Ah, good question, one I’ve actually been thinking about a bit lately.
I also am not sure. I think she is definitely a reflection of the fact that Disney takes its criticisms to heart and wanted to make a strong (black) princess who desired more than just happily ever after. And to some extent, there will always be feminist issues with Disney princesses because they always involve romance, and for a relationship to completely develop over the course of an hour or so will always be a bit off kilter. (I guess that’s my apology to Disney for critiquing them even though they did try)
So is it a lot better than some of their films? Yes. All princesses have had some redeeming features- they’re not bad people- but Tiana is better than Ariel, who has to lose her voice to gain her (random stranger) man. She’s better than Cinderella, who is pretty much content to marry the guy she just met and live in a castle forever and that’s that. Tiana is a rounded character with multiple concerns and whose happy-ever-after involves more than just a sort of “end.” She still has struggles (in the “ever after”) but these struggles are painted as rewarding, rather than something preventing her from “settling into Princess Life.” And I think that is a very pro-feminist outlook on things.
On the other hand, there IS some ish with this movie. The first thing that struck me was the way they portrayed voodoo, or Vodou/Voodou as it is less commonly, but more accurately, called. And I only knew this from an African migration anthro class I took in college a few years ago so granted, my understanding is limited, but I would have thought Disney would know better because they spend thousands of dollars researching and making sure things are sort of accurate.
"Voodoo" in this movie plays to the stereotype of Vodou most Americans are familiar with- as a sort of undefined, vague belief in spirits and potions and poking fake cloth people with sharp things. This stereotype is directly related though to American racism and the perception of slave religion- it was carried from West Africa to America/Haiti and is really a complex belief system that isn’t just "good witch helps and wears white, bad witch pokes people with sticks to kill them." Racilicious has a very in-depth review of The Princess and the Frog from a race perspective and notes, "It’s because voodoo is an African religious system that it can be treated with such license as though it weren’t a real religion like Christianity or Hinduism." And I think race issue awareness has to be a part of feminist critique because feminism has traditionally tended to exclude women of color, which is why I include it here.
Another, more common, more traditional feminist critique is that, considering she’s our first black Disney princess, and considering she’s supposed to be like “the answer” to a lot of feminist critique of Disney Princesses, she spent an awfully long time as a frog in this movie. Part of it is that this is the obvious “frogs” theme, and I think another part of it is that Disney perceived that she would be seen as less threatening this way than if she was a girl the majority of the time. Disney (and other film companies) tend to believe that little boys will not enjoy movies where the lead character is a girl, and the fact that they decided the girl would usually be a frog (which is more gender neutral in appearance and in perception) seems to speak to this.
As a personal thing, I got a little tired of the constant re-iteration of “hard work! Equals! Good life!” Because yes, it’s true, but it got repeated almost to the extent that it stunted how complex her character could be. And it seemed like Disney went overboard with the repetition theme/under-estimated the intellect of the audience. Took away a little of the magic of… subtly. (And ignores class issues and all sorts of barriers that realistically stand in the way of “making the good life” oftentimes, but I guess that’s another thing altogether).
As a final note, I just really don’t like the way Disney tends to construct its romances and the impression it can give to young girls (and boys) about how love works. They always create this sense of immediacy and urgency, like it’s a 50% off sale ending tomorrow or something- if you don’t get the guy, you’ll be alone forever! If you don’t fall in love, everything will be ruined! Now, obviously, this is never articulated in the movies. But I think it will always be one of the troubling (for me at least) aspects of the princess formulas. In reality, first loves do not usually last, and if they don’t work out, you’ll be okay. There will be other dudes. But in Disney this never feels like an option. Which is expected because the plots would sort of suck if it’s all serious and then she’s like, “Well, this is getting weird, you’re clearly not my type, Okcupid time.” It’s always more like, “You’re not my type, but we’re going to keep getting stuck together long enough that you become my type.” And Disney is obviously not the end-all in what girls grow up to believe, but I think this theme is repeated often enough that it becomes a bit of a belief for many young girls.
But, anyhow, much of this is just conjecture, I don’t know what Disney is thinking or necessarily how other people interpret all this stuff. What are your thoughts? :P
Edit: PS I realize I talked as much about the movie in general as I did about Tiana. It seems to all interrelate though.
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