You know Princess Tiana, the latest member of Disney’s highly profitable “royal family“? The big news is that she is the first African-American member of the Princess club (or whatever you call them — sorry, I have boys and they’re not into this stuff). The character is the star of the upcoming Disney film “The Princess and the Frog“. Disney, I imagine, would like nothing more than to be embraced by the African-American community. According to a recent New York Times article, that hasn’t been the result so far.
Not everyone is unhappy about Tiana. According to the Times, Essence magazine’s Cori Murray recently offered praise for Disney on CNN, saying “Finally, here is something that all little girls, especially young black girls, can embrace.” Others are less than thrilled. Angela Bronner Helm wrote on AOL Black Voices Black Voices that “Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince. His hair and features are decidedly non-black. This has left many in the community shaking their head in befuddlement and even rage.” And the location of the film — New Orleans — is considered insensitive by some, notably former columnist William Blackburn, who told a London newspaper that “Disney should be ashamed” for setting the film at the site of “one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community.”
I have a few thoughts on this. One is that the film hasn’t been released yet. This isn’t to say that no one is allowed to comment on that, far from it. But it seems a little unfair to pass judgment before seeing the finished product. It reminds me of the people who protested “The Passion of the Christ”, or more recently, “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons.” If I recall correctly, Catholic groups had few issues (religiously, anyway) with “Angels and Demons” after they, you know, saw it.
As for the character’s appearance, I’m not qualified to decide whether or not anyone possesses “Black features” or not. That said, I find the comment “His hair and features are decidedly non-black” to be a little odd. Would it be better if Tiana had an Angela Davis-sized afro? Saying that the character’s look are “decidedly non-black” implies, to me, that there is a feature-set that applies to all Black people. Which as far as I know there isn’t. This line from the Times’ piece I think makes a good point: “We finally get a black princess and she spends the majority of her time on screen as a frog?” But focusing on appearance doesn’t hold as much water in my opinion.
Then again, I’m a white guy. So maybe that’s easy for me to say. However, I think Disney’s problems with race go far deeper than the examples cited in the Times article — the “uneducated, pimp-hat-clad crows” in the movie “Dumbo”, or “The Jungle Book”, where “all of the animals…speak in proper British accents except for the jive-talking monkeys who desperately want to become ‘real people.’”
What about “The Lion King”? First you have a baby Lion voiced by a Black actor who grows up to be Matthew Broderick. That one, OK. Whatever. (NOTE: Actually, it was Jonathan Taylor Thomas who voiced Young Simba. Thanks to a commenter for the correction.) But didn’t anyone notice that two of the three hyenas, all of whom are portrayed as barbaric and stupid, were voiced by Black and Hispanic actors? (Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin, for what it’s worth. The other one was Jim Cummings, who looks like a white guy.) Even Pixar, wonderful as their movies are, generally sticks with white leads and does their own perpetuating of sterotypes — for example, in “Cars”, you have Luigi the dopey Italian tire salescar, voiced by Tony Shalhoub, and Cheech Marin again as Ramone, a 1957 Chevy Impala Lowrider with lots of “customizations.” Even Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, is a stereotypical hick.
Am I saying that there’s no humor to be found in race? No way. (I will say that I don’t see any humor in Larry the Cable Guy, but that’s not race-related.) Nor am I saying that there is anything wrong with having a character that doesn’t conform to someone’s idea of what is or isn’t racially (or politically) correct. But I think it’s probably worthwhile to give Disney a chance to, you know, make the film before you decide that it’s horrible. Even if Tiana and her prince are somewhat, shall we say, whitewashed, having a Black princess in the Disney canon is a huge step in the right direction. The main reason stuff like this matters is because children see these characters and identify with them. Since I only have two white children, I have no idea what it’s like for the parent of a non-white child to have to search for dolls that actually look at least somewhat like their kids. So if Disney doesn’t get it completely “right” this time, maybe they’ll learn from it and do better next time.
What do you think? Is it fair to attack Disney before the movie comes out? Or do the images they’ve already released show that they still don’t have a clue how to handle non-white characters? Or is all of this talk about race a lot of “whatever”?
Source: New York Times