Disney Introduces First Black Princess, Tiana, in 'The Princess and the Frog'

Tiana, the black heroine of "The Princess and the Frog" is "a very big deal," says one film expert. (Disney Enterprises)
Tiana, the black heroine of "The Princess and the Frog" is "a very big deal," says one film expert. (Disney Enterprises)

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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Long ago and far away, she was an unnamed little princess in a little story called the "The Frog Prince." She and her amphibious friend lived in a very small, mostly forgotten corner of the fairy tale universe.

Many years passed.

And then one day, through the magical powers of Disney animation and commercial marketing, the forgotten little princess was transformed into Tiana, a beautiful black princess from New Orleans. She became the star of "The Princess and the Frog," a movie set to premiere in November. Her doll and toy set were unveiled last month, and the Disney promotional machine is already humming, for Tiana is the first Disney princess in more than a decade, and the first ever to be black.

In the 72 years since Walt Disney's animated version of Snow White captivated audiences as "the fairest of them all," there have only been eight such Disney princesses. Through these movies and a line of toys, dresses and figurines, the Disney princesses have become global, doe-eyed icons of childhood. Sleeping Beauty awakened by a kiss, Cinderella's clock striking midnight, Belle waltzing in the Beast's castle, Ariel with Prince Eric in the moonlit lagoon -- these have become heroines whom parents the world over feel safe to let their young girls idolize and mimic. And while Disney has brought us nonwhite princesses before (see "Mulan," "Pocahontas"), Tiana is a first.

The implied message of Tiana, that black American girls can be as elegant as Snow White herself, is a milestone in the national imagery, according to a range of scholars and cultural historians.

Her appearance this holiday season, coming on the heels of Michelle Obama's emergence as the nation's first lady, the Obama girls in the White House and the first line of Barbie dolls modeled on black women ("So in Style" debuts this summer), will crown an extraordinary year of visibility for African American women.

But fairy tales and folklore are the stories that cultures tell their children about the world around them, and considering Disney's pervasive influence with (and marketing to) young girls, Princess Tiana might well become the symbol of a culture-changing standard of feminine beauty.

"If this figure takes off, you're looking at 30 or 40 years of repetition and resonance," says Tricia Rose, a Brown University professor who teaches both popular culture and African American studies, citing the enduring popularity of Disney princesses at the company's theme parks, on Web sites and in videos.

"It's a very big deal," says Leonard Maltin, the film historian, critic and author of "Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons."

"She's the first modern American [Disney] princess, and that she's black sends a huge message," says Cori Murray, entertainment director for Essence magazine.

On its most basic level, "The Princess and the Frog" is a vintage Disney princess fairy tale, in hand-drawn (2-D) animation, a Broadway-style musical. It draws inspiration from an 18th-century fairy tale from the British Isles, and "The Frog Princess," a 2002 teen novel from Maryland writer E.D. Baker. Disney transferred the story to 1920s New Orleans and changed her name, race and almost everything else.

In the Disney version, Tiana is a young waitress and talented chef who dreams, like her father, of owning her own restaurant. She eventually kisses a frog and is transformed into one. She must journey into the dark bayou to get a magical cure from a good voodoo queen. She is aided by a goofy firefly and a trumpet-playing alligator. The frog turns out to be handsome Prince Naveen, from the far-off and fictional land of Maldonia.


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