The other night I wanted to watch some mindless television. Some of my favorite movies are Disney cartoons, and when I’m in the right mood, watching one can be comforting and enjoyable; as I replay the familiar lines and chuckle at the jokes that are now part of my daily fodder with my friends and family.
After a quick search on my Roku, I came upon Disney’s Princess and the Frog. I enjoy seeing people of color on screen so I promptly bought the digital version instead of only renting it. After all, I want to support Princess Tiana: the black community’s long awaited gift from the media giant.
As I watched the movie’s opening scene- the camera panned in on Eudora, Tiana and Charlotte. I heard the little white girl’s Louisiana accent, and Oprah’s voice playing Tiana’s mother and I realized this movie is not a stretch for Disney at all. Disney is perfectly fine with making a movie about Black people that work for white people, live in a separate part of town, are economically less well off than whites, and on top of that, who practice Voudou.
Sure, let’s give them a black villain too, and a white savior. In the form of the white Big Daddy LeBouf, who sits fat and happy as Mardi Gras king while Tiana counts the pennies he throws at her when he makes her cook an ungodly amount of beignets for him.
The fact that Disney’s only black protagonists spend the majority of the movie as bayou frogs aside, I often wondered why Prince Naveen had to be from some obscure strange land that no one ever heard of. It’s almost like it il-legitimatized him in some way. No one ever asked what kingdom Prince Charming was from. Or what land Snow White became queen of. White people simply have land everywhere, so there’s no need to specify it. Another way white culture is sold as the norm, and everything else needs a qualifier.
In this movie, Disney did nothing more than proliferate stereotypes: black people living less well off than whites, buffoonery, appropriation of jazz music, and reinforce the supremacy of spoiled lily white Charlotte’s Big Daddy.
I watched in horror as they humiliated Tiana at an elaborate party the wealthy white family threw to attract the Black prince to the white girl. They forced Tiana into the shadow so she might miss her only chance at advancing herself.
Tiana- who works double shifts and scrapes pennies to try and start a business, whose only friend is the child of her mother’s employer. Charlotte could buy a hundred restaurants with a bat of her eyelash. But she never offered to help a sista out? Instead she selfishly tries to take the most eligible man in town upon his arrival.
When the white bankers, dressed as an ass, show up at Charlotte’s party, after Tiana paid the deposit on her building earlier in the day, they say to her, “A little woman of your background. You’re better off where you’re at.” Disney loves to create subtle ways to weave in racism. Then while Tiana is devastated, Charlotte fusses about Prince Naveen’s lateness, further minimizing the black woman’s struggle, when juxtaposed against white people problems.
Back to the issue of anthropomorphism in a movie featuring more black actors doing voice overs than any other Disney movie thus far. They avoided having to animate too many black characters by relegating them to animal form, while the white characters remained human the majority of the time.
But in the end. All is well. Black people used their magic and Tiana got her restaurant on the black side of town. Big Daddy makes his requisite appearance at Tiana’s place, but he’d never bring his wife.
Look, I’m the one that said I still love Disney movies. But what I love is the art. The music, animation, the voice overs, the story lines and the fantasy of it all. I appreciate the creative talent that goes into making these movies. But I don’t appreciate the messages behind them all. Not ones like Tarzan or Jungle Book or even Peter Pan.
For me it’s about keeping my eyes open while consuming. We just have to be careful, stay woke, and not allow media to proliferate that story for us. We must create and support artists and media outlets who give us a new story to watch onscreen. People like my homegirl Ava Duvernay, or Issa Rae or Shonda Rhimes. Stories where we are not depicted in ways that misrepresent who we are as a people. We must use our magic to create new fairy tales for ourselves.