***This post is adapted from a talk I gave at the Herman Hudson Symposium at Indiana University in 2012***
In the publicity leading up to the release of Disney’s 2009 feature film, The Princess and the Frog, two aspects of the film were heavily promoted: 1) that this film would mark Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation after a five year hiatus and 2) that the protagonist of the film would be black, making her Disney’s first black princess.
Although critical response was heavily mixed, the most vocal critics lambasted Disney’s treatment of race in the film. For many who disliked The Princess and the Frog, a huge issue is that the film never deals with, and barely even acknowledges, the racial realities of the Deep South in the 1920s. In spite of precautions taken by Disney to try to ensure that this film was racially sensitive, including consulting with the NAACP and Oprah Winfrey over possible problems, the final result was criticized as yet another instance of Disney “whitewashing” its films.
So what went wrong? The problem begins with Disney’s attempt to make the film fit into the established Disney princess canon. In doing so, Disney has chosen to privilege the generic limitations of the Hollywood musical as well as the traditional definitions of a Disney princess, and this limits the degree to which racial realities can be overtly acknowledged in the film. Instead, race becomes a lens through which other problems may be understood and explained.
Race and the Hollywood Musical
Music, and the musical, has been an essential part of the Disney canon since Snow White (1938). The astounding popularity of Snow White ensured that Disney films attempting to recreate that success would borrow from the themes established in that original, making the integration of the musical genre a standard for most Disney films, especially Disney princess films. Following this tradition, The Princess and the Frog relies heavily on the structure of the Hollywood musical to develop the narrative and reach the film’s happy ending.
Scholar Rick Altman proposes that the genre of the musical is not characterized by the presence of music within the diegesis alone. Rather, musicals serve the purpose of reaffirming the social function of heteronormative marriage, using music and dance as a means of resolving the problems that prevent the romantic coupling of the protagonists. Using a dual-focus narrative style, the Hollywood musical establishes duality between the sexes, “with each sex not just representing its own immediate and local interests, but also identified with a specific cultural value or set of values” (Altman, 107).
This dynamic emerges clearly in Princess and the Frog, where the courtship between Prince Naveen and Tiana is characterized by their opposing cultural values: he is party-loving, aristocratic, and conceited while she is hard-working, poor, and down-to-earth; each hates the other at the beginning of their adventure. In keeping with format of the traditional Hollywood musical, the plot and musical numbers all act as a way for the couple to resolve their personality conflicts, with each “[adopting] the characteristics of the other.” This, far more than anything else, allows the happy ending of the film (Altman, 20).
What fools people about The Princess and the Frog, however, is that the film spends much of the first act emphasizing Tiana’s quest for her restaurant as the problem that drives the narrative, rather than the romantic pairing; this seems to open up the possibility for a much more radical narrative before the story is taken over by the more conservative romantic plot.
The distinction here is crucial: if attaining her restaurant was the main problem of the film, it would then be understood that the things which are keeping her from her restaurant (her race and gender) are the problems the plot needs to “fix.” Because this is a musical, however, the true problem that must be addressed is Tiana’s inability to see the value of friendship and love. In order to find their happy ending, the two must not only learn to love each other, but also find the happy compromise between their personalities. Thus, Tiana learns to enjoy life and appreciate the value of love and friendship, Naveen learns the value of hard work and monogamy, and the class issue is resolved by Tiana becoming a princess through marriage while they simultaneously occupy the position of upper-middle class restaurateurs.
It is precisely because of the need for the couple to achieve a middle ground that race has become an “unsolvable” problem for the Hollywood musical, and thus for Disney as well. If each protagonist must adopt the characteristics of their partner in order to resolve the film’s romantic plot, the musical leaves very little room for couples for whom one of the “problematic differences” is a physical characteristic rather than a characteristic of his or her personality. Race, thus, must be a non-issue between Prince Naveen and Tiana, because if race is the problem that needs to be resolved, no amount of singing will lead to a solution. Between the two of them, at least, race goes entirely unacknowledged.
The resolution of the romantic plot is crucial because, within the structure of the Hollywood musical, it is the successful formation of the couple that allows all the secondary plot problems to be resolved (Altman 109). Moreover, it is not only the couple’s own dreams that depend upon the outcome of their relationship, but rather the musical genre insists that “integrating two disparate individuals into a single couple heralds the entire group’s communion with each other and with the land which sustains them” (Altman 126). Tiana and Naveen’s marriage not only allows the imagined restaurant to become a reality, but it also stops Dr. Facilier’s evil scheme to take over New Orleans. It is their affection for one another that ensures the continued well being of the (Disney) New Orleans community as a whole.
Otherness and the Disney Princess
If, as I have pointed out, the genre of the Hollywood musical makes it difficult to deal with issues of race in a Disney film, what is the point of adding a racial element to the story?
One critic witheringly proclaimed that “Disney basically uses the strategy of ‘add black princess and stir’ to bring diversity into its princess medley” (Gregory, 434). In many respects this is true: Tiana’s main problems are those of class and gender roles, two canonic problems for both Disney princesses and musical leading ladies. Rather than being a problem, then, Tiana’s race becomes a vehicle through which “Otherness,” in terms of race, class, and gender, can be explored. One interesting trend that has appeared in the development of the Disney princess character is the way in which the princesses are depicted as outsiders in the world they inhabit. Snow White and Cinderella, for example, are both servants dressed in rags; Belle is an avid reader; Ariel loves human trash and wants legs; Mulan is unable to impress the local matchmaker; Pocahontas and Jasmine are both adventurous and resist their arranged marriages. The status of the princess as an Other is crucial to the Disney film form, as it is her Otherness which marks her as “princess material;” she is an outsider because she (and any child who lives vicariously through her) is meant for something better.
Disney princesses are not only defined as outsiders by the way they are accepted by their society, but also by physical markers of their otherness. Snow White is literally white, Cinderella can fit into slippers that no one else can wear, Belle has brown hair (quite unique for Disney princesses up to then), and Ariel is the only mermaid with red hair (and also gains legs over the course of the story). These physical manifestations of the princess’s Otherness helps to define them, presumably giving children a visual marker to associate with the princess’s exceptionality. In this way, Disney uses Tiana’s race as a method of marking her difference, most particularly the difference between herself and the white heiress who desperately wants to be a princess, showing Tiana to be an exceptional character among a world of less worthy inhabitants.
This contrast plays out in Tiana’s relationship with the character of Charlotte La Bouff, a white southern belle whose father is a prominent member of New Orleans society. The film opens with Tiana and Charlotte as young girls listening to Tiana’s mother (who is a seamstress for the La Bouffs) tell them the story of the frog prince. The contrast established here is almost too obvious, with the wealthy white Charlotte dressed in an elaborate princess costume while Tiana sits beside her in a simple dress and paper crown. In spite of their class and racial differences, the two girls are friends (this is Disney after all). While Tiana reacts in disgust to the idea of kissing a frog for any reason, Charlotte wants nothing more than to become a princess and says with a dreamy look that she would “kiss a hundred frogs if I could marry a prince and be a princess.” Young Charlotte gets whatever she wants just by asking her father, while Tiana is told by her loving father that she will have to work really hard to get what she wants. On the trolley ride home from Charlotte’s house, Tiana watches the landscape of lavish plantation houses give way to the one-room houses of her own neighborhood, further emphasizing that Charlotte dreams of being a princess even as she already lives in a palatial mansion.
The point here is not that Charlotte La Bouff is a bad person. On the contrary, Charlotte remains a kind and unselfish friend to Tiana throughout the film. Charlotte is a comic figure, however, and her presence acts as a constant reminder of why Tiana is more worthy of becoming a princess. While Charlotte relies on wishing on a star to get her prince, and is even willing to consent to a loveless marriage with Naveen to become a princess, Tiana has had to abandon her reliance on stars and has literally earned her right to change her social position. Tiana’s social situation is bound up in issues of both race and class, making the rich white Charlotte the perfect foil both in terms of appearance and personality.
Tiana’s 1920s New Orleans is not the colorblind society claimed by critics. Instead, the limitations of the musical genre in conjunction with the tropes of the Disney princess film produce a modern (but not particularly progressive) treatment of race. We can see Disney’s version of New Orleans as an uncanny reproduction of our own modern, post-Obama, “post-racial” society that just happens to look like the 1920s. In this context, Tiana’s race is nodded to as part of the underlying cause of her difficulties, but in such a way that it becomes intertwined with the more prominent issue of class. Thus, while the film continually uses Tiana’s race as an explanation for why she must work so hard to achieve her dreams, its take-away message seems to be that race (and gender) only matter if you are dealing with bad people who let it matter. For “good people,” race and gender are inconsequential attributes.
Within the film space, both race and gender are both treated as essential parts of a character’s identity that “good” members of society do not need acknowledge. Thus, while it is made clear that Tiana’s lower class has everything to do with the fact that she is black while Charlotte is white, this is never an issue between Charlotte and Tiana because Charlotte is supposed to be a likable character. For “good” characters, race and gender are considered attributes that can be separated from issues of class.
In contrast, when Tiana is informed that she was outbid for the property she wanted to put her restaurant in, the two elderly southern realtors tell her that it is probably for the best because “a little woman of your… background… woulda had her hands full tryin’ to run a big business like that. You’re better off where you’re at.” These two unlikable characters acknowledge that race and gender play a role in Tiana’s ability to achieve social mobility, and for this reason they are two of the villains of the film that be defeated in the end.
Perhaps this is partially the reason why the work of the film (i.e. the resolution of differences and coupling of the protagonists) takes place in the bayou while Tiana and Naveen are both frogs. I would disagree with those who argue that the frog bodies erase race – it is very difficult to forget, in fact, that Tiana is black even when she is green, just as it is difficult to forget that frog Tiana is female. Instead, the film uses this alternate form as a way of working through the problem of class in a way that does not acknowledge the role of gender and race in social mobility. Tiana’s perpetual hard work to get her restaurant continues even when she and Naveen believe they will be frogs forever. Thus, both her race and gender are transformed – much like her cooking skills – into interesting and ancillary elements of her character.
It is clear that The Princess and the Frog is not exactly the profound move towards racial equality that Disney had hoped for. Although race is addressed as a potential cause of the injustice that occurs in the film, it is then sidelined as more manageable issues are solved with love, hard work, singing, and some good old Disney magic. While avoiding the pitfalls of being overtly racist, the film’s strict adherence to the Disney princess genre has reproduced the problematic “post-racial” discourse that is so common in the United States today. More than anything, this film reminds us that Disney has sacrificed the ability to be revolutionary for the ability to be consistent, and that those hoping for a groundbreaking film about race, class, or gender should look outside of the Magic Kingdom.