For the first part of this rumination, please see here.
So, despite all of this background trepidation, I decided to take Lyra to see the Princess and the Frog. My motivation was slightly ironic, if it wasn’t so morally compromising on my part. When you use a computer to run your TV and something goes wrong with your computer, you, in turn have no access to TV. I mentioned, that I love television. Truly. Since Lyra began watching early last year, I am now able to get things done, that I couldn’t do when I was her primary source of entertainment. We are selective, but she watches plenty. The heavy rotation right now is My Neighbor Totoro and Up. Previously, it was Monsters Inc and Follow that Bird. On this Monday, having had one of our many nights of badly interrupted sleep, I was in no mood to entertain a fragilely tired two-year-old with no large vegetation device, better known as our television.
So, I dressed us and got us out the door, spent $20, and had the pleasure of watching Disney attempt to return to their hand drawn animation roots. So, what did I think?
First, a clause. I understand that as with most American movie studios, Disney had some baggage where black folks were concerned. Dumbo, anyone? Song of the South? In fact, as I child I asumed that even Goofy was black, because of the buffoonish way he was always portrayed. I’d seen plenty of similar caricatures in classic Looney Tunes and Hanna Barberra cartoons, and I’d assumed Goofy was just the same: a bumbling, good-natured, idiot. So, with all that baggage, I understand the pressure the studio felt to create a character that black people, could both identify with and aspire to, and a story that non-black audiences would find entertaining and non-alienating.
If this was their primary goal, well then they basically succeeded. Tiana is a nice, pretty girl with big dreams, and a willingness to work hard, who winds up getting everything she dreamt of (and more). Hooray for happy endings.
But, their intention was misguided.
Here’s what I said to my cousin in a Facebook comment after she mentioned her dislike of the film in a status update:
They spend most of the movie touting how you have to work hard to get what you want. Don’t waste time wishing on a star. But in the end, wishing on a star is all that works. And what does she get? A Broke-ass prince who was so lazy his parents cut him off who now rides to wealth on her cooking skills. Okay, yeah. So he helped her paint the building. Wow. She’s black in America. Yes, she has to work hard. We know that. Why couldn’t she just have a fantasy, magic moment just like every other princess? Why couldn’t she only be desired for her beauty like other princesses?
You see, my parents are from the Civil Rights era. Jesse Jackson was a vice principal at my mother’s high school and an associate minister at her church. As with most middle class children of black parents from that era, I have spent my entire life hearing how hard I have to work. Or, as my mother would say, “You must take three steps for each one the white man takes. If a kid scores 9o percent, you have to score 100.” Cinderella had to work hard, too; but that was portrayed as a barrier to her dream life, not a gift. but Disney seems to accept this as a given for black women, repeating these word in an early speech and again in the lead character’s signature song, Almost There (a title full of symbolic resonance, if ever there was one): Fairytales can come true/You gotta make ’em happen,/it all depends on you”.
Sure, 1920’s Louisiana may as well be the paleolithic era to a young child in 2009. But, I think the language, dress, and building designs are similar enough to their own time, that children can perceive the disparity between Tiana’s life as the daughter of a widowed, black seamstress and her wealthy, white foil, Charlotte. A disparity that cannot be by waitress tips. Where is the dream hidden within that harsh reality?
And I guess, that is my biggest complaint about the movie, and why it felt mostly dull, like attending a sermon at a traditional black church: Work hard. Stay in School. Don’t let nothing keep you back. These messages are wholesome. It’s hard to argue with there goodness. But they are messages of hope meant to counteract multigenerational despair. How can one hear about all this hard work and not perceive, even on a subconscious level, that there is some reason these brown-skinned characters must dig deeper? If she is a princess, like all of her fair-skinned counterparts, why is she so different?
Rather than create a separate but equal bayou fairy tale, wouldn’t it have been more empowering to create another dreamy, princess fantasy, but simply “cast” a black woman in the lead? Just as Pixar did with the Russell character in Up, he’s Asian, but nothing is ever said about it. He just is. Because, why shouldn’t he be?
In other words, ironically, as much as I glance sideways at the notion of a Disney Princess of any pigmentation, The Princess and the Frog, wasn’t princessy enough. And that distinction creates difference. And perpetuating difference is exactly what, I thought, Disney was attempting to avoid by showing that, yes, black women can be princesses, too. There is real value in casting black faces in universal stories. And this, to me, is a more evolved approach than this segregated one.
And, no, I’m not ignoring the fact that Lyra’s worldview—even as a fair skinned, biracial girl, of African American descent—will be permanently shaped by the fact that the first princess she ever saw on the big screen looked more like her mommy than her daddy. I felt moments of pride while watching these characters belt out gospel-tinged songs in low registers. I can’t imagine how different my daughter’s self-image will be because at least someone bothered to make a princess with black skin, regardless how imperfect the film.