Sunday, December 13, 2009

Not Just Another Disney Princess

Took the kids to see Disney's newest animated feature, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG.

Spent the first ten minutes just sitting there marveling at a Disney Princess who doesn't look like any previous Disney Princess. Granted, she's not technically a princess. But she DOES win the heart of a genuine prince, so close enough.

Now I suppose JASMINE and MULAN were big steps forward in terms of minority inclusion in the Disney Princess pantheon, Jasmine being some sort of ""1001 Nights" Middle Easterner (though ALADDIN's location was changed from Baghdad to the presumably more palatable, fictional Agrabah), and Mulan being Chinese. But somehow their ethnicity didn't stir an emotional chord with me the way the new gal, TIANA's, does.

Tiana is African-American. She's hard-working, ambitious, resourceful, smart, loving -- almost too perfect, which makes it hard for her to really grow as a character in the story. But that's a small quibble.

The inclusion of an African-American princess is probably long overdue when you realize the U.S. elected a mixed race, half-African-American president a year-plus BEFORE this movie came out. But to give Disney some credit, the movie was in the planning stages long before Barack won a primary.

What really struck me, watching the movie in those first few minutes, was what a non-event Tiana's color was to my children, even as it was such a big event to me. I grew up on Disney movies like most American girls, though my princesses were of a generation considerably older than my own. SNOW WHITE was made before my own mother was born; CINDERELLA and SLEEPING BEAUTY predated my birth. But the modern era of Disney princesses began with THE LITTLE MERMAID's ARIEL, and I've seen all the princesses that followed her just because, well, I love good animated movies and I went to see them as a grown-up before I had my own wanna-be princess. None of them have looked -- or sounded -- anything like Tiana, a New Orleans would-be restaurateur who doesn't let her poverty or skin color in the pre-Civil Rights era South get in the way of her ambitions. She made me think of legendary New Orleans African-American woman restaurateur Leah Chase of Dooky Chase, and made me happy that Tiana's restaurant really isn't something out of a fairy tale. She also made me want to go back to New Orleans and eat there, but that's another story: the whole movie is a tribute to, and advertisment for, historic New Orleans.

There's a lot to like in THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG besides the choice of making Tiana African-American: it's got lovely music by Randy Newman that's inspired by the vibrant jazz of New Orleans' native son Louis Armstrong (including a trumpet-playing alligator named for Armstrong). It's hand-drawn and has the lush look of the Disney classics of my childhood, like THE JUNGLE BOOK. It's funny and touching.

But again, I keep going back to the fact that Tiana's skin color, though it registered with my kids, did not seem in any way unusual. After the movie, my son -- not a big fan of princesses in general, but someone who enjoyed the movie from start to finish nonetheless -- went off to buy some things at the Farmers' Market with dad. I sat with my daughter, who was slowly making her way through some frozen yogurt, and talked with her about the movie. I asked her about Tiana's skin color. "It was brown," she said matter-of-factly, and then, at my instigation, we talked about the different skin colors of various friends, teachers, babysitters, etc. in our lives. In passing, I mentioned that Tiana's skin color was the same as Barack's. My daughter noted this but simply moved on. She was more interested in asking who among those we know are Christian, since it's Hanukah this week, which we're celebrating. We've talked about how we don't celebrate Christmas, but many of our friends do, and she's trying to sort that out. But this too only merited a brief discussion. There was a lot more talk about the alligator, whom I mentioned was named for Louis Armstrong, the same guy whose album of old Disney tunes we enjoy. And there were questions about what the shadows in the movie were (there's a villain, also African-American, called the Shadow Man, who practices voodoo and makes use of scary evil shadows). My son, when he returned, was more concerned with the fate of a Cajun firefly in the movie (I won't say more, I don't want to spoil what happens).

It's hard to say now if Tiana will really and truly join the pantheon of Disney Princesses in my daughter's heart: my kid's loyalties have migrated from Aurora (SLEEPING BEAUTY) to Cinderella of late. I suspect merchandising will tell the tale. And I wonder whether or not my daughter will ever pick a Tiana outfit for Halloween the way she gravitated to Cinderella's this year, and whether or not the fact that Tiana doesn't share my daughter's skin tone will make a difference to her when it's time to play dress-up.

But as we left the movie, I noted a couple of small African-American girls who'd come dressed in full princess regalia. I thought, hey, at last, a princess up on the big screen who looks like them. Here's hoping the race of future princesses will be as matter-of-fact to their kids as Tiana's seemed to be to mine. Of course, I'm still waiting for a Disney princess who's Jewish, notwithstanding the current web parody along those lines. But for now, we've got REBECCA RUBIN, this year's AMERICAN GIRL. So Disney isn't quite there yet. But an American Girl -- that's not too shabby.

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