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Why The Princess and the Frog is no big deal



I think I've had enough of the hoopla surrounding the new Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog.

But before I opine further, here's a little background: For the first time in the company's history, Disney has finally introduced a black princess as the lead in one of its features. The company that has given us some of the most iconic characters (Mickey Mouse), theme parks, television shows, films -- you name it, they've done it -- has introduced Princess Tiana: a young, beautiful girl who goes on an adventure through the Louisiana bayou. Like many Disney movies, there's a prince, a father figure, a character with unconventional beauty and mystical fantasies. And finally, there's a princess who looks like me. I think I'm supposed to be grateful, but in the words of Rhett Butler, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."

Why not? Because one film does not make up for decades of racist and sexist imagery that has defined Disney's characterization of blacks and women. While I understand the need for young girls to have access to images that look like them in order to have some validation from the very media that permeates every facet of their life, I do not accept Princess Tiana as restitution for years of wrongdoing. What I do not understand is the throngs of black folk running behind this character as if it is new, when in fact, there have been black princesses in the history of people of African descent since the beginning of time. Why are we following suit and taking our cultural cues from a cartoon?

My friends know that I do not support Disney in general because of Walt Disney's long history of anti-Semitism and apparent loathing of all things not white, male and Protestant. In my mind, Walt Disney and his images, which reflect his perverted ideology, are nothing to aspire to or certainly mimic; he went about the business of cultural imperialism through the making and marketing of figures that seem harmless but are in fact harmful.

Now, before you get your panties in a bunch, I'm not saying that white men are harmful or perverted. I am saying that continuously circulating the same image of dominant, white male superiority damages everyone, including white men, who may not fit that image. I understand that some people like to paint white men as invincible, but that takes away from their humanity.

Some of you are probably wondering, "Why all of the drama over fictional characters?" Animated cartoons, through which Disney has earned the bulk of its money and reputation, can be some of the most harmful programming to which children are exposed. Many of the characters are given "human" behavioral and psychological qualities that reflect dominant stereotypes about certain groups in media and society.

We sit our kids down, at the most crucial time of their development, and offer them cartoons, many of which suggest who they are and what they will become. Just because there is singing, dancing, music and lots of color does not mean that cartoons are suitable for children. When children are forming their identities and perception of the world, it is not prudent to sit them down for hours at a time in front of a television because cartoons are "harmless."

Which leads me back to Disney's perverted characterization of blacks, some animated and some not, over the years. Sunflower the Centaur in Fantasia (1940), the crows from Dumbo (1941), Uncle Remus in Song of the South (1946), King Louie in The Jungle Book (1967), Sebastian the crab from The Little Mermaid (1989) and Shenzi the hyena in The Lion King (1994) offer some of the most heinous characterizations of blacks in film history. Shiftless, lazy, alcoholics, uneducated, in service to others -- you name it, they do it ... and that's just off the top of my head.

At any rate, The Princess and the Frog has made a splash and people are excited. I get being able to take your daughter to see a princess that "looks like her" ... finally. I get being able to have a mother/daughter experience surrounding the "fantasy" of the princess finding her prince. I get having a young black girl as the center of the narrative instead of residing on the margins or being completely invisible. Because of the role that we allow media to play in the lives of our children, I get the need to have your child represented as mainstream and the norm instead of the exception.

But what I want you to get is that we should not look to Disney to validate our existence, particularly when we have a rich history and tradition of royalty. Look to yourselves, museums and history books to find affirming images -- real images -- of people who look like you or someone you know. Princess Nefertari (1290-1254 B.C.E.), Yennenga (12th century) and Nzinga (16th century), for example, were all African princesses who eventually became queens. If that isn't enough of a real story to warrant a fictional film, then I don't know what is.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College and writes the blog Tune N (, which examines popular culture through the lens of race, class, gender and sexuality.

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