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The Strange Case of The Princess and the Frog: Passing and the Elision of Race

Abstract

This paper examines the negotiations of race in The Princess and the Frog within the dual contexts of its setting and release. Central to these negotiations are Tiana’s racial identity and her passing as a frog, as well as the film’s attempt to pass as an African American princess narrative. In the process of excavating the film’s racial contexts, this paper also addresses its reception by American critics, as well as how Disney, in its hypersensitivity to racial issues and its desire to fulfill so many competing agendas, has paradoxically created an animated feature which generally elides race, even as it redeploys multiple racial stereotypes. This paper concludes by (re)considering the implications of a black Disney princess who spends more time onscreen in green and embraces a hyper-ethos of hard work, as well as how the simulated selves on display renegotiate notions of racial identity in the twenty-first century.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This problematic confluence becomes immediately clear if one were to envision the film as a theatrical production, i.e., with black actors on stage. The animated medium allows the black voice to remain disembodied, however to see this as advantageous is only to laud what in other contexts might be seen as disenfranchising/ dis-figuring woman and woman’s unified (onscreen) identity.

  2. 2.

    This applies to human characters. When the character is not human, e.g., Ariel of The Little Mermaid (Clements and Musker 1989), the transformation (to a human) is seen as reflecting a character asset, e.g., true love or a deep and sincere conviction. In other words, the black princess’s desires in The Princess and the Frog make her a frog while those of the white mermaid princess make her human. I will discuss Tiana’s subsequent re-transformation (back into a human) later in this essay.

  3. 3.

    For more on the use of blackface by black actors in early American cinema, see, respectively, Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (1973 [2007]), and Spike Lee’s film, Bamboozled (2000). One could envision a reinvocation of the Segreration-era rejoinder with regard to the role of Tiana—as Hattie McDaniel famously stated, “Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making seven dollars a week actually being one!” (qtd. in Bogle 1973 [2007]:82)

  4. 4.

    As a producer of the film, Peter Del Vecho, stated in May of 2009, “We feel a great responsibility to get this right. Every artistic decision is being carefully thought out” (qtd. in Barnes 2009a).

  5. 5.

    A recent instance of this would be the Boston cop who referred to Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as a monkey. Specifically, Justin Barrett, of the Boston Police Department, referred to Gates in a mass email as a “banana-eating jungle monkey.” Interestingly enough, he then went on to state, “I am not a racist” (qtd. in Slansky 2010:30). Following Barrett’s analogy, one could say Tiana is depicted as a “fly-eating bayou frog.” One might also recall the earlier comments of the white LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, likening blacks to gorillas (in the mist). None of these are ‘slips’ so much as apt reflections of a deep-seated view—stemming back to the original language of the US Constitution—of blacks as animals or, more precisely, subhuman.

  6. 6.

    Tiana’s human role—a waitress—also follows Bogle’s delineated genealogy of types available to black actresses in American cinema.

  7. 7.

    Disney executives, naturally, think people should stop jumping to conclusions about The Princess and the Frog (Barnes 2009a). This approach—of just enjoying the film without giving it (too) much thought—informs much of the discourse surrounding the film, as we shall see below. The implication seems to be that if you do (think about it), you won’t like it as much.

  8. 8.

    The driver of the streetcar is white and, though he lets them board, he noticeably neither smiles at them nor exchanges any salutation save a curt upturn of his head. Tiana and her mother wordlessly walk to the back. In this silent performance, then, one can trace the mutually recognized—and respected—color line, by both the white driver and the other white passenger who sits in the front, and Tiana, her mother and the other black passenger, seated behind.

  9. 9.

    While we do not actually see Tiana’s father enlist, his subsequent photo in a WWI uniform, on Tiana’s chest of drawers, along with his subsequent absence, leads one to infer that he participated and died in this war.

  10. 10.

    Most predominant among these troubling connotations would be that of David Duke, white nationalist and former Grand Wizard of the KKK, as well as a former Republican state representative in Louisiana, who advocates voluntary racial segregation and white separatism.

  11. 11.

    Tiana, who since a young age has professed a disgust towards the act of kissing a frog, is only convinced to do so when Prince Naveen (as frog) offers her “some type of reward” in return, noting his (alleged) financial assets and her own desire to open a restaurant, a dream she lacks the capital to fully finance.

  12. 12.

    This is the only reference—albeit oblique—to Tiana’s race in the movie. Judging by the look on her face when the comment is made, she clearly grasps the (racial) implication and, indeed, recalls the comment at a later point in the narrative, a clear indication that it still resonates within her.

  13. 13.

    This moment before the mirror calls to mind another earlier “passing” narrative, that of Imitation of Life (Stahl 1934), in which Peola, the “tragic mulatto” who, like Clare of Passing, is light-skinned but designated “black,” looks at herself in the mirror and asks, “Is that not a white girl you see there?” Brooks Barnes (2009a) also picks up on this mirror metaphor, noting, “For the first time in Walt Disney animation history, the fairest of them all is black” though, of course, at this particular moment before the mirror, she is green.

  14. 14.

    Green conveys quite a few connotations which are relevant (and interrelated) here, including money (which Facilier equates with freedom), gullibility (which in many ways leads all three—Naveen, Lawrence and Tiana—to succumb to Facilier’s magic), and also jealousy (i.e., of those with lots of greenbacks) and a sickly appearance. It is also interesting that, at the end of the film, Tiana’s dress is green, a point to which I will return later.

  15. 15.

    “Maldonia” seems to imply a rather hybrid etymology, including partial references to (and invocations of) the Maldives, Moldovia (or Moldova), Mongolia, as well as Macedonia. The name, indeed, seems to reflect the meaning behind the French term for the native of the latter country, “Macédoine,” that is, a mixture or medley. What is clear, then, is that Disney has gone out of its way to keep Naveen’s “roots” unclear.

  16. 16.

    This reference comes from Fanon’s discussion of Jean Veneuse, a young (black) Frenchman from the Antilles who loves a (white) Frenchwoman yet feels unworthy of her due to the color of his skin. In trying to convince Veneuse of his worthiness as a suitor, the brother of the young woman tells Veneuse that he is not black but, indeed, merely ‘extremely brown’. See “The Man of Color and the White Woman,” in Black Skin, White Masks (1952 [1991]). Needless to say, Naveen’s (ambiguous) racial identity has also created somewhat of a stir, with some, such as Angela Bronner Helm, writing for Black Voices, an AOL website dedicated to African American culture, claiming that “Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince,” that Naveen’s “hair and features are decidedly non-black,” and that “this has left many in the community shaking their head [sic] in befuddlement and even rage.” Meanwhile others, such as Disney spokespersons, say that he is not white (Barnes 2009a). One possibility might be that Naveen is from Pondicherry, the French colonial outpost near the southeastern tip of India—or, rather, that “Maldonia” lies in close proximity to this site of cultural and regional confluence. The character’s voice, meanwhile, is provided by a Brazilian actor, Bruno Campos.

  17. 17.

    To my knowledge, there is only one prior film that explores the romantic relationship between an African American and a PIO, Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991). However, in this film, the PIO is the female character, Meena (Sarita Choudhury), and the male character, Demetrius, is African American (played by Denzel Washington). Nevertheless, similar racial confusion abounds in Nair’s film regarding the PIO’s ethnic identity, with some labeling her Mexican and others, white. The key difference between this racial confusion and that of P&F is that, in Nair’s film, it is thematized and simultaneously clarified.

  18. 18.

    Given all the brouhaha over Naveen’s racial identity, one might speculate that the possibility of creating child-friendly social spaces within the confines of the (segregated) city for Tiana and Naveen would have been somewhat difficult, to say the least. Imagine, for instance, the difficulty of adroitly carrying off a romantic dinner date sequence in a restaurant that refused to seat the couple, or of traveling with ease in a city that strictly enforced racial segregation laws. It is in light of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles that the couple’s transformation into frogs, complete with the bayou setting, can be seen as an attractive alternative for screenwriters simultaneously juggling the multiple balls—segregated reality, interracial romance, animated fantasy—that Disney has launched into the air with this film.

  19. 19.

    Given all the tongue on display, one might label this a “French kiss,” yet it still lacks any of the amorous quality on display when Lady’s and Tramp’s lips accidentally meet while eating pasta and being serenaded in the back alley of an Italian restaurant by the accordion-playing owner.

  20. 20.

    This moment also invokes the musical Show Boat (Hammerstein and Kern 1927), also set during Segregation, in which the white character Steve cuts his mulatto love Julie’s hand and swallows a drop of her blood, so that they may bypass the ban on miscegenation and legally marry.

  21. 21.

    The assumption here—again, we only catch a brief glimpse of these intermediary actions—is that Naveen has provided the promised financial assistance to Tiana, thus allowing her to finally secure her “place” from the haughty Fenner Brothers. More on this line of speculation follows below.

  22. 22.

    This becomes a particular cause of concern for this hybrid couple (with its possible PIO) in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), which stated that Indians could not become naturalized citizens of the US because they were not white. Again one sees why Disney may have decided to keep Naveen’s precise ethnic identity unclear.

  23. 23.

    Along with “Tiana’s Place,” some of the other geographically obscure locations of this film include the previously noted “Maldonia,” as well as the bayou. It is precisely the cultural underpinnings of these nebulous signifiers (as tropes) that become crucial to the attempt to “locate” the racial dynamics of this elusive film.

  24. 24.

    A cursory explanation—echoing Naveen’s initial response—might be that this is because Tiana is not actually a “princess.” Then again, neither was Cinderella.

  25. 25.

    Given the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Thind case (see note 22), however, coupled with his possible PIO status and presumed wealth, one could also describe Naveen’s situation in such terms.

  26. 26.

    Tiana(-as-frog/princess) is also a strange hybrid in the sense that, unlike most animated Disney protagonists, she is neither fully human nor animal for the duration of the film but, instead, splits her time between these two forms. This may, in turn, create a difficulty, particularly for younger audience members, in identifying with her as a unified character.

  27. 27.

    As Brooks Barnes noted in May of 2009, “Getting The Princess and the Frog right is of enormous importance to Disney. The company needs hits, as evidenced by a recently announced 97 percent drop in quarterly profit. The Disney Princess merchandising line is a $4 billion annual business and the company has plans for Tiana to be everywhere. Get ready for Tiana dresses, elaborate dolls and Halloween costumes” (2009a).

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Correspondence to Ajay Gehlawat.

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Gehlawat, A. The Strange Case of The Princess and the Frog: Passing and the Elision of Race. J Afr Am St 14, 417–431 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12111-010-9126-1

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Keywords

  • Segregation
  • Passing
  • Transformation
  • Miscegenation
  • Disney
  • Racial fantasy