Disney’s royal makeover: some day my princess will come
Usually, they have pale skin and long buttercup hair. So is Disney’s first ever black princess a good thing? Patricia Williams compares notes with a seven-year-old
So here’s the thing: I am not a fan of Disney cartoons. Fantasia was the only Disneyanimation I ever truly enjoyed, what with hippopotamuses in ballet -shoes, the travesties of physics, the brilliant musical apotheoses. Otherwise, I just don’t get it. I don’t like anthropomorphism – the lisping dogs, chatty insects, flirtatious cats, Minnie Mouse and her inflatable bubble-gum shoes. I don’t even like what passes for humanoids: the bloodless blond girls who never grow old, the leafy green boys who never grow up, the asexual dwarves, the flitty winged Tinkerbells.
- The Princess and the Frog
- Production year:2009
- Country: USA
- Cert (UK): U
- Runtime: 97 mins
- Directors: John Musker, Ron Clements
- Cast: Angela Bassett, Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Jim Cummings, John Goodman, Keith David, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard
Most of all, I have never liked princesses.
This puts me at odds with most of the rest of the world, of course, including my seven-year old friend Zara. And my friend Kathy, who is Zara’s mother. Kathy actually had her wedding themed around a Disney fantasy – big puffy sleeves for the bridesmaids, big snub-toed shoes with shiny square buckles for the men. It took place in a hall latticed with arbors of orchids and snowflake spangles shimmering on the ceiling, and spindly white chairs, and flocks of doves that surged skyward at the release of a hidden door just behind the altar. Afterwards, they went to Disneyworld for their honeymoon. I’ve ribbed her about it ever since.
“Disney princesses are all about happily ever after,” I grouse.
“That’s a bad thing?” asks Kathy, reminding me that she’s been married for 20 years and going strong.
“I’m talking about Disney, not you,” I counter, although for Kathy that is a meaningless distinction. “There’s a predictable and time-tested arc: you’re born into lowly circumstances, cruelly forced to work your fingers to the bone, but then rescued from the scullery, transformed into a great lady, blessed for your chastity and uncomplaining ways with a proposal and wealth and embroidered silk gowns.”
“I want to be a princess,” says Zara dreamily.
“And once upon a time you wanted to be a princess, too,” says Kathy, glaring at me. “Remember all those dolls you had?”
I sigh. “I think maybe you have to have some chance of identifying with fairytales in order to wish upon a star. And Disney princesses have been heavily pitched towards unnaturally pale girls with unnaturally buttercup-coloured hair. It was hard to take them seriously if you were a nerdy black kid with one slightly crossed eye.”
“Bitter, bitter, bitter,” says Kathy, tossing her flaxen curls.
Perhaps I am. After all, the demographic perpetually left out of the fairytale business has been the aspiring black princess. And so, unforgivably late in the scheme of things, Disney has finally churned out a sweet little concoction of a black heroine, with The Princess and the Frog. Her name is Tiana.
The film doesn’t have the most original plot in the world, although Tiana is a bit spunkier than most princesses. Her temperament is a lot like Fiona’s, the irrepressible heroine of Shrek. Tiana is hell-bent on opening her own restaurant; her dream is free agency via her recipe for the best gumbo in all of New Orleans. Initially, Tiana is impatient with her paramour, the indolent pretty-boy, Prince Naveen. But Naveen is also a jazz lover, a nifty dancer and not bad with a ukulele. Once Tiana teaches him how to dice a swamp mushroom, true love just happens.
Tiana’s version of a dream come true is in marked contrast to that of her friend Charlotte, the stereotype of a spoiled debutante, willing to “kiss a hundred frogs” if it brings her prince. But if Charlotte is silly, she’s kind; if overindulged by her father, she is generous. It is the gentlest of send-ups of Snow White – as well as of Blanche DuBois.
It’s interesting to note the qualities with which Tiana is endowed as Disney’s official first black princess. She’s an unusually tireless and uniquely feminist royal qua restaurant tycoon. She fends for herself; she is called, rather than forced, to ply her craft; she sings her way through the hot kitchens of life; she invests her money. When her prince comes along, he is not only a frog, he is quite an annoying frog, who starts out as a philandering ne’er- do-well, but who has his heart touched and then reformed by Tiana’s redemptive rectitude and feisty ways. He teaches her to dance. With a kiss, they humanise each other.
Who knows, perhaps only a black princess could so dutifully spout the kinds of working-class homilies that are woven into the film’s very catchy songs: that strong family values, hard work and good food are the keys to bliss; that it’s fine to let the good times roll, but only after you’ve worked three long shifts a day. Tiana is more or less the conceptual offspring of Oprah Winfrey (it’s surely no accident that Winfrey voices the part of Tiana’s mother).
“I would like a Tiana doll,” Zara tells me after seeing the movie.
“I would like an Oprah doll,” I say. “And a Rosa Parks doll and a Coretta Scott King doll and a Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm doll and a Michele Obama doll and a . . . ”
“Jeesh,” says Kathy. “What kind of joyless dream is that? You think little girls have to fantasise about the political travails of the civil rights movement? Tiana has bubble bath! Tiana has her own line of pyjamas!”
Maybe I do need to lighten up. But just for a moment, I flash up an image of myself as a princess. I am spritzed with my bestselling fragrance, Blood, Sweat and Tears. I have my own brand of Just Deserts, now available in chocolate and vanilla, as well as mocha-almond swirl. I am wearing an ample tutu of my own design, and pink ballet slippers. Twinkle-toed, I am dancing on air, defying the laws of physics. There is a very large elephant in the middle of the room. I dance over to him and pucker up. I plant a nice, big, sloppy, wet one.