Disney's Racially Insensitive Practices Hop to a Halt
As soon as the film was announced, The Princess and the Frog was praised for its progressive departure from Disney’s mold: finally, the film company had chosen a black “princess” as its protagonist. This was a risky choice in 2009, considering racial tensions were just cooling off in the wake of the civil rights movement.
“Mmm, gumbo smells good, Tiana,” opens the second scene of the film, which introduces the main character and her family. “I think it’s done, daddy.” “Are you positive?” The little girl dumps half a bottle of Tobasco sauce into the pot, and suddenly it’s the greatest dish the family has ever tasted. Clearly, Disney has abandoned their archaic practice of sprinkling stereotypes into their family-oriented films.
The next introduction is that of Tiana’s love interest. Again, Disney makes a progressive leap: Not only is the film’s “prince” not white, he’s Middle Eastern. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But Aladdin was middle eastern…” This is completely different. Unlike Aladdin's stereotypical Princess Jasmine, daughter of an unnamed royal family, The Princess and the Frog's Prince Naveen is the son of an unnamed royal family. It’s much more progressive.
You’re probably wondering… how could this film possibly do well? Isn’t it going to offend white children who don’t want to see minorities living their dreams? What about their parents, who don’t want them exposed to interracial relationships? Ron Clements, the film's director, explains.
"This isn't just a film for people of color," he says. "This is a film for everyone. Originally, we were simply going to retell the classic Frog Prince fairy tale and replace the heroine with a black princess. We realized that just wouldn't be practical: Tiana would have too much screen time and white children wouldn't be able to identify with her. We got Disney's top Imagineers working on the problem, and after a few weeks they came up with the ingenious solution you see in the movie: We put a new twist on the story which allowed us to turn both of the colored folks into frogs. That way, nobody's put off by skin tone."
No Disney animation is complete without its villain. The writers knew that evil witches and wicked stepmothers wouldn’t work as counterparts to a black princess. Looking back through history, there were a number of options. A slave trader? A discriminating employer? Such controversial options may have been fitting, but in their infinite wisdom, Disney instead chose a villain the black culture can really be afraid of: a Voodoo witchdoctor.
The characters In The Princess and the Frog aren’t the only things that have been altered from Disney’s formula. Knowing that their signature happy ending wouldn’t be believable with a black protagonist, the writers chose instead to end the film with Tiana starting her own restaurant. Sure, it’s not as great a leap as Cinderella’s rags-to-riches tale, but let’s face it, big dreams are best left to white people.