On race, representation, and seeing ourselves and our histories on screen.
Since I went pretty hard after Disney on topics of ethnicity and race yesterday, it seems only fair to balance that with a post on 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, the animated film that introduced Tiana, Disney’s first African American princess. (I suppose I could also have balanced that Peter Pan post with one on Pocahontas , but that’ll have to be a topic for another time—or feel free to share your takes on it in comments now!) The film represented a shift or evolution for Disney not only in that particular protagonist and her identity, but also in its striking blend of a classic fairy tale (the Brother Grimm’s “Frog Prince”) with a very specific historical and cultural moment and setting (the African American community and its contexts and connections in 1920s New Orleans). It was a box office, critical, and awards-season success, and I think is hugely significant on at least two distinct but interconnected levels.
For one thing, I think it’s difficult to overstate the importance of a community of American audience members (and particularly youthful audience members) seeing a protagonist whose appearance and identity mirror their own. In a post last February I wrote about Philip Nel’s work on the controversy of young adult publishers “whitewashing” their covers and marketing efforts, changing or at least minimizing the ethnic and racial identities of the works’ protagonists in the images that represent those characters. Of course a novel’s reader can encounter the protagonist through his or her own lens in any case, but those visual images and representations have a strong influence on an audience’s perceptions, and again especially youthful audiences. And far more influential still would be the images of an animated protagonist, whose appearance and identity so fully guide our viewing of that work. So the presence of an African American Disney princess in such a film and for its audiences is to my mind far from simply a token or a gesture.
But I would argue that at least as important is the film’s aforementioned historical and cultural setting. I’ve waxed poetic multiple times in this space about New Orleans as an exemplary American space, and The Princess and the Frog engages with multiple sides to that place and its histories, from the Creole community and voodoo customs and spiritualities to the city’s histories of masquerades and even the meanings of particularly significant local settings such as St. Louis Cathedral. I also think that the decision to set the film in the 1920s is an important and effective one, tapping into ongoing post-19th century histories, to segregation, and to concurrent contemporary trends such as the Harlem Renaissance, allowing its youthful audiences not only to connect with Tiana and her world, but also and crucially to recognize that world’s distinct yet still ongoing and resonant histories and stories. Pretty inspiring for a Disney film!
Next animated history tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Thoughts on this film, or other animated histories and stories you’d highlight?
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