An about-BLACKface that is…(kidding). While Disney’s animated film “The Princess and the Frog” due out for the holidays has generated lively discussions due to the protagonist being an African-American princess, none of the character archetypes have changed very much. The poor pretty girl longs to be a regal elite. The forces of evil try to stop her. A prince will save her. Faith supports perseverance…and so on and so forth.
However simple the fairy tale traditions, they will always have a timeless draw because of their universal qualities. But some critics of the new post-race princess have taken the kiddie merchandise conglomerate to task about her “realness” as a black girl.
For instance, after screening a version of the film with the character’s name “Maddy,” the producers changed her name to Tiana when a few viewers complained that the name resembled “mammy” too closely.
There’s also been a string of complaints from black critics (who haven’t yet seen the film) because of her “non-black” features, as one writer put it, and the film being set in 1920s New Orleans. Apparently, because Hurricane Katrina registers as a black tragedy, it’s imperative that we treat it as such, forbidding cartoon films from having any mention of the site. And (drumroll please) the prince is a white man to boot!
All of the implications here are troublesome to a society grappling with what racial identity means, and whether a change in meaning amounts to anything. If Disney is now so concerned about the implications of the first major black cartoon character in their movie, that means times have changed to the point where ethnicity and cultural sensitivity are required considerations. The movie “Aladdin” featured songs about Arabs that included lines about Muslim savagery and light-hearted throat slicing. The “Little Mermaid’s Ariel” had a singing Caribbean fish as the Bojangles to her Shirley Temple. Even the image of the princess itself is a possible sexist quagmire, portraying the star as an aloof, subservient girl waiting to be courted, or for Daddy to make things right.
But even if Disney’s concern wasn’t to be “progressive” in choosing Tiana, the New Orleans Creole beauty, as their lead, they have stumbled on to fertile ground for discussion. What would it be like if we could interview the First Black Princess to get her personal low-down? Here’s a light-hearted, fictional perspective of what Tiana might tell us.
Drew: So I think I’ll start with the obvious: how does it feel to be the first black princess featured in a Disney animated film? Where were you when you found out about the role? What were the reactions among your family members?
Tiana: I don’t even like to call myself “princess” to be honest. The term is so overblown. It’s like what am I even the princess of? The swamp? We shot the film in a Louisiana bayou, which does not support heels or tiaras ok. I don’t think Sony had Beyonce up in the swamp for “Upgrade U”, you feel me? When I got the call about the role, I was in the hair salon with Storm from the X-Men. She had just come from picking up her unemployment and told me HALLE was in front of her in line. That’s when I knew things were rough. I took the role because Disney pays well, and they said they would respect my demands about the script, what have you. My family was real supportive, being that I support them. So everyone was cool about it. My boyfriend keeps asking if it comes in one big check or if it’s a per diem.
Drew: What’s on your iPod? The fans want to know. Did the High School Musical soundtrack sneak in there?
Tiana: (laughs) Noooo. No High School Musical…not really. You know I haven’t updated my iPod in months so there’s some old stuff on there. I bet I’m gonna sound really out of touch when I say it but eff it. I got Monica’s “Miss Thang” in the rotation. When I want a guilty pleasure I might throw on that Sasha Fierce, or some Keyshia Cole. Lately though, if I talk about daily listening, I have The Carter III ready for action. Weezy is a genius to me, and I think New Orleans artists should support each other. I texted him when he was on the View. I don’t suggest kids drink the Lean, no. (I’m contractually obligated to say that if Wayne comes up.)
Drew: Describe your relationship with Disney? Do the other princesses call you? Has the PR there been adequate?
Tiana: I mean, how much had you heard about this movie? Be honest with me when you say that. Usually, when a Disney flick comes out you can’t stop hearing about how great the animation is, how it’s for kids and adults, Eddie Murphy’s doing voices… With me it’s like, the first black princess has to practically tip-toe through the door. I don’t mind it honestly but it’s like no one cares about the right thing. Everyone’s stressing me about details like how dark I look in the first cut of the film versus the second cut. It’s like Disney is straight out scared for the first time. Some black people called them and said “Please don’t mess this up for us” but I think of it as an opportunity. I know that there are princesses from every country and of every creed. I’m trying to rep for them.
I recently took a trip to South Africa on charity mission, donating medical supplies and such. Do you know what they asked me? They asked me if I was Vanessa Williams. Honey! Maybe twenty years ago! (laughs) I’m playing Vanessa, I love you. Still, I had to step back and think about that. About how many black princesses and women of real stature did it for me. Halle, Dorothy Dandridge…even the first black Barbie made this possible. There was a time when a black woman in the mainstream was cause for alarm. Now, the President, some dolls, rappers and even a lot of video girls look like me. I can’t be too mad.
Drew: Right. But what about the backlash about the prince not being black?
Tiana: I met the prince off set before we shot the movie and it’s a shame that he’s being received that way. He’s really nice. In real life, he has a wife and she’s gorgeous. Black too. It’s the age of Obama and if people aren’t going to be okay with Robin Thicke loving the sisters, I don’t know what to say. The other princesses haven’t called me for the most part. I spoke to Snow White for a few minutes on my cell but the connection was bad, and the noise in her house is just nuts. I don’t know how she takes care of seven small men…she’s always reaching for something on a shelf or hitting her head on doorways. Things haven’t been good for the other princesses as far as I can see. I heard Sleeping Beauty was in rehab after an Ambien thing had her missing tour dates and parade appearances. I never thought of her as an addict because she hid it so well when she was around me.
Drew: What’s been the most surprising part of the process so far?
Tiana: The support among women and in the black community has been overwhelming. Everyone’s asking about Tiana, and if I’ll do a single or go Raven Symone. I’ve thought about a lot of things ahead but I want to stay realistic. This movie is a big step for cartoon characters, sketches, and African-American women in cartoon form. I can’t say I was even expecting all this. People look at me different because of all the toys, books, bedsheets and plastic sippy cups that will be emblazoned in my image. I’m kind of like the African-American Idol. Write that down.