Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Princess and the Frog: Thou Doth Protest Too Much, Maybe (Part 1)

I watched The Princess and the Frog yesterday. As I've discussed before, my relationship with the Disney Princesses is complex and tentative. I worry about the way the films portray gender roles, how they stagnate men's personalities and glorify muscular builds, how they portray an unrealistic (and Euro-normative) view of feminine beauty, and (perhaps most of all) how they tend to illustrate finding a husband as the top priority for a woman's pursuits. TPATF did in no way assuage all of these fears, but my reaction is less one-sided than it has been for the earlier Princesses. I'm going to try to break it down.

I see two major issues at stake in this piece of media: race and gender. I'm going to look at race first.

 The first African American Disney Princess! A step in the right direction? A mere profit-driven pitch to appease minority viewers? A platform for 21st century expansion of Disney's well-documented problems with portraying non-white characters?

Even before the movie was released, critics were analyzing the trailer for clues as to where TPATF would fit in the larger discussion of race. Consider this post by Gwen Sharp on The Society Pages.
Sharp analyzes the trailer, a video game, and trading cards for racial stereotypes (which she finds, without much difficulty--the evil witch doctor is black and reminds Sharp of pimp stereotypes, Tiana was originally cast as a maid, one of the cards contains the phrase "it's not in yo' cards.") She comes to this conclusion:
Disney may have intentionally tapped into those cultural images when Tiana was originally imagined as a maid for a White character (as well as including other stereotypical elements). Or the creators may have unthinkingly reproduced stereotypes because, when thinking about characters to use in a movie set in New Orleans with a Black protagonist, they drew on existing cultural imagery. In the absence of a concerted, thoughtful effort to avoid reproducing them, it’s not surprising that problematic elements show up in TV shows, movies, and so on. 
Why all this concern before the film has even been released? Why not wait and analyze the film on its own merit?
Shannon Prince gives some insight into this phenomenon in a post at Racialicious:
Whites have made countless demands about their heroines, and Disney has altered their creations in response to those demands. Yet whites also know that if any given princess isn’t pleasing, in a few years another will be created. This is the first and most likely last black Disney princess. After all, while Disney repeatedly makes white princesses, it has yet to create more than one princess from the same minority ethnic group. In that light, it’s important to get Tiana right on the first (and probably only) shot.

The criticism began early because people genuinely wanted the movie to be good, but the risks were high.

So how did they do?

The Bad

  • Ray the Cajun Firefly- He's toothless. He's crass. He talks like this:

    Ray is a lovable character, but it's hard to argue that negative stereotypes about Cajuns aren't surfacing here. (And the president of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana agrees.)
  • The frog hunters-

    The frog hunters are clear portrayals of the southern redneck stereotype. They speak with broken grammar, are caricatured as unintelligent, and are quick to resort to physical violence.
Both of those examples are similar to the problem illustrated in Mulan. There is diversification and depth to the Chinese characterization, but the Huns are (as Shannon Prince explains) "a mass of gray-skinned, barely human, rampaging savages." It's as if Disney can only manage to treat one group of minorities as fully functioning human beings at a time.
  • "Dig a Little Deeper"- Mama Odie (the good voodoo woman) sings this song to Tiana and Prince Naveen when they express that they just want to be human again. The song has a great message that I totally believe in: it's what's inside that counts. However, I find it interesting that this message is prominent in the film featuring the first African American Disney Princess. It feels a little like an excuse for having a black princess. As Prince pointed out in her post about the show, Tiana spends much of the screen time as a frog:
    Perhaps in the scenes where Tiana is hopping around in her toady body whites in the audience will forget how melanin-endowed she was in the movie’s opening and identify with her. Still, I can’t help but wonder if The Princess and the Frog came down with a case of Esmeralda’s Eyes syndrome – if this was Disney’s way of saying to white audiences, “Yes, Tiana’s black, but not really.”
    The message to "Dig a Little Deeper" could function in the same way, a call to ignore Tiana's race.
The Good
I used this tool ("10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children's Books for Racism and Sexism") to view TPATF again. Here are some of the points where I feel like it's making some racial headway.

  • "Look for tokenism. If racial minority characters appear in the illustrations, do they look like white people except for being tinted or colored? Do all minorities look stereotypically alike, or are they depicted as individuals with distinctive features?"
    • With the exception of the characters I pointed out above, the black characters are portrayed as individuals with distinctive features, and they are not just darkened versions of white characters.
  • "Standard for success: Does it take “white” behavior standards for a minority person to “get
    ahead?” Is “making it” in the dominant white society projected as the only ideal?"
    • Tiana finds success through hard work, perseverance, and love, characteristics she learns from her parents. Though she does only meet the prince by putting on the white "princess" character's (Lottie) clothes, this isn't really a part of her ultimate dream. She dreams to own her own business, and she's making that a reality before the frog enters the picture. Also, Tiana is an active participant of a multicultural society. Though white privilege is illustrated throughout, I'd be angry if it wasn't. That privilege is a reality, and it's illustration in children's media allows an outlet for open dialogue about it.
  • "How are family relationships depicted? In black families is the mother always dominant? In Hispanic

    families are there always many children? If the family is separated, are social conditions –unemployment and poverty, for example – cited as reasons for the separation?" 
    • Tiana's father (though dead in her adult life, but hey at least Disney let the mom live for once) is portrayed as a hardworking, good-hearted family man who loves his wife and daughter. Tiana's mother is a supportive character who collaborates with her husband and, later, adult child to make a good life.
The Complicated
Much has been made of Prince Naveen's race.
Shannon Prince has a problem with it:
First, Tiana, the black princess, is paired up with a white prince (or at least a prince who looks white and is voiced by a Brazilian actor who also looks white) who has to save her from a black villain.
Allison Samuels sees Prince Naveen as a commentary on interracial dating in the black community:
Prince Naveen has a tannish complexion, but he clearly isn't African-American. My fear is that for many in the black community, the fairy tale may just end right there.
Over at This Black Sista's Page:
Can’t a black couple walk hand in hand into the sunset and the future? Does it always have to be a white guy, or a white-looking guy? I don’t mind a sista or a brotha getting their swerve on with others of the human race, but this is getting to be a habit–and an excuse–among filmmakers.
So Naveen's race is a bit of a mystery, but I would argue that, though he isn't portrayed as African American, he's clearly non-white. He's from the fictional Maldonia and has a Brazilian accent. This clip shows him interacting with New Orleanians of various races (it's in Polish, but the point remains the same):

As someone who is in an interracial relationship, I have to say that I haven't noticed many interracial relationships portrayed in pop culture, especially not to the point that it's "getting to be a habit." And, to be honest, I kind of like that Prince Naveen doesn't have a clear racial identity. Racial identity is inherently subjective because it is based not on biology but cultural norms. Since Naveen is transported into a time and place rich in racial identity (1920's New Orleans) from a fictional and therefore undefined cultural setting, his combination of "white" features, olive-colored skin, and Latino voice can function to stir up a discussion about where race gets defined (and it's clearly done a good job of it).

The Final Call

TPATF is not without its racial problems, but I do think that this is a step in the right direction. Disney is falling into some cultural stereotypes (especially with their Cajun firefly and swamp-dwelling frog hunters), but there are also signs of attempts to truly break down the over-simplification of race. The bottom line? I'd let my daughter watch it, and I'd use it as a platform to talk about some of the complications of race.

(Part 2 will take a look at gender roles in the film)

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