Jiminy Crickets! Is Disney’s First Black Princess Too Little, Too Late?
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.| Leave A Comment