A Fairy Tale Beginning

Neely Tucker, Washington Post, April 19, 2009

Long ago and far away, she was an unnamed little princess in a little story called the “The Frog Prince.” {snip}

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And then one day, through the magical powers of Disney animation and commercial marketing, the forgotten little princess was transformed into Tiana, a beautiful black princess from New Orleans. She became the star of “The Princess and the Frog,” a movie set to premiere in November. Her doll and toy set were unveiled last month, and the Disney promotional machine is already humming, for Tiana is the first Disney princess in more than a decade, and the first ever to be black.

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The implied message of Tiana, that black American girls can be as elegant as Snow White herself, is a milestone in the national imagery, according to a range of scholars and cultural historians.

Her appearance this holiday season, coming on the heels of Michelle Obama’s emergence as the nation’s first lady, the Obama girls in the White House and the first line of Barbie dolls modeled on black women (“So in Style” debuts this summer), will crown an extraordinary year of visibility for African American women.

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“If this figure takes off, you’re looking at 30 or 40 years of repetition and resonance,” says Tricia Rose, a Brown University professor who teaches both popular culture and African American studies, citing the enduring popularity of Disney princesses at the company’s theme parks, on Web sites and in videos.

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“She’s the first modern American [Disney] princess, and that she’s black sends a huge message,” says Cori Murray, entertainment director for Essence magazine.

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In the Disney version, Tiana is a young waitress and talented chef who dreams, like her father, of owning her own restaurant. She eventually kisses a frog and is transformed into one. She must journey into the dark bayou to get a magical cure from a good voodoo queen. She is aided by a goofy firefly and a trumpet-playing alligator. The frog turns out to be handsome Prince Naveen, from the far-off and fictional land of Maldonia.

The stills released by the studio show Tiana in full princess regalia: a powder-blue gown, tiara and hair in an elegant upsweep.

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“Our first goal is to make a great motion picture,” says John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, who is overseeing the project. “But we have also worked very closely with a lot of leaders in the African American community, all across the nation, to make sure we’re doing something African American families will be proud of. It’s very important for us to do it right. We’ve been very careful and cognizant about what we’re doing.”

He says it was Clements and Musker’s idea to make Tiana black, and he stresses that Tiana will be one of the “strongest” Disney heroines yet. The criticisms the film got over the character’s name in early drafts (“Maddy,” short for Madeline, was perceived by some to sound like a “slave name”) were only hiccups on the way to a finished product, he says, noting that one of his most popular creations, Buzz Lightyear in “Toy Story,” was named “Tempest” at one point.

The message that Tiana learns in the film–Disney characters always learn something by movie’s end–is that balance is important in life. Jazz Age woman that she is, Tiana needs both love and a career to find happiness.

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Murray says she was pleased the studio is portraying Tiana with skin of a “darker hue” and slightly full lips. Tarshia Stanley, a professor of English at Spelman College in Atlanta who often writes and teaches about portrayals of black women in film, says that the character’s hair–straight and pulled back in early images released by the studio–seems to be the appropriate, middle-of-the-road bet, too.

“They might as well make it straight so little girls can comb it when the doll comes out,” she notes, wryly. “We as African American women haven’t fully dealt with how sensitive the subject of our hair can be, so I certainly wouldn’t expect Disney to know what to do with [that issue].”

(Prince Naveen, for the record, is neither white nor black, but portrayed with olive skin, dark hair and, need we state the obvious, a strong chin. The actor who plays him, Bruno Campos, hails from Brazil.)

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The films featuring the darker-hued heroines–“Pocahontas,” “Aladdin” and “Mulan”–were much different from the Cinderella-at-the-ball idea of a princess. Pocahontas drew on the real-life travails of her Native American namesake, and Mulan was a warrior who spent most of the film disguised as a man. The two films have had mixed receptions among their real-life ethnic groups.

Gabrielle Tayac, a Piscataway Indian and historian at the National Museum of the American Indian, has taken her daughter to Disney World and says the “princess breakfast” the resort offers children (with real-life actresses portraying the fictional characters) was “heaven” to her child. She doesn’t want to come across as a scold. But, as an adult, she says, “Pocahontas” often makes her wince.

“Pocahontas was presented in an almost Frederick’s of Hollywood costume,” she says. “The movie turned out to be more damage control for Native American parents than a moment of pride. It was nothing you wanted your daughter to grow up to be. . . . I have never seen little Native American girls try to dress up as Pocahontas.”

Jeff Yang, editor in chief of “Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology,” also writes about Asian pop culture for the San Francisco Chronicle. He says that the Disney adaptation of the Chinese story of the warrior Mulan brought a “sigh of relief” from Asian American parents.

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[Editor’s Note: An earlier story about the new Disney princess can be read here.]

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