Disney may be at the heart of many people’s childhood, myself included, but there’s no denying that the lessons at the heart of Disney movies can be defined as “suspect” at best. Whether people want to acknowledge them or not, at the heart of many Disney films lies heavily shrouded messages about perpetuating gender stereotypes, vaguely racist sentiments, and all around questionable morals. However, the time of the Disney dictatorship shows signs of cracking as we see different attitudes and different approaches to one of the Disney staples, the princess movie.
One of the most remarkable breaks from the “typical princess” movie occurred in 2009, with The Princess and the Frog. There was a glut of media attention for the film for portraying an African-American princess, but was really at work was something much bigger. The film tells the story of a young woman, Tiana, who is a victim of circumstances when she is turned into a frog and finds herself helping a spoiled, rich prince as they both try to find a way to reverse the curse and become human again. While one could argue that the film is, indeed, not progressive considering it relegates a number of its African-American characters to animals, there’s a great deal of complexity to the film and most notably, in relation to the character of Tiana.
First and foremost, it is important to recognize how Tiana fits into the world that the Disney film creates. True, she’s a somewhat remarkable character in the film, but this serves to make her a far more interesting character than the standard princess. What I mean by that is that, even though she doesn’t fit into the setting of the film, this makes for a richer character that deserves the audience’s focus. Disney princesses have a long history of not fitting in, such as Belle in Beauty & the Beast, but the way that they tend to accentuate this is by making them loners. Although Tiana is established as independent, this movie does well to not characterize her as anti-social. In fact, there’s a specific character in the film that serves not only as a friend to Tiana, but as an anti-thesis as well. The character of Charlotte, exists almost solely to offset the traits of Tiana. Whereas Tiana is quiet and independent, in addition to being African-American, Charlotte is boisterous and constantly throwing herself at the prince in a pitiful attempt to secure herself a husband. What is most impressive about The Princess and the Frog is that this character of Charlotte could easily be made unlikable or dismissed, the film establishes a relationship between the two. besides being one of complete opposites, they are friends, with the issue of Tiana’s race and Charlotte’s well-to-do nature being of little to no importance. Certainly there is the issue of the fact that Tiana works for Charlotte, but this is neither servile nor demeaning. Instead, the two are treated as friends, rather than master and servant.
Furthermore, this undeniable element of Tiana working for Charlotte never seems to be an issue of race. rather, it is used to help create a richer and more dimensional character in Tiana. Early on in the movie, it is established that Tiana toils over her jobs and works hard at everything she does. Rather than being turned into a case of necessity, like she has to do this, it is made clear that it is merely her work ethic. The character seems to believe in doing something right and taking pride in one’s work. Once again, this could be written off, but it works to create something almost entirely unheard of in a Disney movie, a princess with a work ethic. This idea is even expanded upon in several key sequences, the earliest of which is Tiana’s scene with her mother in which she envisions the dream restaurant she plans on opening. She has ambitions. In fact, when it comes down to it, she essentially refuses the idea of becoming a princess in favor of her own dreams. In the end, she finds a way to accomplish both the perpetuated Disney dream of becoming a princess with the dreams of her own.
The Princess and the Frog may seem, to some, to be a troubling attempt at creating a politically correct fairy tale, to compensate for years of Disney’s wrongdoing. However, upon closer examination, the issue of race which was so heavily publicized is, in many ways, rendered a non-issue for the characters themselves, and subsequently the audience. This should not be read as discounting the importance of an African-American princess, but rather, as an attempt to normalize the phenomenon. Furthermore, besides teh racial aspect, Disney created an entirely new princess when Tiana broke onto the silver screen. With this film, Disney created a long overdue female representation of independence and ambition; one who no longer felt the need to adhere to teh traditional gender stereotypes that had been set out by the princesses before her. With The Princess and the Frog, Disney ushered in the age of the postmodern princess.