African-American’s Almost There?

The production of The Princess and the Frog faced the dilemma of creating a movie based on the cold, segregated reality of 1920’s New Orleans, or fudging the facts to support a more racially acceptable story.

A clip of “Almost There,” sung by Tiana when she visits the property where she plans to build her restaurant:

In contrast, here is a clip of Tiana’s white counterpart, Charlotte:

Although Tiana is “almost there,” it seems that Charlotte and her father have been “there” for some time now…

With the white characters shown through the bratty talkative Charlotte and her fat, bourgeois father, did Disney overcompensate? Thanks to white privilege, this point of racism is paid little attention to.

So did this portrayal of race through Tiana and Charlotte reflect the true racist, stereotypical beliefs of the time? One would argue Disney took the middle road. In the end, it is Tiana, not Charlotte, who comes out married to Naveen.

Criticism of The Princess and the Frog can be found even in preproduction, but were quickly countered:

“The PC watchdogs who scrutinized this movie since it was first released, and who reportedly succeeded at persuading bigwigs to change the title (originally The Frog Princess), the name of the protagonist (originally Maddy, feared to sound too much like ‘‘Mammy’’), and her profession (originally a maid), seem to have entirely missed the forest for the trees—namely, that Disney’s first black ‘‘princess’’ lives in a world where the ceiling on black ambition is firmly set at the service industries, and Tiana and her neighbors seem down- right zip-a-dee-doo-dah happy about that.”

(Foundas in Lester, 2010)

Another critic points out how, “Tiana aspires for a career in the service industry while other princesses remain ‘happily ever after’ in the ivory tower of fairyland bliss profession-less and career-less.” (From Neal A. Lester‘s “Politics of Being First”)

In Disney’s defense, he also cites a New Orleans local, who is the former Deputy of Communications for the Mayor of New Orleans, James D. Ross:

‘‘While I agree that this constrains Tiana to the service industry, I do think her role as a chef is complicated because she is in New Orleans, where everybody wants to be a chef and own a restaurant. These are the most prominent (and often most wealthy) people in town because this is a foodie town’’ (Ross e-mail).

So, was Disney really being racist? The relative modern setting change from Disney’s classic princess tales has obviously complicated this issue.

Voodoo

Voodoo |ˈvo͞oˌdo͞o|

noun: a black religious cult practiced in the Caribbean and the southern US, combining elements of Roman Catholic ritual with traditional African magical and religious rites, and characterized by sorcery and spirit possession.

The use of the Voodoo religion in The Princess and the Frog was highly critiqued for its negative portrayal through Dr. Facilier. Moreover, associating New Orleans with such Voodoo magic is a racist stereotype many seemed to find offensive.

One critic shared her concerns:

“The movie was dark. The stereotypical voodoo, black magic portrayal was in- sulting. When white Disney characters are displayed in there fantasy land, it is ‘‘white magic’’—stars and sparkles and pretty flowers and blue skies, magic wands, and fairy godmothers, etc. Ours, on the other hand, was ‘‘black’’ magic, dark shadows and ghosts and demons lurking in the shadows. That was awful; there was not a good spirit surrounding the movie at all. The characters were all dark. It was not uplifting, and it did not hold a lot of the kids’ interest. In fact, it was very disturbing [to me] even as an adult.”

(Cheryl Lynn in Lester’s “Politics of Being a First”)

Clips of Dr. Facilier performing voodoo with his “friends on the other side.”

Friends on the Other Side

Friends on the Other Side Reprise (RIP Dr. Facilier)

Scary right?

Well, defenders of Disney argue the use of “good voodoo” helped to offset this dark, scary portrayal of voodoo.

Enter, Mama Otie…

Dig A Little Deeper

Sarita McCoy Gregory’s Disney’s Second Line critique of the movie highlights the positive portrayal of Voodoo through Mama Otie:

“Disney infuses its colorblind message in the body of a voodoo priestess, Mama Odie. Mama Odie is blind, living as a maroon deep in the bayou in harmony with a variety of swamp creatures. Disney gifts Mama Odie with “vision” that transcends color and class. Mama Odie’s gospel-inspired theme song “Dig a Little Deeper” pushes Tiana to follow her heart as well as her dream. In fact, Mama Odie admonishes both frogs to strive for balance (she encourages Naveen to have more self-control and Tiana to open her heart to love).”

(Sarita McCoy Gregory)

So, did the good portrayal of Mama Otie’s Voodoo outweigh the evil of Dr. Facilier’s?

Ask them.

Disney’s First Black Princess!

The Princess and the Frog was the first 2D feature film for Disney since the 2004 flop Home on the Range, reflecting Disney’s goal of creating a true Disney princess film and character for the African-American community to embrace.

The opening scene of the movie “Down in New Orleans,” where the setting is introduced.

The original protagonist was intended to be a chambermaid by the name of Maddy, which was changed due to criticism of the name sounding too much like the derogatory term “mammy.” Moreover the original name of the film was intended to be The Frog Princess, but was also changed due to the belief of it to be a slur on French people (time.com: Top 10 Disney Controversies). These critic appeasing attempts aside, there are still those who doubt Disney’s ethics.

Those criticizing Disney note that unlike other Disney Princesses, this black princess acquires her status through marriage, inferring social mobility only possible through male power. Here is the wedding scene/ending reprise for the movie, reflecting some of these issues… [SPOILER ALERT]

By comparing Tiana to the classic Disney princess model, we may see a basis for criticism:

In her princess outfit, Tiana seems to fit well with the image of a Disney princess. However, for most of the movie she was a frog, bringing critics to question whether the movie even deserves the title of an African-American princess movie.

Of course, a Disney princess would not be complete without her charming prince… Naveen!

Naveen has been the focal point of much criticism in The Princess and the Frog, as disney choses a racially ambiguous (many say he looks white) character as Tiana’s love interest.

One critic responds:

“Tiana ends up with a racially-ambiguous prince rather than a black prince. Prince Naveen . . . . is voiced by a Brazilian actor, who many are saying looks white. Disney says that the prince is not white. Why didn’t Disney use this opportunity to showcase a healthy black couple? Why can’t a black man be seen as a hero? . . . Even though there is a real-life black man in the highest office in the land with a black wife, Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince.”

(Badeau in Lester’s Politics of Being a First)

Racial qualms aside, the fact that both characters were portrayed as frogs for most of the movie remains. Could this have been Disney’s attempt at removing aspects of lookism and false beauty reflected in past princess movies?

Moreover, the fact that Tiana was not only the first black Disney princess, but the first Disney princess to work after marriage as a part of her “happily ever after” further challenged the validity of her status as a princess.

It is evident that Disney’s first African-American princess had a mixed reception.

Princess and the Frog as Advertised

Although Disney’s marketing push was not set to begin until a month before the movie was released (Released December 2009), the film had began to stir excitement as early as the teaser trailer in 2008.

“The Walt Disney Corporation is such large and powerful multimedia conglomerate that all it had to do was issue a press release noting its next princess would be African American and its media subsidiaries such as ABC, the Disney Channel, and other media outlets provided hundreds of hours of free, pre- release advertising for the movie.”

(Richard M. Breaux’s After 75 Years of Magic)

Here are some of the advertisements released for the movie…

A teaser trailer released in 2008. Naveen’s voice is not heard, and no theatrical plot is revealed other than the notion that Princess Tiana is supposed to kiss the frog. Viewers are under the assumption that the film will be a simple modern day retelling of the classic tale of “The Frog Prince,” which can be found here.

This is the official trailer for Princess and the Frog released in 2009. It begins with a montage of the classic disney hits: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Lion King in order to introduce and assimilate the new “Princess and the Frog” movie into the collection. The trailer itself is a bit misleading in that it portrays Tiana as a princess, following the general plot of the original tale. However, it does reveal the twist of Tiana transforming into a frog.

Here is an ad run by GEIKO for Princess and the Frog titled “Stampede,” where the gecko mascot is mistaken for the frog.

Another GEIKO ad titled “voodoo economics,” where the gecko mascot converses with Naveen.

The poster for Disney’s The Princess and the Frog

Aside from the appealing television and poster advertisements, a positive word-of-mouth promotion created hype for the movie, as well as a strong demand for merchandise.

(Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Merchandise

The months leading up to the movie’s release in December 2009 reflected the anticipation of the movie. In October of that year, Tiana princess costumes were in high demand, and sold out for Halloween. This exceeded Disney’s expectations, especially since the movie had yet to be released (Disney Consumer Products).

Here are some of the products reflecting consumerism that were put out for The Princess and the Frog to promote the movie…

Plush dolls and jewelry

Tiana Backpack

Small instruments and tea set

Tiana and Naveen dolls

Tiana dress

The game released for Wii in mid-November of 2009, a month before the movie’s theatre premere.

Recipe book for kids

One critic writes:

“The Princess and the Frog memorabilia—toys, books, dolls, bed linens, T-shirts, comforters, stickers, coloring books, dress-up costumes, greeting cards, wallpaper, party items, gift bags, party favors, and other popular Disney items marketed to little African-American girls and their parents—were in high demand and mostly impossible to find just before the November movie release. Domestically and abroad, the remake of the familiar tale of The Frog Prince became the celebrated, appreciated, and controversial The Princess and the Frog, with Tiana taking her rightful place among the exclusive and esteemed tradition of Disney princesses.”

(Neal A. Lester’s Politics of Being a First)

Princess Tiana obviously was the selling point for Princess and the Frog merchandise. For African-American mothers like Deidra Willis, the Tiana costume became especially significant to her, reflecting on how, “she avoided filling her daughter’s toy box with too many princess products that don’t reflect her image.” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution). The Princess and the Frog game for PC and Wii show how the movie was marketed toward children, as these consoles are more child/family oriented than the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 consoles. The Princess and the Frog became a first for Disney and African-American’s alike, creating the first black princess for the African-American community to embrace.

The Story Evolves…

Please refer to the Original Tale post before reading this.

Classic Tale

1) Princess introduced as an elegant beauty

2) Princess cries until frog comes to comfort her, tells the frog about her problem. Note: No fear or repulsion in their interaction.

3) Frog agrees to help her in return for her companionship

4) Princess goes back on deal, running away from frog

5) King makes her fulfill her promise, she bitterly obliges, throws frog against bedroom wall instead of letting it sleep with her, transforming it into a “king’s son with kind and beautiful eyes.”

6) Explains how he was cursed by wicked witch.

7) Prince’s servant Henry arrives the next morning to take them away in a beautiful carriage.

8) Henry missed his master to the point of literal heartbreak, had 3 iron bands placed around his heart to prevent it from bursting, which were removed as they rode away.

Key Points: Kindness equated with beauty; Princess lies, suggesting feminine trickery; Princess reluctant to obey father, throws frog against wall; Prince cursed by witch, implies feminine evil (could have been a warlock); Henry needed iron bands to prevent heart from bursting from sadness when master was transformed; Marriage not explicitly mentioned.

Changes from the classic version in the Brothers Grimm tale:

1) Princess verbally announces her willingness to trade all her jewels, pearls, and clothes for the ball first, before drawing the frog in.

2) Frog proposes a more business-like deal rather than a friendly gesture.

3) The princess is vocally repulsed by the frog, and looks down on the “nasty frog,” overall depicted as a more spoiled princess, emphasizes her aesthetic beauty.

4) The frog woos the princess from the door with a short dialogue/poem.

5) The frog commands the princess to do his bidding – bring plate closer, take upstairs to sleep for 3 nights, when he finally transforms after the third night.

6) Instead of “kind and beautiful eyes,” prince is described as “a handome prince with beautiful eyes,” emphasizes aesthetic beauty of prince.

7) Enchanted by fairy, not witch.

8) Prince proposes to marry in father’s kingdom, princess says yes.

9) Servent named Heinrich, missed his master dearly, but no iron bands around his heart.

Key Points: Aesthetic appeal, money, and jewels emphasized; King still pushes princess to listen to frog, but frog is especially demanding; Princess is totally compliant; The aspect of “kind eyes” is removed from description of prince; The Prince’s enchantment by a fairy implies the removal of some human element from the villan; Marriage mentioned; Servant still misses master; Story suggests reward for females who comply with masculine dominance.

Some major changes in the Disney Version:

1) Name and setting change: Princess and the Frog, set in 1920’s New Orleans

2) Protagonist: African-American cook named Tiana, not a princess! Follows her dead father’s dream (King Equivalent) of starting her own restaurant.

3) Prince named Naveen seeks a wife, and is cursed by an African-American Voodoo witch doctor

4) Tiana tricked into kissing Naveen who already revealed himself to be a wealthy prince, turns into one herself

5) Story premise based on both Tiana and Naveen trying to become human again through “Good Voodoo”

6) The Prince’s servant Lawrence helps witch doctor to plot against his master for selfish purposes

7) Tiana and Naveen fall in love and marry as frogs, both turn back to human

Key Points: Setting and character profile modernized; Instead of a “golden ball,” Tiana desires money to start her father’s restaurant, so hegemonic male figure still has influence; Tiana tempted into kissing Naveen, who has already revealed himself to be a prince, for compensation to start her restaurant, later finds out he is broke=male trickery (reversal from original story); They both turn into frogs instead of Naveen turning human (another complete plot change); A Voodoo witch doctor is to blame for their condition; The prince’s servant is portrayed as a villan instead of a heartbroken underling; Tiana and Naveen fall in love and marry and as frogs, lessening the aesthetic emphasis.

The Original Tale

The Frog Prince (Original Version)

In olden times when wishing still helped one, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, which has seen so much, was astonished whenever it shone in her face. Close by the king’s castle lay a great dark forest, and under an old lime-tree in the forest was a well, and when the day was very warm, the king’s child went out into the forest and sat down by the side of the cool fountain, and when she was bored she took a golden ball, and threw it up on high and caught it, and this ball was her favorite play thing.

Now it so happened that on one occasion the princess’s golden ball did not fall into the little hand which she was holding up for it, but on to the ground beyond, and rolled straight into the water. The king’s daughter followed it with her eyes, but it vanished, and the well was deep, so deep that the bottom could not be seen. At this she began to cry, and cried louder and louder, and could not be comforted. And as she thus lamented someone said to her, “What ails you, king’s daughter? You weep so that even a stone would show pity.”

She looked round to the side from whence the voice came, and saw a frog stretching forth its big, ugly head from the water. “Ah, old water-splasher, is it you,” she said, “I am weeping for my golden ball, which has fallen into the well.” “Be quiet, and do not weep,” answered the frog, “I can help you, but what will you give me if I bring your play thing up again?” “Whatever you will have, dear frog,” said she, “My clothes, my pearls and jewels, and even the golden crown which I am wearing.” The frog answered, “I do not care for your clothes, your pearls and jewels, nor for your golden crown, but if you will love me and let me be your companion and play-fellow, and sit by you at your little table, and eat off your little golden plate, and drink out of your little cup, and sleep in your little bed – if you will promise me this I will go down below, and bring you your golden ball up again.”

“Oh yes,” said she, “I promise you all you wish, if you will but bring me my ball back again.” But she thought, “How the silly frog does talk. All he does is to sit in the water with the other frogs, and croak. He can be no companion to any human being.”

But the frog when he had received this promise, put his head into the water and sank down; and in a short while came swimmming up again with the ball in his mouth, and threw it on the grass. The king’s daughter was delighted to see her pretty play thing once more, and picked it up, and ran away with it. “Wait, wait,” said the frog. “Take me with you. I can’t run as you can.” But what did it avail him to scream his croak, croak, after her, as loudly as he could. She did not listen to it, but ran home and soon forgot the poor frog, who was forced to go back into his well again.

The next day when she had seated herself at table with the king and all the courtiers, and was eating from her little golden plate, something came creeping splish splash, splish splash, up the marble staircase, and when it had got to the top, it knocked at the door and cried, “Princess, youngest princess, open the door for me.” She ran to see who was outside, but when she opened the door, there sat the frog in front of it. Then she slammed the door to, in great haste, sat down to dinner again, and was quite frightened. The king saw plainly that her heart was beating violently, and said, “My child, what are you so afraid of? Is there perchance a giant outside who wants to carry you away?”

“Ah, no,” replied she. “It is no giant but a disgusting frog.”

“What does a frog want with you?”

“Ah, dear father, yesterday as I was in the forest sitting by the well, playing, my golden ball fell into the water. And because I cried so, the frog brought it out again for me, and because he so insisted, I promised him he should be my companion, but I never thought he would be able to come out of his water. And now he is outside there, and wants to come in to me.”

In the meantime it knocked a second time, and cried, “Princess, youngest princess, open the door for me, do you not know what you said to me yesterday by the cool waters of the well. Princess, youngest princess, open the door for me.”

Then said the king, “That which you have promised must you perform. Go and let him in.” She went and opened the door, and the frog hopped in and followed her, step by step, to her chair. There he sat and cried, “Lift me up beside you.” She delayed, until at last the king commanded her to do it. Once the frog was on the chair he wanted to be on the table, and when he was on the table he said, “Now, push your little golden plate nearer to me that we may eat together.” She did this, but it was easy to see that she did not do it willingly. The frog enjoyed what he ate, but almost every mouthful she took choked her. At length he said, “I have eaten and am satisfied, now I am tired, carry me into your little room and make your little silken bed ready, and we will both lie down and go to sleep.”

The king’s daughter began to cry, for she was afraid of the cold frog which she did not like to touch, and which was now to sleep in her pretty, clean little bed. But the king grew angry and said, “He who helped you when you were in trouble ought not afterwards to be despised by you.” So she took hold of the frog with two fingers, carried him upstairs, and put him in a corner, but when she was in bed he crept to her and said, “I am tired, I want to sleep as well as you, lift me up or I will tell your father.” At this she was terribly angry, and took him up and threw him with all her might against the wall. “Now, will you be quiet, odious frog,” said she. But when he fell down he was no frog but a king’s son with kind and beautiful eyes. He by her father’s will was now her dear companion and husband. Then he told her how he had been bewitched by a wicked witch, and how no one could have delivered him from the well but herself, and that tomorrow they would go together into his kingdom.

Then they went to sleep, and the next morning when the sun awoke them, a carriage came driving up with eight white horses, which had white ostrich feathers on their heads, and were harnessed with golden chains, and behind stood the young king’s servant Faithful Henry.

Faithful Henry had been so unhappy when his master was changed into a frog, that he had caused three iron bands to be laid round his heart, lest it should burst with grief and sadness. The carriage was to conduct the young king into his kingdom. Faithful Henry helped them both in, and placed himself behind again, and was full of joy because of this deliverance. And when they had driven a part of the way the king’s son heard a cracking behind him as if something had broken. So he turned round and cried, “Henry, the carriage is breaking.”

“No, master, it is not the carriage. It is a band from my heart, which was put there in my great pain when you were a frog and imprisoned in the well.” Again and once again while they were on their way something cracked, and each time the king’s son thought the carriage was breaking, but it was only the bands which were springing from the heart of Faithful Henry because his master was set free and was happy.

(childhoodreading.com, 1997)

Alternatively, the more well known Brothers Grimm created their own version of the tale which can be found here. This version was the first story in their collection, and is marked by several key differences which are analyzed on the plot analysis page.