Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Politics of 'Princess and the Frog''s Representations

Sean recently called my attention to this article by Neal Gabler about the forthcoming animated Disney feature, The Princess and the Frog (2009). The intent, clearly, is to head-off potential criticisms for its depiction of race. Case in point is the relatively mild debate about the new film (be sure to read the comments at the bottom--my favorite is the obliviously hypocritical: "It's people like you that like to start DRAMA!!!").

Opening tomorrow, The Princess and the Frog is the entirely animated story of an African-American princess living in 1920s New Orleans—the first Disney animated film to feature a Black lead.

While media scholars have stopped asking the question of how "positive" or "negative" Hollywood representations of African-Americans are, it persists in popular culture. Such questions are often too historically and culturally-contingent to be of much use as generalizable categories, but general audiences often hold on to these ideals as they do Oscars--there needs to be a (completely arbitrary) narrative of achievement to stabilize a personal set of beliefs.

After working ginglerly, at times even inaccurately, through the history of Disney's problematic conception of non-white identities, Gabler ends with the following utopic pronouncement:
But when "The Princess and the Frog" opens in Los Angeles and New York on Nov. 25 and the rest of the country on Dec. 11, it may turn out not to be a contradiction of Walt Disney's racial vision; it may be a fulfillment of it. And Walt will be resting quite comfortably in his grave.

Gabler's a smart guy, who's done the research on Disney (he's one of the few to have access to the archives), but he's trying too hard to put a good spin on something that just cannot be idealized for historical and cultural reasons. It is what it is.

It's not a "good" thing that Disney is finally telling a story with an African-American heroine--its at best an ambivalent mitigation of a problematic past that cannot be erased, or overcome. And no, Douglas Brode's revisionist, quasi-academic book does not present a convincing argument about Walt Disney's early commitment to multiculturalism. When it comes to gender, race and class, Disney has been, and still is, always behind the curve.

The film's release, as Gabler's article shows, coexists with Disney's unflattering history--the fact that it took 70-plus years to finally center a film on this type of protagonist is always already as insulting and demoralizing as it is uplifting. And many audiences know this: “Why won't they release Song of the South?,” asks an anonymous poster sarcastically on the popular film website, Ain’t It Cool News, “you know the one where the black lead wasn't allowed to attend the premiere? ZIP A DEE DOO DAA!.”

In March of 2007, Emil Thomas wrote in the Sun Reporter, an Oakland paper geared to an African-American audience, about the forthcoming film. “Over the last 70 years, Disney has created a pantheon of eight princesses . . . ,” he wrote, “None are African-American.”

As with most discussions of the new film, Thomas sees Princess and the Frog’s racially utopic potential as co-existing with Disney’s problematic legacy. He added that:
Not only has Disney neglected black females in their Hollywood dream factory, they have created some of the most offensive stereotypes of African-Americans. If you don’t believe me, check out Uncle Remus in Song of the South or the crows in Dumbo next time you get a chance. Far from being benign, such images damage the self-esteem of black children, while planting racist ideas in the minds of white kids.

However, Thomas at least was cautiously optimistic about the newest film, recognizing that it was an attempt to atone for past sins and that the new film could still have a positive effect on black and white children now, who might grow up to create a better future. “One small part of the remedy [to past discrimination],” wrote Thomas, “may be in the dreams we allow our children to dream.”

However, not everyone was as optimistic. That same month, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show was much more skeptical about the forthcoming film. “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore discussed the film in relation to Disney’s history of representing (or not) African-Americans:
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He too noted the many numerous Disney princesses, including a half-human princess in The Little Mermaid (1989), that preceded an African-American one. Having a black princess in New Orleans invoked from him an implicit Katrina reference (“I saw blacks on TV there once, on roofs”). Wilmore too mentioned Song of the South as a rare Disney representation of African-Americans, along with the crows in Dumbo.

He then noted that there were no blacks in The Lion King, despite being set in Africa, and (satirically) that they edited out the sole African-American Dwarf, named “Angry.” Why? Because “Brothers don’t whistle while they work,” he told the show’s host, Jon Stewart. A few days later, Wilmore was interviewed by the New York Times about the piece, developing further the general critique of Disney’s decidedly white vision.

Regardless of how the film ultimately works textually, The Princess and the Frog could never be a purely "positive" representation of African-Americans, in no small part because of its studio legacy, and will raise the same issues of ambivalence that Disney’s other films, such as Song of the South, have for decades. However positively or negatively one may read those other films and, in particular, its representations of African-Americans, it is a difficult historical fact to get around that the studio took over seventy years before it finally centered a major theatrical production around a character who was black, and such a decision will raise as many questions as it may answer.

While potentially progressive as far as the limited scope of textual representation goes, the delayed timing of The Princess and the Frog still hurts as much as it helps. But of course centering an animated story on a Black character still offers future progressive possibility—perhaps the hope that such stories can take the privileged white perspective at the core of Hollywood storytelling and (momentarily) disrupt it.

But the film's utopic potential (and I emphasize only potential) lies in the future--how it might affect, even empower, a young child today--and not in past, which must never be forgotten, or distorted, now.