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Jiminy Crickets! Is Disney’s First Black Princess Too Little, Too Late?

Photo courtesy of cghub.com.

Photo courtesy of cghub.com.

Generations of little black girls have watched “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and other Disney films but never seen a character that looks like them.

That will soon change. Disney on Dec. 11 will release “The Princess and the Frog,” a New Orleans-flavored animated film that features “Tiana,” its first black princess. Anika Noni Rose, who appeared in “Dreamgirls,” will voice the role.

Battling racist depictions and helping children and teenagers improve self image has long been a goal of social workers. So Social Workers Speak! asked  experts to weigh in on the racial and cultural impact of “The Princess and the Frog.”

They are Karen Bullock, Ph.D., associate professor of Black Studies for Social Work Practice at the University of Connecticut; Tricia Bent-Goodley, Ph.D., LICSW, a professor at the Howard University School of Social Work; and Gary Bailey, MSW, associate professor at the Simmons College School of Social Work and past president of the National Association of Social Workers. 

Bent-Goodley is also an appointed member of NASW’s National Committee on Women’s Issues (NCOWI) and Bullock is an appointed member of the NASW’s National Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity (NCORED).

 Q: The Walt Disney Company has been around for more than 80 years and this is the first time they have featured an African American woman as the main character in an animated film. Isn’t Tiana arriving on the screen a little too late to make a difference in how America views race?

Bullock: It astonishes me that people can find it in themselves to utter the words “it’s too late.” It is never too late to make a change in a positive direction. We only need to consider the election of President Obama in 2009. Is it too late to have our first black president? Of course not! We would have liked to have had more black people and images in the eyes and faces of mainstream Amerian much sooner. However, to say it’s too late is absurd in my opinion.

Bailey: I think it is never too late. Little girls do, whether we like it or not, still think about being princesses and it is important that young girls of color are able to see themselves represented. And Disney is the (biggest) game in town and nobody else has done it. I do think that one can always look at the clock and ask, “Why now?” But I would say better now than never.

Bent-Goodley: I would not be telling the truth if I didn’t say the little girl in me is SO excited that Disney finally has a black princess. It doesn’t mean that the standard of beauty has changed but at least little black girls can finally look at an image that reflects their unique beauty and characteristics.

Q: What is the symbolic and psychological significance of a young girl imagining she is a princess?

Bailey: It’s about being special. The way some little girls just love the color pink or they love the frilliness. Even some little boys feel this way about princesses (or may wish to be a prince or a princess too!). There are  also real princesses in this world (I remember Princess Diana, the people’s princess). And we do have as much right to be part of a myth as we do to be overrepresented in (films) about society’s so-called facts — poverty, unemployment, and HIV/AIDS. We have a long way to go in helping young black women have a positive image. A cartoon/movie has a great deal of influence. And I would also like to see shows where little girls of all races not only think of themselves as princesses but are encouraged to think of themselves as corporate CEOs.

Q: Despite the positive attributes of the film, you still have some concerns about the character Tiana, Ms. Bent-Goodley. Could you elaborate?

Bent-Goodley: Having images of yourself is powerful and so this is no small feat. Yet Tiana, while beautiful, smart and hard-working, spends a significant amount of her time in the movie as a frog so we do not really get to appreciate these unique and wonderful features. None of the other princesses faced this situation. In fact, all the other Disney movies that featured a princess were named after the princess — “Cinderella,” “Mulan,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Pocahantas.” Yet, for the black princess the name of the movies is “The Princess and the Frog.” The title itself diminishes from what could be a powerful affirmation going back to the notion that black women just cannot be a true princess.

Q: You also think the movie sends a subtle message about black women and relationships. Explain.

Bent-Goodley: Let’s face it — frogs are not very pretty animals (even when wearing pink lipstick). Not to mention, Tiana kisses the frog and doesn’t turn the frog into a prince like we find in other fairytales but instead she herself turns into a frog. What is the message in that? Are the movie executives attempting to relay the challenges facing black women seeking their Prince Charming? Are they suggesting that somehow the fairytale is not attainable for black women and girls? These subtle messages of racism are powerful. Some would argue that this is just a movie and not a big deal. It wouldn’t be a big deal if there was more diversity among black princesses or positive black female images in the media.

Q: Are you encouraging folks to see the movie?

Bullock: As a black woman with a young daughter, I am thrilled to see that Disney now has a black princess. Rather than criticize the movie and Disney, I would encourage people to support the film, support the changes that are occurring around positive race relations in the United States today. We spend far too much time speaking out against the effort to move in the right direction and far too little time thinking about what each of us as individuals and collectively can do to contribute to the positive changes around race relations. I have been encouraging my students, my family, my friends and colleagues to support the movie.

Q: Okay, African Americans will probably be thrilled to see this character light up the screen. But should other races go see the movie, too?

Bailey: I think they should. But very often people will see it as only a black cartoon and that is not good. I hope people would see this as the cartoon that all little girls should go to.

Bullock: Not only little black girls but black boys, white girls and boys, and adults of all races and colors will see the images on the screen and hopefully move a bit closer to deconstructing negative images of hte past. A movie that targets children is the best place to start. After all, they are our future. If the positive message starts early enough, we as a society may have success in combating some of the racism and oppression that have been the hallmark of popular media heretofore.

Q: What can parents do to combat the negative images of some races and culture that persist in the media?

Bent-Goodley: As a social worker and mother of two sons, I will continue to talk with my children about the importance of affirming and supporting black women and girls, not feeding into negative stereotypes and perceptions that subtly yet effectively send messages of being “lesser than” at even this time in history. I will tell them the story of countless black women and girls that lead with honor, stand with courage, mother with devotion, evidence intellect with rigor, and persevere generation after generation despite negative talks told about them. They are the true black princesses.

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12 Comments

  1. All young girls need to have a role model to look up to and admire. I think this princess is perfect!!

  2. I feel that it is about time. In addition to the princess being BLACK, she also is not waiting for a prince to come and save her. History shows that their were queens of color such as Queen Cleopatra, Makeda, Neferititi, Ashanti, Nyabinghi, etc. Many people of color are not glamorized and it is sad. However, they are broadcasted for all of the … See Morenegative. It is about time and their should be plenty more to come. In addition to Prince Charming and Kings as well. As social worker’s we should all feel that there is a need for change with this. The significant statistics with poverty, deaths, AIDS, abuse, etc extends from people not knowing who they are, where they come from and what they are capable of being and becoming.

  3. I say “it’s about time” that Disney gives little girls of color a Princess to admire too! Super excited they’re finally on board!!

  4. They need to get rid of the whole “princess” idea altogether. White, black, whatever doesn’t matter. I don’t want my daughter having a “princess” mindset. How about a movie glorifying a poor woman working to get what she needs instead of loving a rich girl getting everything?

  5. I totally get that it’s about time that we finally have a black princess but I thought we were so over the race thing. I mean she is a princess and she is pretty that’s all that matters!

  6. This is NOT too late, whatsoever. There was an article in last week’s news about children who had viewed a TV show that made fun of kids with red hair (Los Angeles story). They ended up in police custody because they went out and REPEATED WHAT THEY SAW on children at their school.
    Make no mistake … Children will continue to learn … And this movie, I believe, is an excellent opportunity to plant new seeds of thought in their minds, seeds that echo equality of skin colour. Excellent!!!! I think Oprah Winfrey is behind this movie, to a degree, so “thank you, Oprah” for being such a wonderul person, taking this opportunity (it’s not taking a chance, as the opportunity has always existed; it’s that no one has taken up on it).
    Again, it’s not too late whatsoever to show the world that skin colour shouldn’t be of concern to anyone. Any longer.

  7. I would like to correct Ms. Bent-Goodley in one area — when she makes the statement about the titles of the movies, it is not really accurate. “The Little Mermaid” is not the name of the character (Ariel), nor is “Sleeping Beauty” (Aurora/Briar Rose). In addition, there is Princess Jasmine from “Alladin”, who would entirely disprove the idea that “all the other Disney movies that featured a princess were named after the princess.” In one final example, the movie “Beauty and the Beast”, which features the character named Belle, is most similar in title to this one, “The Princess and the Frog.”

    I do not believe Disney much came up with the titles… in all of these cases, it is reflective of the long-standing name of the traditional fairytale.

  8. …If you look more closely at the actual adaptations Disney has made over fairy tales with princesses, you would see how they aren’t about a “princess” mentality, but rather young girls/women becoming empowered and not accepting what society has dictated their role to be. Think about it – Ariel the mermaid got her two legs, Cinderella stopped cleaning after her entitled stepsisters, etc…

    Aside from that, I think that Bent-Goodely was never my div. pop. professor, because we would have gone round and round as its clear (or at least to me) that they have a very jaded view of race and racial tension. The case she makes that it’s demeaning to the title story of Tiana as the Frog Princess makes me want to laugh, its so narrow minded. The original fairytale is titled such, and originally features a Caucasian princess. Disney keeps the original fairy tale title, that’s why the story of Cinderella is Cinderella and not the maid with the glass slipper, and so on and so forth.

    Personally, I’m just glad to see another Disney Princess movie in the original style they started with with Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, etc – it looks amazing and I can’t wait to take my sisters to see it!.

  9. (In response to a comment that the movie is trying to be too politically correct) …Are you referring to the the discussion as a whole or the inclusion of a culture other than Caucasian as a princess? If the latter consider the research that reveal how important it is for kids to see positive images that resemble themselves. Opening up possibilities for all people is supposed to be what the Constitution is all about. It would be disappointing to see the exclusionary mindset our country has had so long continue. That will ruin our nation much more than being considerate of other people’s cultural differences.

  10. Having read the interview, I must say, I am dumbfounded on two points.

    One, the headline of the story. All of the experts offer an affirmative response to the first question fielded. Was the point of the headline to sensationalize the story and direct readers to click the link? (Ooops, it worked on me, because here I am. – but does not mitigate my befuddlement at the placement of his statement after reading the article.)

    Secondly, the question: “But should other races go see the movie, too?” Really? Should Caucasians, such as myself, watch “Boyz N The Hood”, “Do the Right Thing,” or even “Cabin In the Sky”?

    It seems the consensus is that the experts interviewed are in accordance that “Tiana” is a relatively good thing. I am just amazed that the tone of the interview seemed to flow from a “deficit” based framework rather than its inherent and potential strengths. Well, there goes that social worker in me again.

  11. I was disappointed with this article from start to finish. I came to the website because I expected there to be a dialogue about the movie. And, I feel as though I’ve stepped onto a Jim Crow movie set.This title is asinine! Surely, an organization whose ethics and practice standards speak to cultural diversity can present a better title and line of questioning about this movie. The framing of this article was unintelligent and reckless. I’m really shaking my head because I’m baffled by some of the commentary by the interview panel who are in teaching positions of future social workers.

    1) I think the addition of ‘The Princess and the Frog’ is a healthy image for black girls. I also think it is important as ethic identify is often a significant factor in the prevention and amelioration of self-concept and self-esteem with black girls.

    2) It is important for social workers, parents, and teachers to help children distinguish between reality and symbolism. I believe it is highly important for a girl, regardless of race, to have her imagination fostered and learn the power of dreaming. It is equally as important to teach her what does not necessarily translate into reality. For instance, being a princess! A girl may be a princess in her home amongst her family. However, In American society, princes/princesses/queens/and kings are in the fantasy realm. We live in a democracy not an aristocracy.

    3) The question “Should other races go see the movie too?”. This is one of the WORST questions in this article. I don’t recall Disney titling the movie, “The Princess and the Frog: For Coloreds Only”.

    I think it is a disservice when race is discussed and its pedestrian and antiquated! Its 2009, and by now, the memo has been passed amongst the intelligentsia and zeitgeist, that there are people of mixed heritage across the globe. So, step your question game up! I mean, should a girl whose mother is white and father is black NOT go see the movie as family because its a “black cartoon”? There’s an incredible ‘duh’ gap with this question.

    4) “The title itself diminishes from what could be a powerful affirmation going back to the notion that black women just cannot be a true princess” Is Dr. Bent-Goodley stating this in a symbolic sense? As I stated before, symbolism and reality are two different things. As a black woman, I’m not going to lose much sleep on the impossibility of becoming a queen or a princess. Because in reality, I know what the context of that really means ‘off the silver screen’ and honestly, that’s a whole different ‘sim….classism….which I thought we didn’t support in our profession?!

    So, after my rant, I must say that I’ve never relied on Disney to create a positive black image for me. I am that image and have seen that image repeated in my community repeatedly. And, further, after I take the young women in my family to see the movie, then we’ll discuss the realities of the themes.

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