What if Disney’s princess-of-color weren’t so green? (A review of The Princess and the Frog)

As I headed out to see Disney’s latest film, The Princess and the Frog, I was looking forward to see the long overdue representation of a princess-of-color. As Disney hardly has a reputation for racial inclusiveness, yet alone the breaking down of race, class, and gender norms, I didn’t expect to have my feminist socks blown off.

After 96 minutes of enjoyable animation and some good music, I would say I was pleased with parts of the film, dismayed by others. What irked me the most was that Tiana, the first ever Disney WOC protagonist, was a FROG for the majority of the film. Her turn to GREEN was especially disappointing as I was enjoying viewing a smart, sassy, capable black woman helming a Disney script.

Thanks to the evil machinations of “the shadow man,” Tiana becomes a frog – and remains in amphibian form until her marriage to Prince Naveen releases her back to human form. Though she works hard along the films journey, showing more gumption, wisdom, and bravery than the rather foppish Prince, what ultimately allows her dreams to come true is the same institution that offered happy endings for Cinderella et al – marriage.

Yet, despite Disney’s apparent inability to imagine an ending that does not involve a poofy dress and “fairy tale wedding,” it does break some important ground in this film. It shows the racialized class divide of New Orleans without stereotyping poverty, it conveys that women can be successful business owners (and witch doctors), it includes a song championing diversity and inclusiveness — it even pokes fun at the silly wish-upon-a-star princess type that is its bread-and-butter via Charlotte.

While I enjoyed the loving derision heaped on Charlotte’s character, I wondered about the way the film sexualizes her. Puckering her lips, loading on the sexy make up, and wiggling her breasts into boob-highlighting dresses, the film hints that females who inhabit their sexuality are shallow man-hunters. So, on the one hand, mocking a female who only cares about princess dresses and who dreams of nothing but wedding a prince, was a step in the right direction, presenting her as an annoying, empty-headed, cleavage exposing ninny smacked of the misogynistic tradition running through Disney history – a history that castizes any woman who is too powerful, too rich, too sexual, too anything but potential wife…

Further, the stereotypical hill-billy representation of the frog hunters and the lightning bugs rubbed me the wrong way. The two-fingered idiocy and gap-toothed naivite of these Bayou characters traded in the typical “oh, aren’t these backwoods people dumb” humor that also colored earlier films such as The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon. So, to answer the question posed by Aviva at Fourth Wave Feminism, …, yes, this film does make me “twitch a little with stereotype-overload”!  But, to be fair, “Cartoons by their nature trade in caricatures” (as pointed out in this NYTimes piece). However, too often, the caricatures work to enforce negative stereotypes and beliefs about marginalized societal groups – women, people of color, the working class, etc, while the “good guys” are just that – guys (and usually white wealthy ones, ALWAYS hetero ones).

And being that its Disney, Tiana will no doubt join the long parade of female characters who build upon the princess franchise – inculcating little girls with the message that pretty dresses and handsome princes are what one should REALLY be wishing for – along with a room filled with Disney merchandise, of course. As Brooks Barnes of NYTimes writes, “The Disney Princess merchandising line is a $4 billion annual business and the company has plans for Tiana to be everywhere. Get ready for Tiana dresses, elaborate dolls and Halloween costumes.” (For more on Disney’s Princess Franchise, go here.)

Yet, to end on a positive note, the films focus on a strong-career minded woman who, for once, was not “the fairest of them all” was pleasing. As Rose Afriyie feministing writes, The idea that men can and should play a role in food preparation and that women can own their own business while building viable, healthy relationships was so groundbreaking for a movie with the word “princess” in the title. As Afriyie further notes, Tiana’s representation mitigates the “welfare queen” stereotype.

My ten-year-old daughter felt the film had good messages, citing the “Dig a Little Deeper Song” and Mama Odie’s character especially (as well as the way the film mocked the princess meme via Charlotte). Like her, I left the theatre with a smile on my face. However, I would have been happier had Tiana’s screen time had been less green – if she had been featured AS a human-of-color rather than a plucky frog-woman…