Happy New Year.
Over the recent holidays I went with my family to see the Disney film The Princess and the Frog. As many of you know, it features a character who has been billed as Disney's "first black princess," Tiana. My whole household had eagerly awaited this as we are to a person enamored of magic and are especially fond of Disney animated magic. My daughter was particularly keen on going, not because the princess was going to be black but because for her any princess is a good thing— I am of like mind (yeah, I'm just a girly girl at heart). That's why I was so sorely disappointed at the film. Movies are supposed to be fun and escapist. This movie struck me as just the opposite, and it has taken me days to mull over my feelings. (Warning: some spoilers below.)
Tiana is established at the outset as a shadow princess, one who is eclipsed by an actual princess. The film opens with two little girls, one white, one black, sitting and listening to a story. Charlotte (rhymes with Scarlet), the white child, is depicted as spoiled and demanding but cute and sweet (gee, how to be all of that at once?). Charlotte is dressed in princess finery while Tiana, the black child, bears but one indicia of royalty: a crown that seems to have been borrowed from the white child. As the scene expands we learn that the story is being read by the black seamstress mother of the black child and that the black child has accompanied her mother to the large, beautiful and indeed almost castle-like home of the white child in order to make for the white child yet another of what we learn are oodles of fine dresses. Job over, the seamstress and her daughter exit and go out and catch the street car back to their modest home in the black part of New Orleans where we see that Tiana is part of that now elusive social phenomenon, the Intact Black Family. Yes, there is a Dad! But he conveniently disappears early in the film, apparently a casualty of World War I. Nobody says so exactly, but the characters seem to sigh over a picture of Dad in his Doughboy uniform and intimate that he isn't coming back, offering an extremely fuzzy epitaph. Combat death is just too real for the folks in the Magic Kingdom--so I'll say it for them, borrowing from Joseph Conrad by way of T.S. Eliot—Mr. Dad, he dead. Of course, being orphaned or partially orphaned is a common trope in fairy tales. But why introduce the Dad at all?
We are in New Orleans during the period circa World War I. There is even a shot of a character reading a newspaper headline about Woodrow Wilson (also vaguely disquieting for me—Wilson had some not often enough discussed racial baggage of his own. See e.g. the segregation of federal jobs during the Wilson administration.) Now, if you're going to feature black folks involved in magic, New Orleans seems like a good choice what with voodoo and all (note that voodoo can be of the black (evil) or white (good) magic variety. ) But New Orleans also has all kinds of other unfortunate associations, lately starting and ending with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I reckon though that what they could really use down there right now is some magic, so, what the heck. The problem with establishing the movie in so well-known a contemporary locale is that it cuts into the fantasy like a knife. I don't know about other viewers but my mind was boggled by scenes suggesting a significant degree of interracial social interaction. I have read that New Orleans was in some ways more racially progressive than other parts of the American South, but depicting, for example, mixed race public dining seemed not quite credible. The dining scenes are crucial because we learn that Tiana, even as a child, was a gifted cook. She grows up to work as a cook and waitress at a restaurant where she dreams of owning her own restaurant and she painstakingly saves money towards it. Yuck, money. Is this a fairy tale or what? As one of my sons commented, introducing money into this tale imparts a nasty element of reality. It's one thing to dream (and Tiana's dream was, I have to say, pretty pedestrian for animated fantasy) but it's another to have to work to amass coins towards achieving a dream.
Just as Tiana grew up, so did Charlotte. Charlotte is now a spoiled (but still sweet and friendly—we don't get to dislike her; she's the real princess, after all) big girl who apparently demands and receives everything she wants from Big Daddy. A foreign potentate, Prince Naveen, is coming to town and Charlotte plans to have Big Daddy throw a big party for him at her big mansion in order to romance and marry him (Charlotte has got way bigger dreams that Tiana). Naturally Charlotte will need the services of a great cook so Charlotte comes into the restaurant where Tiana works and engages Tiana to make a large number of beignets for the party by tossing several pieces of paper currency at her. Yes, Charlotte throws bills. (Table dance, anyone?) This money is pivotal for Tiana—she is now, we learn, close to having the money she needs to obtain a building for her restaurant. Of course, like any good fairy tale, several obstacles come between Tiana and the purchase of her building, including racist realtors (In an alternate version of the tale perhaps they could cast Big Daddy and Charlotte as FHA testers or straw purchasers).
Prince Naveen is worthy of much more commentary than I have time to offer in this blog. After reading some of the summaries before seeing the film I wondered how a black princess could vie with a white woman for the same beau. Even in the new millennium interracial romantic relationships exist at the social margins. The prince's name, "Naveen" gave me some hint of what was to come— "Hmm," I thought, "Are they bringing in a guy from India?" Prince Naveen, it turns out, is a light brown guy from a fictional country with a sort of Latin sounding accent (It turns out the actor who voiced Naveen is Brazilian.) There was obvious confusion here on the part of the Disney folks. Which way to go? They couldn't have the white princess trying to romance a black guy. Neither could they have the black shadow princess romancing a white guy. Answer—go for racial ambiguity. Moreover, Prince Naveen's status as a royal is just as ambiguous. Naveen is a Prince without Portfolio—he has been disinherited by his royal parents for being a lazy spendthrift and has come to America to marry into money. Prince Naveen and his white handler?/valet?/pimp? (more ambiguity resulting from entrenched racial hierarchies —a white guy who is subordinate, yet not) are, in effect, seeking to pull a fast one over on poor Charlotte.
The scheme is further complicated by magic performed by a black villain called Dr. Facilier, aka the Shadow Man (who looks suspiciously like the musician Prince, purple clothes and all). Dr. Facilier transforms the homely handler into a replica of the prince and becomes the handler's handler so that now Dr. Facilier can get control of Charlotte's money after the wedding via the faux prince (this is big pimpin' à la Jay Z— "take 'em out the out the 'hood, keep 'em looking good" …sing along if you know it). Dr. Facilier turns the real prince into a frog and the frog then solicits help from Tiana, the shadow princess who gets in the way accidentally and ends up a princess by as twisted a route as ever could be imagined, including spending most of the film in the form of a frog (and you thought the part I described was convoluted). Tiana's initial interest in Naveen is about getting the money for her restaurant—truly, ain't nothing going on for Tiana but the rent at the beginning of their relationship. Naveen agrees that in exchange for Tiana's help he will give Tiana the money she needs. Not having any money of his own, Naveen plans to get the money from Charlotte after he marries. (Hey kids, can you spell "hustler"?) Why couldn't Tiana go straight to Big Daddy or Charlotte, her lifelong friends, for the money? Even my seven year old asked that question.
I offer a course called "Law in Literature and Film" where, in one of the units, I discuss how fairy tales and folk tales function as rule regimes in at least two respects—first, they inculcate social norms and next, though they offer magical, fantastical solutions to problems, these solutions in fact operate via clearly established rules, norms and hierarchies. I suppose that the Princess and the Frog is perhaps partly explained by this—from a race and gender perspective much of the film promotes business as usual stereotypes.