Disney's princess problem

Critics say the studio's first African-American heroine isn't a good enough role model. What, like Snow White?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 1, 2009 5:02PM (EDT)

Uneasy lies the head that wears a Disney crown. Princesses are a plucky if put-upon lot, girls who regularly contend with black magic, evil stepmothers and all manner of talking animals. But imagine the plight of the newest member of the royal family, Tiana, because the heroine of December’s "The Princess and the Frog" is the studio’s first African-American princess.

Tiana (voiced by "Dreamgirls" actress Anika Noni Rose) is a 1920’s-era aspiring chef working in New Orleans, who via a bit of magical misfortune gets turned into a croaky amphibian. And, like Mulan and Jasmine and Pocahontas before her, Tiana bears the weight of representing her whole darn race. As the New York Times reported on Sunday, not everybody is rejoicing over how the fairy tale is unfolding. Writer William Blackburn says that "Disney should be ashamed" of setting the story in the Big Easy, home of "one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community." Other critics have taken issue with Tiana’s Prince Naveen, a light-skinned character voiced by Brazilian actor Bruno Campos.

It’s not like Disney's previous track record on race is anything to brag about: Check out "Song of the South" or the crows from "Dumbo" for starters. As antiracistparent.com says, "It’s important to get Tiana right on the first (and probably only) shot." So a movie whose trailer (posted below) features tap dancing and voodoo is sure to spark raised eyebrows. Tiana has already undergone a few magical transformations -- she was originally a maid named Maddy, a choice ultimately deemed too close to the historically loaded moniker Mammy (a controversy Judy Berman wrote about last July). Before the movie’s holiday opening, the movie will likely undergo whatever further changes it needs to in order to make her as culturally sensitive and profit-friendly as possible.

Because the thing about a Disney princess movie is that it’s first and foremost a Disney princess movie. Tiana doesn’t look so much like a black role model as a blandly pretty, made-to-be-emblazoned-on-pillowcases Disney dreamgirl -- the wide eyes, the almost unnervingly bright smile and the fantasy dress.

A few weeks ago, I took my five-year-old daughter to a birthday party. Every other child in the room was African-American or Latina, and almost all of them were wearing a Disney-issued white girl’s face on their chests. They played together in a room festooned with images of Belle and Cinderella. They danced in blonde Hannah Montana wigs. And as one parent observed, "We’ve got to give these girls something other than Dora or the Bratz."

Whatever the princess’s color, most parents I know have an ambivalent relationship to the whole Disney juggernaut anyway, watching our girls clamor for the latest pink mountain of hype. Nor are we thrilled with having them identify with big-breasted, uncomplaining doormats whose main talent seems to be falling asleep for long periods of time. But our daughters worship them anyway -- the crowns, the gowns, the romance. That Disney has created them a princess with dark skin is a decent start. That she also has a brain and a job is, in its own way, just as revolutionary.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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