Since before the completion of The Princess and the Frog, controversy has surround the Disney princess fairytale. From the setting of New Orleans to race to Jazz (and many more aspects of the movie), critics have questioned the film since its announcement. That is, before The Princess and the Frog hit theaters in December 2009, Disney already had worked to alleviate concerns that the portrayal of race in this film would follow the tumultuous past the studio has had.
From Asian stereotypes in Lady and the Tramp to Jim Crow in Dumbo, Disney’s older films have been filled with negative portrayals of many non-white races. Perhaps most infamously, Disney’s Song of the South premiered in 1946 to backlash, accusing the studio of creating an Uncle Tom persona in the character of Uncle Remus. According to Jim Korkis, Bosley Crowther wrote a film review for The New York Times stating it was:
travesty on the antebellum South…no matter how much one argues that it’s all childish fiction, anyhow, the master-and-slave relation is so lovingly regarded in your yarn, with the Negroes bowing and scraping and singing spirituals in the night that one might almost imagine that you figure Abe Lincoln made a mistake. Put down that mint julep, Mr. Disney.”[i]
The film’s most famous scene, showing Uncle Remus singing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Da is shown below:
Set in the Reconstruction Era, Song of the South shows the happy former-slave Uncle Remus using his stories to bring happiness to white family. Although it is set post-slavery, the film does not make this clear. And, as with most Disney films, Song of the South has never been noted for its historical accuracy. The idea is laughable.
So is The Princess in the Frog following in the tradition of Disney films that have grossly ignored history and used racism to structure their story lines? Or is this particular film attempting to do something different with American history and race?
According to critic Esther Terry, the character of Tiana is no Uncle Remus:
Tiana’s success depends solely on her own actions, her ability to reconnect with uncorrupted American nature, and her willingness to interconnect with her surrounding community. This emphasizes her agency as an African American woman in modernity, reversing the surrogate tradition that created an African American mentor and comforter of white society in both minstrelsy and Song of the South.”[ii]
Terry’s observation correlates with many writers thoughts on the film: Tiana is a modern princess that serves as a positive role model to young girls and the audience in general. In contrast to many Disney princesses that seem to lack autonomy, such as Snow White and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Tiana has her own dreams and, most importantly, plans to make them come true for herself. Established in the prologue of the film, Tiana desires to own a restaurant and works at two diners in order to save money for a downpayment. And, by the end of the film, she establishes herself through talent and hard work rather than by the family she marries into and their money/lineage.
Despite the positive reception most film critics (84 percent of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are positive)[iii] and some scholars gave The Princess and the Frog, many have questioned history’s portrayal in the film. Scott Foundras, a movie critic, found the setting of New Orleans during Jim Crow inexcusable, also citing the experiences of black community during Hurricane Katrina. He describes the movie in this way:
A patronizing fantasia of plantation life in post–Civil War Georgia, Song could at least be understood—if hardly excused—as a product of its time (18 years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act). But is Disney’s latest, The Princess and the Frog, the Obama-era fairy tale that anyone other than the “birther” crowd has been waiting for?
Later he counters the protests some may posit:
But for all its superficial innocuousness—”It’s only a kids’ movie!” you may already have exclaimed before reading this far—The Princess and the Frog is the most insidious of the lot, precisely because it comes packaged as an all-ages entertainment bearing the imprimatur of the very studio that has branded the imaginations of several generations of the world’s children.”[iv]
The creators of The Princess and the Frog chose, during its development period in the 2000s, to set the film in New Orleans. They also chose to set it during the era of Jim Crow and barely touch upon the racial implications of the time. Knowing the history of New Orleans, what would be their reason to do this? Is there anything redeeming in these choices or do critics like Foundras have it right in saying this film “is the most insidious” of recent misfires by studios attempting to portray black life?
According to Ron Clements and John Musker, New Orleans was both John Lasseter’s (the film’s producer) and Walt Disney’s favorite city, which is why it is the setting of the film. Clements and Musker originally pitched to the studio that the heroine would be African-American and the film would take place in the 1920s. They wanted to celebrate the “magic” of the city of New Orleans.[vi]
Richard M. Breaux says that by setting the film during this time-period without fully addressing the implications of Tiana’s dream to own her own restaurant, the employment conditions of black men and women, and Jim Crow segregation. He states, “Although an animated film, Disney animators could have included some historical indicators that racism and discrimination was a part of people’s everyday experiences in 1910s and 1920s New Orleans.”[vii]
Sarita McCoy Gregory, on the other hand, shows that some scenes do accurately reflect the laws of the time period in the South. For example, the masquerade ball does appear to follow history:
Most of the attendees are costumed and masked with the noted exceptions of Charlotte and Eli (the hosts of the ball) and the black attendees. The band performers and Tiana are not masked, reflecting local law that prohibited blacks from covering their faces. At the end of the scene, we realize that Dr. Facilier has broken with custom and law, hiding behind a white Janus-faced mask.”
Gregory, however, does not see the masquerade scene as a positive indication of the film’s racial message. Instead, she argues that the scene reveals that, despite imagery in the film suggesting the audience and film makers are “colorblind,” this is simply not true of history or the present:
Disney’s attempt to render blackness visible and human must be read against its objective of maintaining whiteness in the movie. Despite Edwards’ claim that Disney never intends to “teach people about racism”, I argue that indeed The Princess and the Frog does. Food and jazz share the burden of serving as metaphors for colorblindness and black humanity, leaving the audience with a feeling of accomplishment that they have moved beyond race in their acceptance of Tiana as a princess. […]Disney manages to reassure its mainstream audience, through its second line, that while we now have a “new” princess, the existing hierarchy with whiteness at its helm remains firmly in place.”[viii]
As many of these critics have argued, setting the film in the Jazz Age without truly dealing with the implications that would have for Tiana and other black characters could clearly have negative impacts on how the audience perceives history and, in fact, the present. The interracial marriage of the film would have been illegal in New Orleans in the 1920s. The friendship between the rich heiress Charlotte and the poor Tiana would be extremely unlikely. The world in which different races and members of different class intermingle as they do in the film was not the the world of the South. Disney, more or less intentionally, wants to have its cake and eat it too — to romanticize and modernize the Jazz Age of New Orleans without acknowledging the negative parts of that history beyond a few lines or set pieces.
And yet, despite the lack of attention paid to history, this movie cannot simply be dismissed as “racist,” “offensive,” or “inaccurate.” Tiana, despite being dismissed as “a woman of your [black, poor] background,” refuses to let powerful white men intimidate her out of her dream. She refuses to give up her business venture for love and manages to develop a relationship wherein both parties may follow their separate desires together. She does present an image of a woman many feminists, movie critics, and audience members find worth emulating — not just for black girls but those of all races. The relationships shown in the black community are strong and supportive. Although Tiana’s father is later killed during World War I, the family relationship between Eudora, James, and Tiana presented in the prologue is a positive family image. Eudora and James appear to have a strong marriage, support their daughter, and are seen as positive influences throughout the film. And, to a degree, the film does show some negative effects of capitalism and the exploitation dominant groups may have over minorities.
In the opening song, “Down in New Orleans,” the viewer can see both the romantic light New Orleans through which the city is shown and the contrast between the rich and the poor:
Tiana works two waitressing jobs, the black child sells papers, and even the villain of the film Dr. Faciller struggles to make ends meet through his VooDoo tricks. In fact, despite Faciller’s magic powers, he declares, “The real power in this world ain’t magic, it’s money.” His envy of Big Daddy La Bouff and Charlotte act as the motivations for his evil actions during the film.
And, although Big Daddy and Charlotte are not “bad” people, the film continues to critique their lifestyle throughout the film. While Tiana and her family live in a rundown part of town, working double and triple shifts to make ends meet, Big Daddy and his daughter live the “high life.” Continuously buying commodities without regard to those suffering around them, the La Bouffs are unintentionally complicit in an antagonistic system. Tiana is Charlotte’s best friend and Big Daddy is kind to Eudora who works for the family as a seamstress. Yet neither look past the set order of the day to campaign for more livable wages for their workers and friends.
In a way, the system —capitalism— that stratifies society is the true evil. The desire to make money and/or maintain a specific lifestyle drives people to make choices at the expensive of the larger population. This has reoccurred across Black Atlantic history — Jamaica was prosperous for a few white landowners on the backs of slaves and poor whites, Haiti’s complicated racial politics led to the exclusion of not only blacks but those of mixed race, and Africans sold other Africans to Europeans in exchange for goods such as guns. Although the Disney film does not focus on the history of capitalism explicitly anymore than it focuses on the history of racial segregation in America, the undercurrents are still distinguishable through the contrasting lifestyles of the rich and poor characters and their attitudes toward “work.”
Of course, one could argue, the film’s relationship with capitalism is just as confusing as its presentation of race. Despite spending the movie critiquing the system, The Princess and the Frog ultimately finds the answer to the exploitation of capitalism being simply to “word hard.” At the beginning of the film, Tiana finally has saved enough for the downpayment on an old sugar mill that she wants to convert into a restaurant. However, the realtors dissolve their deal with her when they discover another potential buyer who can purchase the sugar mill outright. Declaring she has “worked hard for everything I got” during the film, Tiana inspires those around her to rally behind her, eventually winning her the sugar mill. A montage at the end of the film shows Tiana and Naveen continuing to build their business from the ground up:
The implication the film leaves the audience with, then, is that if one pays his or her dues to the system long enough, he or she can eventually obtain social mobility. Dreams come true with hard work, rather than by luck or environmental factors. Tiana lives in the 1920s South where, historically, obstacles to owning a restaurant would be greater than poverty or opportunistic realtors. Her “background,” gender, and interracial marriage would limit her. And yet, Disney makes the case that in spite of a starting point, in spite of legal discrimination, in spite of color or gender, hard work can not only allow you to obtain your dream but be accepted into the system too. Happy endings can be earned and can bridge divides. As James tells his daughter, “Good food brings people together from all walks of life.”
The Princess and the Frog clearly does not perfectly portray history, race, or many of the issues it tackles and then drops. But I can’t dismiss the film as being wholly offensive or lacking value. Neal Lester, in his examination of the film quotes Bell Hooks to sum up approaching Tiana as the first black Disney princess.
When it comes to the issue of race and representation, much of what we see on the screen paints a grim picture. As more nonwhite images appear on the screen, they at least promote public debate and discussion about the politics of representation.”
A positive consideration could be this: although the film inexcusably does not deal with the segregation of the South in explicit detail, it does provide the audience with a positive representation of a black heroine and black families. Furthermore, friendships between multiple races exist and interracial romantic relationships are seen as stable and happy. In a world in which we struggle with race relations in the present day, seeing positive female/female and female/male interactions that cross class and racial divides are images that provide an influence too rarely seen in the media. While the context this gives the occasional problematic undertone, The Princess and the Frog cannot be dismissed as unimportant. As Hooks argued, at least this film has promoted public debate and discussion across all sectors —scholars, newspaper writers, Hollywood, and its general audience. Perhaps in this, at least, Disney moves (and helps its audience move) a step forward.