Is it inconceivable that instead of taking on the forces of the underworld, the title character, Princess Tiana, do battle with the very real racist prejudice and legal injustice that made New Orleans hellish for so many of its residents in the 1920s, prejudice that continues (albeit usually in somewhat altered forms) to this day?
* * *
Now that time has passed and much of the dust has settled around the release of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009), it may be worthwhile to approach the film and its aims dispassionately to determine whether they have been successful. Those aims from the studio’s perspective were succinctly stated by John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar and Walt Disney in advance of the film’s release: “Our first goal is to make a great motion picture. But we have also worked very closely with a lot of leaders in the African-American community, all across the nation, to make sure we’re doing something African-American families will be proud of” (Tucker). Following the premiere, entertainment media were predictably breathless, describing the release in glowing terms alongside the assertion that Disney animation had entered “the post-racial era” (Gabler). How are we to evaluate such hyperbolic claims in light of Derrick Bell’s contention – one of the axioms of Critical Race Theory – that racism is a permanent part of American society (ix)? Is racism absent from the film?
Strangely, although the answer to the latter question seems to be an emphatic no – racism negatively defines the film’s horizons, due in part to the film’s concerted attempts to be race-less – it’s not clear that African-American viewers should have been displeased with the finished product. In fact, box-office results indicate that African-Americans, along with the rest of the viewing public, responded very favorably (“Princely”).
Despite efforts to manage public concerns from pre-production on, however, the film does contain elements that raised concerns about racism among audiences and critics alike. Examples of these formulations include the role of voodoo in the film, which is fraught due to negative, racially based stereotypes surrounding its practice in various forms in the Caribbean and southern United States.
That the film’s villain, a voodoo practitioner called the Shadowman, is unambiguously black, is doubly problematic when it is understood that the film’s male lead and romantic hero, Prince Naveen, is only ambiguously so.1 The spirits that Shadowman invokes seem to be the film’s embodiment of evil; he contacts them through the agency of fetishized tribal masks wearing grotesque expressions. The spirits are represented by black, shadowy forms, and they intervene in the plot to hold up their end of a blood pact with Shadowman. When he defaults on the agreement, the spirits drag him down to a putative hell.
Identifying this derogation of voodoo practice – and its inclusion in the film – as straightforwardly racist is complicated by the leavening presence of Mama Odie, a voodoo queen who plays the role of fairy godmother to Tiana’s princess. In her hands, voodoo is used as the agent of positive change and self-revelation. We might cavil generally with the stereotyped depiction of voodoo as mélange of magic and devil-worship. But this becomes standard Disney practice, where religion is mostly magic and amoral and tends to reflect the relative virtue and intentions of the user-practitioner.2
To the extent that these depictions do contain racist elements, they situate the film in a long line of animated films that do the same. That Disney has a history of racist depictions of blacks and other people of color is well established.3 Even Douglas Brode, who has been called “the only academic … who dares to defend Disney,” admits that Mickey Mouse, the star of Steamboat Willie, Disney’s first animated cartoon, incorporates caricatures of black performance hearkening back to the minstrel show. He describes the Mickey of Steamboat Willie in these terms: “The white area running from just above his eyes to slightly below his mouth appears masklike, as if the character has adopted this guise in order to ‘pass’ and survive in the Anglo world of his time” (51). Brode feels that Mickey Mouse’s advocacy of black music and dance to white suburban communities is indicative of Walt Disney’s multiculturalism – the man’s as well as the studio’s (Ibid.).
Robert Gooding-Williams isn’t so sure. He has argued that even relatively recent Disney fare such as The Lion King “is an argument for an American apartheid” (35; emphasis the author’s). Its “circle of life” mantra, where the status quo – equated with the good – is a simple, cyclical way of life unthreatened by any sort of progress or social advancement, underscores and reinforces European stereotypes of a primitive, ahistorical Africa (36).
Other examples of unflattering, if often coded, depictions of blacks abound in Disney films: the crows in Dumbo, meant to be talking “jive”; the speech and preoccupations of the orangutans and monkeys in The Jungle Book; and any number of slapstick sidekicks meant to provide a given film’s comedy relief (Wainer).
But perhaps the most egregiously racist film in Disney’s vault is the studio-censored Song of the South. Official protests of the film, which date from its release in 1946, centered not on overtly negative depictions of blacks, but around the film’s implicit historical revisionism. In this, it is (somewhat counterintuitively perhaps) the film The Princess and the Frog most resembles.
Just as Song of the South portrayed “blacks liv[ing] in extreme poverty, but [who] were nonetheless happy and content alongside their former owners, still faithfully serving the rich whites and their children during the Reconstruction era in the American South,” in The Princess and the Frog, black residents of New Orleans seem equally content in a community – if we have recourse to the historical timeline – riven by new Jim Crow legislation (Sperb, 932). In fact, the blacks portrayed in Song of the South’s Reconstruction Era arguably possessed more individual freedoms (de jure) than the blacks in New Orleans during the Jazz Age. In 1870, for example, anti-miscegenation language was added to Louisiana State Code, making legal “private or religious marriages … to all persons of whatever race or color as well as … marriages formerly prohibited by any law of the state” (“Jim Crow”). And in 1873, Louisiana enacted a statute prohibiting carriers from “excluding passengers from railroads, streetcars, steamboats, coaches or other vehicles based on race” (Ibid.). Violation of the statute could result in forfeiture of the carrier’s license or the closure of the business, and aggrieved parties had the right to sue for damages.
Already by 1890, however, the first of the so-called Jim Crow laws began to erode some of the legal protections in place for blacks in Louisiana. Railroads were directed by statute to provide separate accommodations for whites and people of color, and miscegenation was made punishable by imprisonment at hard labor, in 1890 and 1894, respectively. Miscegenation laws were revisited and strengthened in 1908 and 1910, and by 1932 had moved beyond statutory law to become part of state code (Ibid.).
This, then, is the (historical) setting of The Princess and the Frog, a New Orleans where the children and grandchildren of former slaves have little de facto social standing, and the de jure rights they have possessed for less than a generation are being systematically erased. But these issues aren’t alluded to in the film. It could be argued that such troubling historical realities have no place in a children’s movie, particularly one motivated at least in part by the desire to give children of color an animated hero “of their own,” a character to look up to (and invest in) (Tucker). Is it inconceivable, though, that instead of taking on the forces of the underworld, the title character, Princess Tiana, do battle with the very real racist prejudice and legal injustice that made New Orleans hellish for so many of its residents in the 1920s, prejudice that continues (albeit usually in somewhat altered forms) to this day?
It has been noted that Disney received numerous complaints about the light-skinned Prince Naveen, voiced by Brazilian actor Bruno Campos (Ibid.). Ironically, whether the character is white or a person of color, the miscegenation statutes in effect in Louisiana during the period of the film’s setting would have placed the character outside the law in any case. If Naveen is, in fact, black – and Disney isn’t telling – then the four simpering white women awaiting his arrival shipboard (along with a single black woman) are more than the sexist caricatures we’ve seen in other Disney fare;4 they are also scofflaws willing to risk hard labor for a date with a prince.5 The whole subplot of the white Charlotte, Tiana’s spoiled debutante friend, is complicated by the illegality of her proposed union with Naveen. If Naveen is white, on the other hand, then it is his marriage with Tiana that is called into historical question.
Other anachronisms – or more properly, ahistorical conflicts with the film’s representative milieu – include a scene early in the movie, where Tiana boards a streetcar with her mother, and they ride alongside white passengers. Throughout the film, whites and blacks are depicted eating in the same establishments and utilizing the same entrances to gather in the same places. Each of these events is ahistorical on its own, but it’s the black characters’ collective cheerfulness and acquiescence in a happy status quo that is most pernicious and reminiscent of the implied black collusion in Song of the South.
In fairness, the film isn’t expurgated of all allusions to racial inequality. In one sequence we follow Tiana’s mother home from her job as a seamstress for a wealthy white family, as she moves from a district of sumptuous Queen Anne dwellings to the modest but meticulous row houses of the black community. Later, Tiana encounters discrimination at the hands of a pair of lumpish white lawyers who derogate her ability to afford the property she hopes to purchase from them. “A little woman of your background … woulda had her hands full, trying to run a big business like that.”
The glaring fact remains, however, that the film’s merely superficial attempts to deal with the weight of historical racism causes it to present what social critic Louis Marin called “the deceptive harmonization of contrary elements … the fictional solution to conflicting tensions” (qtd. in Sperb, 925). The world according to Disney is one unencumbered by a racist past. It’s not an attempt at a post-racial space, as Gabler has suggested. Rather, it asserts a sort of non-racial setting, an alternate New Orleans circa the 1920s, neither troubled by a racist past nor, presumably, threatened by racism and violence to come.
There is certainly nothing here that could be used to refute Critical Race Theory’s conception of racism as a permanent facet of American society. On the contrary, the disturbing truth emerges that our shared history is so fraught with racism that any attempt to ignore or minimize that past – or its present corollaries – merely highlights it in starker relief. It’s not The Princess and the Frog’s racial problemata (which are relatively few given the ambition of its setting and subject) that stand out; rather it’s the movement toward redress that emphasizes the weight and horrific scope of the conditions giving rise to that redress.
In the end, though, it’s hard to find too much fault with The Princess and the Frog. It’s a simple, saccharine three-act narrative that feels long overdue in the culture, perhaps because of the way Disney tends to define American childhood, with its barrage of “lunch boxes, backpacks, coloring books, and other paraphernalia geared to elementary school kids” (Gooding-Williams, 35). The film stretches Disney’s implicit definition of childhood – and the scope of the concomitant marketing – by including as explicit audience for the first time millions of children who’ve previously been assailed by wholly negative filmic images of themselves and their families.
If the primary criticism of The Princess and the Frog is that its characters seem too unaware of the setting of their idyll – or more properly, that the idyllic setting bears little resemblance to the actual New Orleans of the 1920s or to racist conditions that are still with us – such a qualm may be trumped for many people by the presence, at last, of a strong, positive black star in the constellation of Disney female (animated) leads.
Bell, Derrick. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. New York: Basic Books. 1993. Print.
Brode, Douglas. Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2005. Print.
Gooding-Williams, Robert. Look, a Negro! New York: Routledge. 2006. Print.
“Jim Crow Laws: Louisiana.” The History of Jim Crow. studythepast.com. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.
Kay, Jeremy. “Disney Enjoys Princely Box-office Receipts for Princess and the Frog.” guardian.co.uk. 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
Sperb, Jason. “Take a Frown, Turn It Upside Down”: Splash Mountain, Walt Disney World, and the Cultural De-Rac(e)-ination of Disney’s Song of the South (1946). Journal of Popular Culture. Aug. 2005: 924-38. Print.
Tucker, Neely. “Disney Gives African-American Girls Their Own Princess.” The Gazette. Montreal. 20 Apr. 2009. Print.
Wainer, Alex. “Reversal of Roles: Subversion and Reaffirmation of Racial Stereotypes in Dumbo and The Jungle Book.” Sync: The Regent Journal of Film and Video 1(2). Spring 1994. Print.
* * *
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, images are screenshots from the film.
- This was the source of many complaints to the studio when images of the light-skinned – some say white – prince were released to the press during production (Tucker). [↩]
- Cf. 1996’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the prelate Claude Frollo is depicted mixing sorcery and implied devil-worship with Catholic practices, while other Catholic clergy are portrayed as benevolent. [↩]
- Cf. Gooding-Williams, Wainer, et al. [↩]
- Cf. the three buxom blondes vying for Gaston’s attentions in Beauty and the Beast. [↩]
- Interracial “concubinage,” a term left legally rather vague on purpose, was also outlawed in 1908 (“Jim Crow”). [↩]