Sara Sarasohn -- Disney's Princess Tiana is a modern princess

By Sara Sarasohn
Sunday, December 6, 2009

I took my daughter Ruth -- she's in kindergarten -- to see "The Princess and the Frog." I didn't tell my mother.

When I was a girl, my mom put a lot of effort into keeping me away from Disney princesses. She didn't want me to grow up waiting for a prince to make my dreams come true. I don't want that for my daughter, either, but princesses are special to a lot of little girls, Ruth included. She settled into my lap in the dark theater as the Disney castle glowed on the screen.

It's not a great movie. There's no gasp-princess moment like the Beast and Belle in her yellow dress waltzing to Angela Lansbury's song in "Beauty and the Beast." There's no flat-out-glorious-animation scene like the "Under the Sea" scene in "The Little Mermaid."

That's the issue for any Disney animated movie, especially one with a princess: You have to compare it to all the others. As a work of art, "The Princess and the Frog" looks like it could have been churned out by the Disney shop 30 years ago.

It's not 30 years ago, though, and "The Princess and the Frog" isn't just any Disney princess film. Tiana, its heroine, is the first black princess. That was one reason I wanted my daughter to see the movie, and it's one aspect I thought Disney handled really well.

The setting, New Orleans in the 1920s, has a lot of easily recognizable cultural touchpoints, and the movie skips through them all, Disney-style: Mardi Gras, streetcars, shotgun shacks, the bayou, gumbo, voodoo and jazz. This film whirls them all around Tiana like a pretty sparkly dress.

Disney used the culture of New Orleans to avoid a mistake made by a lot of entertainment for kids: Simply coloring a character brown and calling it diversity. Race is about more than skin color -- it's also about traditions and historical context and family. Disney made Tiana a product of a specific African American culture. There's no deep and meaningful exploration of race in this movie, but I think that would be expecting too much. The important thing is that you could not have plunked Belle or Snow White down in Tiana's movie. This is her unique story.

I thought Tiana's race would be the only reason this movie would be good for Ruth and tolerable for me. I was wrong.

Tiana gets more than just an original story. She gets her own unique ending, too, which is another huge departure for Disney. (Spoiler alert!) She marries the prince, but the wedding isn't the fulfillment of her destiny. After they are married, she and the prince buy an abandoned building with money she saved in coffee cans. They open a restaurant, and they run it together. They are business partners as well as husband and wife.

For decades, Disney told little girls that their job was to wait to be saved by a prince. With the glass slipper, Prince Charming rescued Cinderella from her evil stepmother's house. Snow White was practically dead until her prince came along to save her with a kiss. In "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," too, the heroines' desires are fulfilled when they get to marry a prince. The Disney fantasy wedding denigrated the real deal: a strong, collaborative, long-lasting marriage. With "The Princess and the Frog," I can't believe how right Disney got it, after getting it wrong for so many years, through the lives of so many girls.

When I was growing up, the Disney princesses were not the marketing juggernaut that they are today. Still, my mother redacted my Disney record collection so that I could listen to "Alice in Wonderland" and Winnie the Pooh stories and, I guess, never hear about Cinderella.

For me now, as the mother of a young daughter, it's different. The Disney princesses are everywhere, and I couldn't hope to keep Ruth away from them unless we lived under a rock. She is enthusiastic when she plays Disney dress-up at her cousins' house, but she doesn't ask me to buy the costumes for her. Her friends at school have Disney princess lunchboxes and backpacks and underwear.

Going into this movie I thought the princesses in pop culture, especially Disney princesses, could exist only in stories in which helpless young women are saved by handsome young men. They're not all bad, though. There are things Disney princesses have that I think are just fine for girls to want: true love, beautiful dresses, the feeling that you are special and desired.

But Tiana is the princess I didn't know I had been waiting for my whole life. She is culturally nuanced, beautifully dressed, able to take care of herself but blessed with a wonderful marriage to someone who loves her. It made me cry to see, in a Disney movie, a black woman wearing a tiara and running her own business. I felt so lucky to be able to do something with my daughter that my mother could never have done with me: watch a Disney princess we both could feel good about. Next time, I demand that the movie be good, too.

Sara Sarasohn, an arts editor at NPR News, is writing a book on fatherhood.

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