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Category: Art and Entertainment, Race/Ethnicity

Finally, the Magical World of Disney Is About to Include an African American Princess

| June 15, 2009

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Granted, it’s a fairy tale—the furthest thing from reality. But a wide audience of little girls is likely to take Tiana, the new Disney character, to heart. The author asks how likely is it that the mainstream company can produce an effective role model for them.

When I first heard that Disney was releasing an animated film starring a black princess this November, I was excited, yet skeptical. Disney has attempted to fulfill its diversity quota in animation before with films like AladdinMulan, and Pocahontas. While these films achieved their box office busting goals and won the hearts of many little girls and boys, some would argue that they still left much to be desired in terms of racial, cultural and gender representation. The Disney production machine has remained relatively unchanged—can Tiana be any more authentic? 

Tiana stars in the soon-to-be Disney classic The Princess and the Frog. A remarkable moment for American children’s media, she has come into an environment where Dora the Explorer, a pre-school animated series featuring a Latina, has become a national heroine for toddlers and their families–despite or because of her brown skin and magical Spanish words. Arguably, mainstream white audiences are ready for Tiana thanks to the long road paved by Dora and other animated favorites such as the bilingual twins Maya and Miguel and Little Bill, based on Bill Cosby’s book series.

Despite these gains an international study(International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television, Germany) shows that still the “ratio of male to female characters in animation programmes … is as disparate as 87 percent male to 13 percent female” and that “72 percent of all main characters in children’s television are Caucasian,” with these proportions holding true in film and other forms of media. Headed by Maya Götz, along with scholars from more than a dozen countries around the world, the study posits that for children to really be engaged in any program, including animation, it is not unreasonable to expect that viewers be able to identify with the characters along the basic lines of gender and ethnicity. The Princess and the Frog has, thus, garnered a storm of media attention in its attempt to address this need—and boost Disney’s marketability across varying demographics.

Ultimately, however, the underlying issue here is not whether Disney will get this “right” by creating an accurate portrayal of a black princess. After all, we are talking about fairy tale here, which never have realistic depictions of anything, especially race and gender. Still, nuances are important, and, with Disney we have a homogeneous mainstream giant with white male directors and producers trying to construct a character based on a cultural and ethnic experience that is not their own.

It is admirable that, according to The New York Times, Disney has consulted with selected theater owners, the NAACP and Oprah Winfrey. And at least Tiana’s voice belongs to Tony Award-winning African American singer and actress, Anika Noni Rose. Nonetheless, as blogger Stephanie Daniels puts it, you have to be “wary of the thought of white folks writing about black folks and presenting it to black children.” What needs to be addressed is the lack of women of color in positions of authority—a need that the Götz study shows is spread throughout mainstream children’s media—who can conceive of strong female characters of color based on personal experiences within their culture and communities. Given this deficiency in its creative and executive positions, it should be of no surprise that Disney is struggling here. Until we can fill the director’s chairs, the production houses, and the writers’ rooms with these women, we cannot expect accurate portrayals or truly powerful role models for girls of color.

Disney will, predictably, do its mega media marketing magic and inundate malls, billboards and after-school TV ad slots with toys and other commercial images of Tiana leading up to the movie’s release. And there is no doubt that many little girls of color will be drawn to Tiana. As Women’s Media Center President Carol Jenkins aptly noted during a CBS news segment, this is an incredible validation for little girls of color who are for the most part invisible. My hope, however, is that Tiana’s mainstream appearance—controversy and all—will pave the way for all children’s media companies to not only continue embracing animated female protagonists of color, but to value the work of women of color, who have the license and authority to create authentic and imaginative characters for our children, our communities and beyond.

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