The Representation of Blackness in Walt Disney's "The Princess and the Frog"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2012 21 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 New Orleans as a Place of ‘Racial Difference’
2.1 New Orleans and Its Colonial History
2.2 The Concept of Creolization

3 The Princess and the Frog and Its Representation of Blackness
3.1 New Orleans as a Place of Racial Harmony where “Dreams Do Come True”
3.2 Tiana as a “Princess for Today” and “the Girl Next Door”

4 Conclusion

Works Cited.

1 Introduction

The latest film in Walt Disney’s animated canon, The Princess and the Frog, marks the return of Disney to traditional 2-D hand-drawn animation. The movie, released in 2009, is the first of its kind since Disney’s movement towards computer-generated animation in the early 21st century. It represents the successor to Disney’s Renaissance of the 1990s, particularly marked by the musical style of storytelling, while starting with The Little Mermaid (1989) and arguably ending with Tarzan (1999). Disney’s Renaissance and its concept of a return to past glory can be considered as the preoccupation of The Princess and the Frog and as a striking signifier of nostalgia (Chowdhury, 25).

Since Disney is the second largest media conglomerate in the world, earning more than $22 billion annually and controlling television networks such as ABC Television Network and Walt Disney Television, it is able to spread its influence across different ages and because of its early and perpetual existence in film dominates aspects of culture. Disney clearly directs the visual representation of fairy tale characters because of the popularity of its films, so that the images shown by the company affect children’s beliefs about good and bad as well as pretty and ugly (Hecht, 7). Considering Disney’s persistent influence, it is important to study the way in which the company plays this leading role in the lives of young people all over the world (ibid. 2).

The Princess and the Frog immediately captured the media’s and critics’ attention since the heroine and later princess, Tiana, is Disney’s first African-American protagonist. There was probably no way for Disney to avoid debate over this choice and as expected, there was plenty of controversy swirling around the film and its first black princess. Critics discussed about the protagonist’s too light skin tone, her being a frog for a potion of the movie, the setting of the film, the prince not being black and stereotyping in general. Some scholars claim that the timely release of the film in the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency renders The Princess and the Frog an appropriate marker of America’s so-called ‘new age’ of racial harmony: While a black president resides in the White House, a black princess lives in the Disney castle. But in the same way as the celebration of Obama’s ‘change’ may have been an overly optimistic perception of America and its racial politics, overestimating Disney’s attempt to create a black princess and represent New Orleans’ racial plurality through African American stereotypes and cultural clichés in a film, such as beignet and voodoo, is also problematic (Chowdhury, 26).

Anyway, the decision to set The Princess and the Frog in 1920s New Orleans is crucial when considering the city’s history as a center of trade and its colonial past. New Orleans, as the most African city in the United States referring to spirit (G. Hall, 59), characterizes Tiana’s blackness and the multiculturalism depicted in the film.

When the characters sing “Dreams Do Come True in New Orleans” (Newman), the city – though accurately and authentically depicted – is presented as a dreamspace with racial harmony, contrary to the real New Orleans at that time. In this context, the peculiar absence of racial tension throughout the film might be an approach to overwrite the problematic position the city occupies in the minds of many Americans with a romantic fairy tale by Disney. Therefore it can be said that The Princess and the Frog serves as a tourist brochure for the city which makes viewers nostalgically look back.

To prove my theses of how blackness is formed in The Princess and the Frog, I will have a closer look at the setting of the Disney-movie since New Orleans, which is often considered as a place of ‘racial difference’, plays an important role in the film’s construction of blackness. At first I will give a brief overview of the city’s colonial history before explaining the concept of Creolization and link this idea to New Orleans. In the following part of my paper, I will analyze the representation of blackness in Walt Disney’s film The Princess and the Frog by on the one hand referring to the setting and its depiction and on the other hand taking into account Tiana, the first African American princess, and her illustration in the film. Due to limitations of space and since the portrayals of New Orleans and Tiana provide lots of interesting material for an analysis, the display of voodoo and the study of other characters in the film is omitted in this paper. Finally, in the conclusion I sum up my findings and elaborate on an issue, or respectively, answer a question which was often posed and discussed about after the release of the film: Does Disney neglect stereotypes in The Princess and the Frog or promote them?

2 New Orleans as a Place of ‘Racial Difference’

2.1 New Orleans and Its Colonial History

“As it enters its fourth century, New Orleans remains proudly apart from the rest of the United States. Intoxicating and addictive, the product of a dizzying jumble of cultures, peoples and influences, it’s a place where people dance at funerals and hold parties during hurricanes, where some of the world’s finest musicians make ends meet busking on street corners, and fabulous Creole cuisine is dished up in hole-in-the-wall dives.” (Cook, X)

This depiction of New Orleans shows that the city seems to be special and different from other towns. And indeed, especially New Orleans’ history marks the city as extraordinary and in a way unique.

New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718 on the swampy flood plain of the lower Mississippi River and is almost entirely surrounded by water (Cook, X). In sum, the city’s history can be characterized by colonization and slavery, before Louisiana finally became part of the United Stated in 1803 as it remains till today (G. Hall, 58). Thereby three major levels of colonization can be stated, the French colonizing (1718-1769), the Spanish era (1769-1803) and the early American era from 1803 to 1825 (Dawdy, 273). Each wave of colonialism brought tremendous changes to the city –demographically, economically and last but not least culturally. Cook states that eventually in 1803, New Orleans was “a cosmopolitan city whose ethnically diverse population had mingled to create a distinctive Creole culture” (Cook, XI) and Hall arguably claims that New Orleans, in reference to spirit, remains the “most African city in the United States” (G. Hall, 59). All in all, Robinson also underlines New Orleans’ special cultural nature and outlines that:

“it is perhaps its plurality which is its most constantly dynamic quality, the factor which most contributes to its asserted special status: its cultural identity is as unstable as its swampy foundations.” (Robinson, 97)

It is impossible to comprehend New Orleans, its history and its cultural, racial and ethnic diversity without dealing with the concept of ‘Creole’ and ‘Creolization’ which contributes to New Orleans’ past and presence and is so important to understand the spirit of the city now and then.

2.2 The Concept of Creolization

In New Orleans, the process of Creolization extends to almost all aspects of culture, whereby local variations serve as a signature of the region. The concept or story behind the term helps to understand New Orleans, its character and popular events, such as Mardi Gras, because it suggests a comprehensive and dynamic phenomenon of cultural give and take, invention and reinvention as well as dialogue and disagreement (Abrahams, 27f.).

Creolization can be defined as a process of intermixing and cultural change – including aspects of acculturation and interculturation – that produces a Creole society after people of historically unrelated backgrounds and origin came into contact and changed over time (Ashcroft, 58). As an identifying term Creolization mainly emerged in the context of European colonization, when millions of Africans were enslaved and forcibly shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas where they were forced to coexist under brutal conditions, e.g. in plantation societies (Juang, 315). According to Glissant, the context of slavery, the plantations and the associated tensions and struggles were even necessary requisites for the emergence of Creoles (S. Hall, 28f.). Given this framework, Creolization always entails inequality, hierarchy, issues of domination and subalternity as well as control and mastery (ibid. 28).

Throughout the Americas and the whole world, the concepts of Creole and Creolization have been redefined over time for social reasons and have several different meanings (G. Hall, 60). The result is that the ideas now are used in many different contexts and generally in an inconsistent way (Block, 5). The terms represent two of the most misunderstood and most frequently misused words in American English which shows that neither a definition nor application of the term can be absolute or universal (Juang, 380), so that Allen even demands:

“Do we all mean the same thing when we say ‘creole’ and ‘creolisation’? The difficulty of defining this word with precision obliges writers to state the meaning they intend.” (Allen, 33)

Many scholars, such as Stuart Hall and James Dorman, further explain the terms and their origins or use and approach them on different levels in their text, which can in detail – due to limitations of space – not be done in this paper.

Briefly elaborating on that, Stuart Hall makes use of the word ‘Creolization’ in the context of a historical ongoing process, while James Dorman approaches the concept in a more specific way, focusing on black Creoles in Louisiana and their conception of identity in opposition to the white and African part of the population. According to Dorman, Creolization is a process of Creole exclusivity and places Creoles in a social margin, living for themselves and neither being accepted by white or black people. When clarifying the background of the term ‘Creole’ Stuart Hall states that the expression could be used linguistically, depicting a language and sociologically, standing for a society (S. Hall, 27). In this context, he discusses three dimensions of Creolization: the présence africaine, presence européenne and presence américaine, eventually stating that the Creole is not a fixed ethnicity (ibid. 30).

While scholars vary in their explanation of the origin of the term ‘Creole’ either first standing for a slave of African descent born in the New World before it was extended to include Europeans (G. Hall, 60) or vice versa, meaning only whites of European descent born and raised in a tropical colony and being later extended to include indigenous natives and others of non-European origin (Ashcroft, 57), Ostendorf summarizes that Creole can always be applied to a kind of colored, colonial or corrupted person and somebody being created (Ostendorf, 2). Agreeing on this explanation of the term, Buisseret argues that the different forms of the word Creole and Creolization still have “in common the idea of describing something that is born or developed in the New World, and this is at the heart of the concept” (Buisseret, 6).

While Creole culture is inclusive of language, music and dance, Creoles are certainly best known for their food, which gains its popularity from its signature blending of West African, Caribbean, French and Spanish cuisine (Juang, 315). However, as associated with colonialism throughout the African diaspora, ‘Creole’ takes on variable meanings, as the constituent elements of the cultural blend change according to particular location (ibid. 315f.)

Focusing on the American South, particularly New Orleans provides a rich array of contrasting experiences of Creolization (Block, 11). In the United States, ‘Creole’ almost exclusively refers to the people and culture of southeastern Louisiana, where especially African, Spanish and French influences were deeply rooted throughout Louisiana’s history. Louisiana Creoles are people of multiracial and multicultural heritage, usually a combination of the above mentioned ancestries (Juang, 315). As a result, in New Orleans there are both black and white Creoles and many people who are somewhere between black and white (Block, 12).

To sum it up, where different cultures meet, are forced to live together and cultural interaction and conflicts appear, a cultural mixture emerges. ‘Creolization’ refers to the process through which new African American cultures came to light in the New World, showing how the slaves adapted their Old World cultures. However, these new cultures did not develop because they left the old ones behind but rather because the situations that they were confronted with – in the slave pens in Africa, on slavers traveling across the Atlantic, in slave markets in America, and on the plantations where most of them lived out their lives –were unprecedented (Sidbury, 624f.).



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Ruhr-University of Bochum – Englisches Seminar
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Title: The Representation of Blackness in Walt Disney's "The Princess and the Frog"