The Princess and the Frog – Children and Race

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February 16, 2010 by Daniel Stack

The Princess and the Frog

We all gon’ pool together

Down here that’s how we do!

Me for there, and there for me,

We all be there for you!

We’re gonna take ya

We’re gonna take ya

We’re gonna take ya all the way down

We know where yer going and we’re going witchoo

Taking you all the way

– “Gonna Take You There” from the Princess and the Frog Soundtrack

It’s a bit trendy to be against political correctness. And I think there is a bit of a tricky dance. On one hand, it is essential for any society to be able to have meaningful dialogue. Attorney General Holder caused quite a firestorm om 2009 when he described the United States as a “nation of cowards” when it comes to talking about race. But I think he is quite correct. It is a topic we are frightened to talk about. We’d like to believe that problems with race belong to a previous generation. What more proof do we need that racism is “over” than the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. On the opposite side there is a problem in not showing sensitivity and respect. While we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about sensitive topics, we do need to avoid diving into offensiveness – embracing caricatures, stereotypes, etc. Just take a listen, for example, to the way in which some critics portray Barack Obama – describing him as a “man child”, emphasizing his “funny” name and how it is “un-American”. (I’m not suggesting President Obama cannot be criticized, but I do ask you to take note of the nature of any criticsm.)

That brings me to Disney’s recent film The Princess and the Frog. Disney has a bit of a troubled history when it comes to race. To this day they won’t re-release Song of the South due to its depiction of its African-American narrator, Uncle Remus, the “old uncle” stereotype being often considered demeaning. Peter Pan has its share of controversy with its stereotyping of Native Americans with their laughable traditions, halting speech, and insane violence. As an adult I was able to laugh this off – it is so over the top that it is near impossible to take seriously. But when I had children and saw the way in which they absorb what they are exposed to, I saw how it could be harmful. It’s not a “banned” film in our household, but it is a film which required discussion with mom and dad about what a bad portrayal of Native Americans this film gives.

Is this being overly politically correct? I don’t think so. Kids need to be taught that certain behavior and stereotypes are not appropriate. What adults can laugh off as absurd can seem perfectly reasonable and representative to children.

That brings me to The Princess and the Frog. In it Disney gave us its first portrayal of an African-American “princess” (though she begins as a waitress and maid), Tiana. She is a hard working young woman in New Orleans of the 1920s, trying to save up enough money to realize her late father’s dream of opening a restaurant. Disney has received some criticism (no film will make everyone happy) in its choice of setting the film in Jim Crow-era New Orleans. The film gives hints towards the discrimination that were so commonplace during this time, but it does not dwell on them – for example Tiana is rebuffed in her attempts at purchasing property for her restaurant, with the sellers suggesting it might not be appropriate for “a woman of your background”. There’s also some stereotypes of dumb white hunters that seem to come right out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon…

Given that, this brings me my youngest (age 4) daughter, Jasmine’s, reaction to the film. (Note – she is not named after the Disney princess of the same name!) Our whole family went to see the film shortly after Christmas. My wife and eldest daughter had already seen it once before but this was the first time for Jasmine and I. Jasmine was absolutely enchanted by the film – she was dancing to the songs, re-enacting scenes from it afterwards and insisting on seeing it over and over again. (We’ve seen it three times now.) And who do we hear about constantly? Tiana this. Tiana that. “I’m Tiana.” Tiana quotes all the time. For Valentine’s Day I got Jazzy a Tiana doll which she immediately seized upon, happy as could be, and began re-enacting the film for me.

What Disney has done is create an African-American character that white little kids like my daughter look up to. This is only a sample of one, but to me it seems noteworthy in the face of studies like those done by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who, in 1939-40, determined that African-American girls still preferred playing with white dolls and considered them prettier than black dolls. Filmmaker Kiri Davis, in the 2005 documentary A Girl Like Me determined that little had changed since the initial study. If Disney has produced a film that allows young girls, hopefully both white and black, admire an African-American princess, then they’ve helped our nation make another step forward.

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February 2010
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