There’s been trials and tribulations,
You know I’ve had my share.
But I’ve climbed the mountain, I’ve crossed the river, and I’m almost there.
– Princess Tiana, “Almost There”
There is much to admire in Disney’s new film, The Princess and The Frog: the lovely heroine’s graceful confidence and common sense, a plot deeply immersed in 1920s New Orleans culture, music, and religion with the art deco flair of an Aaron Douglas painting, and an honest-to-goodness African-American villain to vanquish.
Prof. Susurro at the blog, Like a Whisper, has posted an excellent review of the film that is comprehensive and critically engaging, so I won’t attempt another one here.
What I would like to think through, however, is the story’s self-reflexiveness. I wasn’t prepared for how curiously self-aware Disney’s cinematic coronation of its first black princess would be; the film indirectly acknowledges the role that its own storytellers (and marketing execs) have played in shaping our society’s narrative of beauty, love, and personal fulfillment. It gestures toward the ways that black women have historically felt excluded by “snowy whites” in order to place Princess Tiana on the throne.
Tiana often reminds us, for instance, that “wishing on a star” isn’t enough. She insists on the futility of waiting around for “her prince to come” and save her. These are the core values of Disney’s trademark simulated reality, and yet non-white children have had to work damn hard to maintain their sanity once it is discovered that the enigmatic power of a Sleeping Beauty’s whiteness will forever be out of reach.
So I’m intrigued by Disney’s efforts to use the material culture of Tiana’s environment to distance her from characters like The Bluest Eye‘s Pecola and Sapphire’s Precious. The single brown doll in Tiana’s room as a child is juxtaposed against the suite of her wealthy white friend, Charlotte La Bouff, whose shelves are overflowing with brand new white princess dolls and dozens of unworn princess dresses. Some refer to Charlotte as a parody of the southern belle, but I’m drawn to the idea that her thick accent and spoiled silliness disguises a larger critique of our generation’s relentless and unthinking consumption of the Disney narrative. (Seriously, why is Cinderella on our baby diapers?) Tiana may appear to be too poor and too black to participate in this narrative, but the hard truth is that self-destructive fantasies are all too freely available to those of us who have been taught that what we have – and who we are – isn’t good enough.
Ironically, Tiana illustrates a common strategy for black women’s survival through her toughness, independence, and focus. She tells Prince Naveen that she’s worked hard for everything she’s got. Despite the odds against folks of “her kind of background,” The Princess and the Frog conveys Tiana’s determination by initially undermining the value of being a princess and by turning its heroine and her lover (in another reversal of a “traditional” fairytale) into frogs. This can be problematic, as Prof. Susurro points out, and as one of my girlfriends reminded me, Tiana does eventually call out to that wishing star. She is rescued – in part by her own efforts – but also by the handsome prince.
In other words, Disney still finds a way to keep it hyperreal.
I’m a bit worried that my exuberance for this film (and not, say, Precious) is hypocritical; both are fantasies that contain their own distortions and truths. My initial impression, however, is that Disney’s strategy is an effective one, given that its representation of black lives in The Princess and the Frog is not only creative, but productively alert to the historical tension between our culture of consumption and the inner lives of African American girls. My daughter loved the film, I should add. And it feels pretty good to sing along to the soundtrack with her in the car these days.
What did you think?