In 2009 the classic Disney film The Princess and the Frog was released in theaters. The main story line follows the protagonist Tiana, a young girl who has high hopes, but little success. She’s cast as a poor girl trying to work towards owning her own restaurant, despite her current position as a waitress where she saves as much money as possible on her meager salary. Her best friend Charlotte, a polar opposite to Tiana, is the richest girl in town who dreams of one day finding her prince charming to carry her away. By creating tension between the opposing classes- a working class and an upper class girl- Disney has laid the foundation for inequality among the two girls, and by extension the classes themselves.
One day a prince comes to the town and is tricked by a voodoo villain who wants Charlotte’s money all to himself. The villain turns the prince into a frog which happens to find Tiana. The hero’s journey begins for Tiana when she kisses the frog prince hoping to change the prince back to a human. The kiss not only doesn’t change the prince, but instead the curse of the kiss turns Tiana into a frog as well. She then journeys with the prince, both as frogs, to stop the evil voodoo man and return both of themselves to human state. The journey of Tiana as a heroine has many embedded symbols to be analyzed, but this essay will use feminist criticism and critical race studies to better understand this new heroine.
Beginning with feminist criticism, the viewer of the film is given the usual Disney introductory plot with a prince and princess, except this time there are several important differences. Many fairy tales set the female character to be the damsel in distress who the prince must then rescue. In this film, starting at the beginning of the heroine’s journey when Tiana first meets the frog prince, the roles of masculine and feminine have already been altered. The masculine prince is sent into distress and he requires the help of Tiana to save him. Disney frames Tiana as a atypical heroine who tackles not only the heroine’s journey, but has to conquer her class struggle that remains prevalent throughout the film. Disney creates Charlotte, Tiana’s best friend, as a contrast point to show the greater difference between a classic princess and a new redefined princess.
Tiana is designed to be a self reliant woman who earns everything in her life through hard work, representing key feminist ideals rooted in the principal that she is unwilling to accept charity from the prince, because she has always worked to support herself since she works for what she believes in. Disney then contrasts Tiana’s independence with the prince’s dependence on his parents. Tiana quickly learns that the prince has been broke ever since his parents cut him off and he has no intention of working to provide for himself. The entire roles of the feminine dependence and masculine independence have been switched. This movie came out in 2009 which was right when the women’s empowerment movement was gaining substantial traction among pro equality activist as well as the new era teenagers. It is unknown if Disney intentionally produced this movie to increase support for feminists, however, the main feministic ideals are deeply impeded in the movie’s plot and character structure.
Many young girls have been influenced with older media that has given them an inaccurate idea of their value in the world because of the previous portrayal of women in these types of movies. This movie stands out as the start of a major cultural change to teach young women that they don’t have to be the damsel and distress and they can have just as much power as any man. Tiana’s heroic journey happens to line up better with Campbell’s hero’s journey more than the heroine’s journey simply because Tiana demonstrates the attributes that are usually equated with more masculine characters. The push for these new modernized movies are increasingly significant because of the power it has to shift our culture and impact our children’s views.
Critical race studies often look at the way in which race is depicted in different forms of media and how it is used to impact the viewers. From the most literal sense this movie stands out not just because of the reversed gender roles, but also because Tiana happens to be poor and black. Her family is depicted as loving and hardworking. This seems normal until the movie shows that her family was always struggling for money, they lived in a small house in a tight knit community where everyone shared because not many people could afford to sustain themselves alone. Her dad worked all the time to provide and was never able to pull them out of poverty or achieve his dreams.
Audre Lorde discusses the connection between age, race, class, and sex. Her opinion is that “much of western European history conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior. In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of dehumanized inferior. Within this society, that group is made up of Black and Third World people, working-class people, older people, and women” (Lorde 1). In essence what Audre Lorde is saying is that humans have a desire to oppose either good or bad to an attribute thus leaving one group of people to be the bad group. In this case the group that is looked down upon has turned into females, minorities, and lower class individuals. They are often judged as lesser in a Eurocentric society that has decided that those groups are to be the dehumanized inferior.
Tiana is a dark skinned lower class female which encompasses some of the largest stereotypes that are often used in the systematized oppression that Audre Lorde mentions. At the beginning of the movie there is a scene where Tiana and her family is making their usual dinner of gumbo. They are then joined by their neighbors in a mutual neighborhood dinner. This can be attributed to the type of neighborhood that Disney portrays which in this case is a large amount of small houses that are all close together and are only filled with racial minorities. It’s questionable whether this portray was intended to be an accurate depiction of the time or rather a hit on the cultural struggle of racial minorities.
Critical race theory is formulated around the concept that white supremacy is still intact and culture continuously suppresses the other races. Why would Disney choose to create an empowered female character, but then make her black and apply stereotypical racial judgments. Some people would argue that it is unethical to make Tiana’s family not only poor, but potentially poor because of their racial background. The opposing view suggests that during the time the movie took place and the location of black Americans in the social class structure was relatively low. In this case the movie did an honest justice by showing not only the struggles, but also the perseverance of black citizens. Children’s movies have a meaningful impact on children across the country. It is up to the current generation to instill their most important values into these movies in order to change the way our children think and future culture’s will think about current day issues. What does this mean on a larger scale? Has Disney actually changed the perspectives of viewers by showing a seemingly accurate description of the struggles for an entire class and race? Disney could’ve chosen to challenge stereotypes by depicting Tiana as a wealthy and successful offspring of her minority family. Instead by showing some of the real life realities for her culture they have taken a more serious attitude that tries to instill the ideas of class struggle, racial struggle, and gender struggle into one seemingly meaningless children’s film.
Lorde, Audre, and Cheryl Clarke. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley: Crossing, 2007. Print.