Disney's First Black Princess

Frog-Princess-a-webThis Disney project "The Princess and The Frog" has been bubbling and in development for months if not years, and the controversy is already months old, if not years. The first complaints I heard were that the princess's name "Maddy" was wrong, sounded too close to "mammy", so they changed it to "Tiana." Reminds me of that skit on SNL where Nicolas Cage played "Asswipe Johnson", pronounced "Os-wee-pay".

Yesterday I saw a short article about bloggers complaining that Tiana's male love interest is light-skinned, supposedly South American but could pass for White. Does this mean Disney is afraid to portray a Black prince, or a strong black male character? Or that they fear the white audience in the US will be turned off by seeing a black male character with more screen time than the crows from Dumbo? Or just a black male as part of a couple?

I understand the complaint that Disney underrepresents sympathetic black males, but to complain about it in this instance veers pretty close to complaining about inter-racial relationships. The complaint should be that Disney still needs more blacks and more non-whites in general, not that they should have had a black male love interest in this case.

The counter-argument is that Disney thinks:
We can't pair up 2 dark-skinned people in the same movie, because it might automatically alienate a certain group of the film's potential audience - read, white people. So, just as we do with live action pictures, in order to guarantee rich box office returns, we'll cast a black woman/man, with a white man/woman, in a love story.

How often do we get to see love stories on screen featuring 2 obviously black people in the starring roles?

[AtlasBlack quoted on This Black Sista's Page. I'm not sure if the emphasis is original or added by This Black Sista.]

On the one hand, do white Americans of average racist level really have better reactions to mixed couples than to black couples? Maybe there have been polls or studies on this, but I would think racists would prefer to see blacks paired with blacks, in cases where they tolerate seeing blacks at all. I'm not taking it as given.

On the other hand, even if it were true that racists felt more at ease seeing mixed couples than black couples, you're leaving yourself open to the same kind of second guessing from critics who favor inter-racial couples. They're only showing a black couple because they're opposed to mixed couples, just like when Mowgli from The Jungle Book complained that different species should stay separate from each other. We can't show a mixed couple in a movie, because it might alienate a certain group of the film's potential audience - read, anti-mixing black bloggers and critics.

I've learned from too many flamewars and disintegrating debates online that guessing people's motivations is foolish. If a behavior or a claim or a policy is wrong, then the best thing to do is talk about why it is wrong. Talking about what motivates the behavior or claim or policy is just speculation. It can't be proven but it can't be disproven, which means that you can sit around all day speculating about the dark intent of your opponent. They can do the same about you, and you can't disprove them either. You could guess that my motivation is racism for criticizing black critics, and that it's obvious because I'm white. If my arguments are wrong, why not pick apart the arguments directly, instead of speculating about my motivation?

Anyway, after reading articles and blogs about it, I concluded that this is a battle Disney can't win no matter what they do. There's always going to be some angle that critics will pick at.

But now I'm thinking of the main audience, tiny kids who will watch this three times every day for months until they scratch the dvd too badly and have to buy another copy.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that most people, black and white, will enjoy this movie as much as any recent Disney feature they've seen, and they'll praise it in the same way that they praised Obama -- in spite of complaints by black critics that his background doesn't reflect most African-Americans, or that his policies aren't good for African-Americans. (Personally I think his escalation in Afghanistan is a bad policy for Americans and African-Americans and Afghans and humans, but I don't regret voting for him as the most viable, least worst candidate.)

My new conclusion is Disney can't win with the critics, but they'll probably win with kids and their main audience. Ten or fifty years from now, the children and grandchildren of the critics will probably embrace it as a positive if flawed milestone.

[Feel free to re-read and re-apply this blog post as necessary to each new controversy that springs up about this movie.]


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