Monday, June 04, 2007

Disney's "Frog Princess"

(Hey guys, I'm going to return to our discussion of The Senator's Wife this Wednesday.)

What’s in a name?

According to a recent article
on Jim Hill Media, Disney is doing quite a bit of damage control in response to a number of angry editorials lately about a film that won’t even be released for another 2 ½ years – Disney’s The Frog Princess.

This new film will have the first “African American Disney Princess.”

At a Disney Shareholder meeting not too long ago, John Lasseter stood on the stage of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans and said this about the new film:

"The Frog Princess is being written and directed by
John Musker and Ron Clements, who did The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, among other great movies…

"The movie is completely set in New Orleans, with the fabulous French Quarter, the beautiful Garden District, the mystic bayou, the mighty Mississippi. It's full of what this city has that's so wonderful that I love so much. It's got the jazz, the Mardi Gras; it's got the voodoo spells. In fact, it even has a soulful, singing alligator, and it's great.

"The main character of the story, our hero, is named Maddy. And I am very, very proud to announce that she is the very first African American Disney princess. We're really proud and excited about this. This is a fantastic story, this movie is going to be classic Disney, yet you've never seen one like it before."

Then came postings (like this
article on Wikipedia) that gave more details about the story and characters. For example, Maddy will be a “19-year-old chambermaid” to Charlotte La Bouff, “an 18-year-old spoiled southern debutante and diva” and the villian will be, Dr. Duvalier, “an African American Voodoo magician/fortune teller.” We will also see Mama Odie, “an elderly, 200-year-old Voodoo priestess/fairy godmother,” and Maddy’s love interest will apparently be the (white) Prince Harry, “a gregarious, fun-loving European Prince.”

Let the bitching and moaning begin.

Beyond the interracial relationship, here were the other big complaints:

* The name "Maddy" sounded too much like "Mammy" and/or "Addy" (which are both supposedly slave names).

* Maddy starts off working as a chamber maid for Charlotte, a rich, white, spoiled Southern debutante, which also smacked of slavery.

* The film's original title, The Frog Princess, was interpreted by some to be insulting toward France. Or a slur on French royalty.

And thus, Disney had to release the following statement:

"While it is a Studio policy that we do not comment on our animated films while they are in the early stages of production due to the nature of our evolving development process, it has come to our attention that there is incorrect information being circulated about Disney’s 2009 motion picture ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (whose previous working title was ‘The Frog Princess’).

“The central character is a young girl named Princess Tiana. The story takes place in the charming elegance and grandeur of New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter during the Jazz Age. She is the newest addition to the Studio’s royal family of ‘Disney Princesses.’ Princess Tiana will be a heroine in the great tradition of Disney’s rich animated fairy tale legacy, and all other characters and aspects of the story will be treated with the greatest respect and sensitivity.

“This American fairy tale is several years away from completion and the creative process is ongoing. No other details regarding the film have been released at this point, and unfortunately much of the information that has surfaced, including the casting inaccurate. When we do casting calls we frequently use substitute information as we don't want details out about the movies. Therefore that information you have is incorrect."

(Notice how they changed the title and the name of their princess.)

A few questions:

What’s in a name?

The French still have royalty?

I don’t recall French people bitching and moaning when E.D. Baker released all those wonderful
Frog Princess books.

So what if Maddy’s a chambermaid to a spoiled debutante? Does anyone actually think that Disney’s going to make the point that slavery is good? This is a part of our history, is it not? Are we going to hide our own past from our children? Who says that a rich, fulfilling story could not come out of a plot about an African American chambermaid who became a princess? Besides, didn’t Cinderella go through some pretty rough circumstances before she made it to the ball and met the prince?

Just because there are aspects of our history in which we are not proud, does that mean that those aspects are off limits to all writers? Are we so sensitive about our pasts that we aren’t emotionally stable enough to look at it objectively? And talk about it?

What’s in a name?


Laura Deerfield said...

It's this kind of politically correct knee-jerk reaction that tells me we as a culture are still immature.

We're in that early adolescent phase where we bristle when the waitress gives us the kid's menu and declare "I'm not a kid!"

Old New Orleans was one of the most racially and ethnically complex cities anywhere, at any time. The mulatto culture, with the balls, is fascinating.

But most importantly - the journey from a position of weakness or servitude or being an outsider to being a princess or hero is central to Disney stories... and for good reason. It's by overcoming unfortunate circumstances, by challenging the status quo, that the protagonist is empowered - and that children learn how they, too, can overcome their own oppressions (because nearly all children view their world as oppressive and unfair) and become something marvelous. It would be great if we all started off feeling like princes and princesses, but most of us start off feeling more like the put-upon maid or stable boy - and thus we need our heroes to start off in a lowly position as well.

wcdixon said...

Hear hear...

Anonymous said...

Chances are no matter what that when you take on stories that involve race, religion, class, sexuality, or some other variable of (political) identity, you're going to offend someone.

That doesn't mean we should tackle sensitive subjects, but it does mean we need to be damned careful we understand just exactly who we're offending, and why they're taking offense. I'm not so sure it's simply a case of political correctness run-amok.

I'm white, my wife is black. One thing I've learned is there are a surprising number of people out there who perhaps unwittingly say things that are, in fact, incredibly offensive.

Anonymous said...

"That doesn't mean we SHOULDN'T..."

Laura Deerfield said...


I am, for similar reasons, very aware of the kinds of careless things people say and how unwittingly offensive they can be. I've been threatened in some very scary ways for being a "nigger-lover" - but at least those people are direct about it. The subtle and often well-meaning ones can be more difficult to deal with.

But to be offended by the name Maddy because it's close to a slave name sounds like too much. Being offended at the character's position as a maid to a white woman is more understandable but if the rest of the world is portrayed as complex, and the character is empowered - that shouldn't be a problem. Poor to princess is very much in keeping with many Disney stories and other fairy tales.

Anonymous said...

"Offensive" means so many things to so many different people today that you couldn't make an "inoffensive" movie if you tried, and if someone figured out a way to through focus grouping and what not, I probably wouldn't want to see it.

Cartoons have always been in the business of offending some segment of society. So some francophile is upset about The Frog Princess. What about Pepe LePew? What about Elmer Fudd? I'm surprised the NRA hasn't complained about him being a stereotype of a bad marksman!

Mim said...

Leave it to Disney to not even get their facts straight. Duvalier was the president in Haiti for many years.

In fact, it's this willingness to bend the truth that is going to get Disney in trouble on the racial issues. They sugar-coat everything. Laura's point about the Disney hero journeying from a position of weakness to one of power by challenging the status quo is a good one. But that position of weakness is so often portrayed unrealistically.

Nobody in Disney movies gets beaten, or locked in a closet, or kicked. The kinds of trauma endured by the young heroes and heroines in a Disney movie are just not that traumatic.

So now they're going to show young children what being a slave was "like." I wonder what they'd do with a story based on a young Jewish boy who escapes from a concentration camp and saves his family from the Gestapo.

Unknown said...

Laura, I was going to echo your thought that the poor to princess story is central to many disney stories.

I think as a society we have a tendency to not look our past in the eye and confront it. It's almost like we are afraid to admit that we were never anything but perfect. There were slaves and we were a nation that allowed slavery, I think it would be a tremendous story if a slave girl was to overcome that and become a hero or a princess. I'd prefer she were a hero as opposed to a princess. Besides, my daughter's name is Mattie, which sounds like Maddy.

Laura Deerfield said...

"Nobody in Disney movies gets beaten, or locked in a closet, or kicked. The kinds of trauma endured by the young heroes and heroines in a Disney movie are just not that traumatic."

This much is true. They are really simply portrayals of the kinds of things that middle-class American kids find horrible. Being made to clean. Being teased and looked down on. Not having nice things to wear.

Mickey Lee said...

This is the same Disney that refuses to re-release "Song of the South." Think they are in denial about something?

Michelle77 said...

Part of me thinks this "controversy" is insanely absurd and could even diminish the chances that we'll see more multiculturalism in films. Why would studios want to put themselves through such a hassle when they don't have to? But I also believe films are all too guilty of portraying people/cultures in "offensive" ways. I personally take offense that so many freakin' Disney films teach girls that they need a prince to make them happy! PUKE! So, if nothing else, I'm interested in the discussion.

Anonymous said...

You raised some good points, Michelle. In making more multicultural films, one way to prevent offensive sensibilities is to make the productions themselves multicultural.

Producers could start by hiring more women writers and directors for films involving teenage girls, for instance. This might prevent the need for you, to like, gag yourself with a spoon over some of these representations of women on screen.

As for Song of the South, you don't protect anybody by locking a movie in a vault and refusing to issue it on DVD. That's like trying to whitewash history and say neither Jim Crow or the film ever existed.

Ann said...

Disney movies *do* go a little deeper, but it's very subtle and insidious. Almost without exception, the protag's mother is dead and his/her father is a complete doofus, giving the child a dark-fantasy autonomy from parental dictatorship.

In Beauty and The Beast, Belle refuses to let a servant tie a napkin 'round her neck, makes a face and places it on her lap. It's a small, but significant gesture showing her character.

You'll also occasionally find higher satire, like Howard Ashman's song Poor Unfortunate Souls: The men up there don't like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
Yet on land it's much prefered for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what is idle babble for?
Come on, they're not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who's withdrawn
It's she who holds her tongue who get's a man

My daughters and I laughed and laughed over this. I wish they'd take more chances in that direction, quite frankly. It has an original Fairy Tale theme to it that children really respond to and that makes for much deeper dialogue between parents and kids.

Mystery Man said...

Laura - I really loved this comment "the journey from a position of weakness or servitude or being an outsider to being a princess or hero is central to Disney stories... and for good reason." Couldn't agree more.

Matt - It really annoys me that people are so quick to be offended without knowing what the point of a story is. I'm offended by how quickly THEY get offended! Hehehe... But, I agree with you.

Joe - I completely agree. The ones that offend the least are the MOST offensive films because they try to be an "equal opportunity offender." It seems like, though, we're at a stage in film history where avoiding offense has been done to the detriment of storytelling. I say take a stand for something good and take it on the chin like a man, ya know?

Mim - I was more bothered by the name of Prince Harry. That makes me think of Diana's kid. Hehehe...

Mickey - This BETTER NOT screw up the release of "Song of the South." I'm dying to see it again.

Michelle - Exactly. I look forward to the day we can see some good princess-on-princess action! Hehehe... I'm SO kidding.

Joe - I completely agree. That film's a reflection of its times and there's no reason we can watch a film like that and talk about it and discuss the context in which it was released.

Ann - Excellent point. I really loved that.


Ann said...

MM--I'm offended that you're offended by people who are offended!

Mim--I like your idea. But then, I also suggested Suicide Bomber Barbie.

I don't know who all has teenagers here, but in my neck-o-the-woods they've taken to using our old racial slurs and putting a new spin on them. It all started with "that's so gay" and devolved from there. It's normal kid rebellion against their parents' standards, I think, although sometimes it makes my skin crawl. But I TALK to my kids about it.

I'm off to find a black market copy of Song of The South.

I Suffer Fools said...

I had heard something before about a black (yes, I dare say black) princess, but that's all I heard. No story, nothing. I like the idea that Disney is possibly returning to classic fairy tales. They definitely need to go that route instead of going the Shrek, Hoodwinked, etc. route. There's enough of those and no "real" classics anymore.

I think the story for The Princess and the Frog sounds intriguing and they may actually be on the right track to "going back to their roots." (Nappy ones, at that.) However, I don't think they should cater to people's overzealous political correctness (like they did when they took the name "Dixie Landings" away from the resort). As for the name "Maddy" -- PUH-LEASE. Maddy is short for Madison, pure and simple. Stop reading into it more than it is, people. If it was Mammy, then you can get upset. However, with Maddy, you need to get a fucking life. Why not just call her Shaneequa then? Apparently that name doesn't offend since every third black girl born is named that. And why the fuck can't she work for a spoiled white debutante? Don't we see that shit everyday? Hello -- Paris Hilton! I think the world would LOVE to see the debutante/villain as Paris and then watch the bitch fall. And The Frog Princess offends the French? Excuse me while I step back and say, "HUH?" I suppose we have to change the name of the classic Frog Prince, too? Why don't we just call her The Bog Princess since she lives near the swamps in New Orleans? Or is that offensive to the ogres? Anywho, I can many, many possibilities with this movie, which I'm sure Disney does, too, and why they're doing it. Obviously a theme park tie-in will happen at Disneyland in their New Orleans section. They can do a Mardi Gras parade at the Magic Kingdom. A jazz-themed score is something that has been done yet in a Disney movie (and hopefully they can have a quality Oscar-nominated soundtrack like "back in the day"). And Port Orleans will now have a new "mascot."