters (“Sweet niblets,” anyone?). In a nutshell, Hannah Montana is a program our whole family finds enjoyable — including my ordained, Ph.D’d, theologian husband.

I think another reason why the show is so popular with a wide variety of viewers is that it gives kids hope. By seeing that Stewart, a small-town country girl who dreamed of being a recording artist, has succeeded at reaching her goal, young viewers are inspired to pursue their own dreams. Despite all of her antics — and those of her alter ego (Hannah) — Stewart is a successful and well-adjusted young person. And, because of this, she’s become a role model for all sorts of girls — many of whom look nothing like her.

Wisely, the movie isn’t just a big-screen reenactment of the TV show. Though it features the same characters, it places Hannah/Miley in even bigger jams and forces her — and us — to confront several challenging life questions about friendship and personal integrity.

I also enjoyed the music in the film. The songs, like most Hannah Montana music, fuse together pop, rock, and country elements to produce child-friendly, infectious tunes. Take “The Hoedown Throwdown,” for instance. A mashup of hip-hop and country-western, “Hoedown” has spawned a new line dance that my girls attempt whenever the song plays on television or Radio Disney.

But, for me, what’s even more important than the fact that the TV show and movie feature age-appropriate humor, positive messages, and likeable music is that they have prompted multiple discussions with my girls about subjects that are important to our family.

For example, as all of us fans already know, Stewart’s life sometimes becomes complicated when she finds herself being torn between the two “worlds”– that of a regular teenager and that of a famous pop star — in which she tries to live. But she has made the choice to do it — and her father has agreed to it — because they believe it’s the only way she’ll be able to experience a normal upbringing.

Both in the film and TV show, the storylines centered on this theme are entertaining. But they also repeatedly reveal just how challenging and stressful living a double life as a regular teenager and a pop star can be. And isn’t that exactly what happens to us when we try to have it all, or when we try to be someone during the week that others wouldn’t even recognize on Sundays? When we attempt to have “the best of both worlds,” as Hannah’s theme song puts it, we often wind up emotionally, physically, and even spiritually exhausted.

Hannah Montana has given me the opportunity to remind my girls about the importance of prioritizing the relationships we have with the family members and friends that God has blessed us with. We should never allow our professional pursuits and dreams to compromise how we’re seen by the very people that will love us no matter how bad we mess up. When all the glitter and glam that many of us work so hard to have in our lives has lost its splendor, the people that we can usually count on the most to be there for us are not those that signed our checks or had our names engraved on awards. It’s the people we’re connected to by natural blood (our kinfolk) and divine blood (our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ). They are the ones who gird us up when the facades we put on from day to day become too much to bear.

But lest you think I’ve been totally brainwashed by the marketing behemoth that is Disney, allow me to say that I’m aware of that side of the phenomenon. Another reason I’ve been thinking about the Hannah Montana movie is that it further confirms what I already know about the Disney conglomerate: it is very intentional about securing the patronage of our children and, consequently, our families. Thanks to the plethora of Disney products that can be found on the shelves and racks of our favorite retailers, Disney has managed to wiggle its way into our homes and lives in a powerful way.

This is why parental discernment is so important, whether your child is fascinated by a Disney Channel star or someone from another network or recording company. Unbridled exposure to — and admiration of — a particular individual or character can sometimes lead to that figure becoming an idol. As Christian parents, we must guide our kids’ media choices while teaching them how to maintain a healthy separation between being “a fan” of a star like Miley Cyrus and becoming “a worshiper.”

Obviously, Hannah Montana is not the worst thing out there that parents have to contend with today. As an African American mother who wants her daughter exposed to hopeful and constructive messages, I appreciate the character. Though she’s a white girl from the sticks of Tennessee, she’s become a role model for young black girls like my daughters. Is she flawless? Of course not. Nobody’s perfect. But while we wait for The Princess and the Frog and other positive characters who reflect the multihued diversity of our world, Hannah isn’t a bad friend to have around.

Disney’s Black Princess

pop circumstance impactWhen I was growing up as a little black girl in California, the closest thing I had to an African American Disney princess was Cinderella. She seemed like a girl from around the way. You know what I mean — her daddy wasn’t in the picture, and she had a crazy godmother, or “Big Mama,” who always made somethin’ out of nothin’, turning rags into a flawless gown just in time for the ball. So when I heard Disney was releasing The Princess and the Frog, starring Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) as Princess Tiana, I was thrilled. Finally, little black girls will grow up seeing themselves as princesses, without having to superimpose their culture onto someone else’s fairy tale. But my excitement over the film was diminished when I heard about the controversy over Disney’s decision to cast Brazilian actor Bruno Campos as the prince (instead of an African American actor). I’m not sure whether to be discouraged over the casting or to just be grateful the movie is being made at all. I’ve found some comfort from Keith Josef Adkins, over at The Root, who is telling people to relax — Disney had to make the film appealing to everyone in order to make it profitable. What do you think? Is the casting a commentary on America’s receptiveness to black women versus black men, or am I being hyper sensitive?

Smearing Miss California

We may need to start an official UrbanFaith Pageant Patrol to keep track of the crazy scandal around Miss USA loser Carrie Prejean. Every time we turn around, there’s a new bit of drama with Prejean’s name front and center. It all started a couple of weeks ago when we were moved by the story of the young Christian woman’s courage to stand up for her beliefs on the nature of marriage, despite the fact that doing so likely cost her the crown and won her the ire of an entire movement of people. Then last week the story took a turn for the worse when pageant officials started throwing slanderous blows at Prejean, exposing her cosmetic surgery and publicly decrying her involvement in the National Organization for Marriage’s television campaign. Now the situation has gotten completely out of hand as photos have been leaked to the press showing Prejean, the reigning Miss California, posing partially nude. Even though she’s owned the fact that taking the photos was a bad move on her part, the old photos, taken when she was a naive 17-year-old trying to land a modeling gig, are potentially a violation of the contract she signed when entering the Miss USA pageant. She currently awaits a ruling from the Miss California pageant authorities as to whether she’ll get to keep that crown. Though I think it would behoove Carrie to lay low for a while, isn’t it interesting how certain folks from the usually open-minded progressive community have gone after Prejean? One of the more interesting commentaries on the subject this week came from the left-leaning political site Talking Points Memo, where blogger Eric Wattree posed the question, “Are Progressives Becoming As Intolerant As Conservatives?”

Mormons Baptize Obama’s (Dead) Mother

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) just found one more way to give America the heebie-jeebies. Rumors were confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that the Mormon Church did indeed baptize President Barack Obama’s mother last June 2008, thirteen years after her death. The church just can’t catch a break with the bad publicity. Who could forget last year’s media frenzy when polygamist compounds of a fundamentalist sect of the church were raided in Texas? A spokeswoman for the church claims there will be an investigation into how the baptism happened, as it’s against Church policy to submit the name of a non-relative for the sacrament. However, baptizing the dead without the consent of the deceased person’s family has long been a controversial practice of the church. The White House has no official comment on the matter. However, we can assume President Obama knew nothing of his mother having any unusual sympathy toward the Mormon faith. Throughout his campaign, he often shared stories of his mother’s religious skepticism. We just wish there was more noise being made about the living Presidential family’s faith. We know they profess to be Christian, but we’d love to see them finally settle in at a solid Washington, D.C., church.

Michelle the Influential

Michelle Obama ditched her duds from J. Crew on Tuesday night to slip into a stunning gown by Azzedine Alaia for Time magazine’s event honoring 100 of the World’s Most Influential People. Last week, we mentioned that the First Lady had been named one of People magazine’s Most Beautiful People of 2009. And though we fully stand behind her beautiful biceps and recession-chic style, “influencer” is a much more appropriate title for this Princeton University graduate. I can’t get enough of Barack’s sweetheart. As eager as I am for President Obama to lead America successfully through the next four years, I’m more excited to see the impact Michelle Obama will have on the United States. Whether she is planting a garden on the White House grounds or inspiring American women to pay renewed attention to their families, Mrs. Obama is reinventing our society’s concept of what it means to be a black Christian woman.

Idol’s Got Competition

Has anyone actually been watching American Idol this season? I haven’t watched the show steadily since Fantasia won season three years ago, but I hear we’re down to the final three: Danny Gokey, Kris Allen, and Adam Lambert. And though it seems like the men are running things over at Idol, it’s a ladies’ game on BET’s Sunday Best. After a sing-off of “Jesus Loves Me” between the three finalists last Sunday, the judges narrowed it down to Y’Anna Crawley and Jessica Reedy. We’ll see what goes down this Sunday when viewers decide the winner.