Monday, December 21, 2009

The Princess and the Frog


By Biko Agozino

It was my daughter’s ninth birthday recently and she chose as one of her birthday activities to go and see the Disney movie, The Princess and The Frog. As we waited for the movie to start, she interviewed me about what anyone needs to do in order to be famous. I replied that anyone who writes a great book would become famous and anyone who stands up to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, or makes great music or plays great sport, or discovers something important in science, or becomes a great politician or makes a lot of money and uses it to help the poor. I added that being famous is different from being notorious because the famous person is liked by many while the notorious person is disliked by many. I ended by suggesting that it is better to be a good person who is not famous than to be a bad person who is notorious. As we watched the movie later, I kept reviewing my responses to this unexpected question and kept wondering if I gave the right answers.
After the movie, I tried to reopen this discussion about fame by asking my daughter if she liked the movie and she said that she did. So I asked her what she liked about it and she said everything. I could not pursue the discussion further but promised myself that I will review the movie and hope that when my daughter is older, she will remember my review and understand how I felt about the movie that got a standing ovation from some in the audience. As the National Amusement Preview magazine put it, quoting the executive producer, John Lasseter, a Walt  Disney movie like The Princess and the Frog is famous or liked by many because it ‘is an ageless fairy tale…but with a fresh twist that combines everything we look for in great stories: comedy, adventure, music, and the kind of heart that sets Disney animation apart.’
One of the new twists is that the Princess is black for a change and my daughter made sure that she chose the black princess doll as one of her birthday presents soon after watching the movie. This is probably the first Disney animation with a black princess and I can see why my daughter loved everything about the movie for I have often called her Princess. Apart from that other Disney drama production of Cinderella in which the music and comedy star, Brandy, played the poor girl who was transformed into a princess by the fairy godmother, there is no other Disney movie that I know of in which the princess is a black woman.
But what the two Disney black princesses have in common is that neither of the two princes is a black man. In the case of Brandy’s Cinderella, the prince was Asian, a marketing strategy by Disney to bring in more audiences around the world. However, does this choice have anything to do with a certain reluctance to present black romance as a standard fairy tale that is ageless the way Eddy Murphy tried in Coming to America? In the case of The Princess and the Frog, the prince appears to be a poor European who had been disinherited by his parents in a fictional kingdom of Moldavia. Does the fact that he was not of Anglo Saxon ancestry and that he had fallen from grace serve in this movie as an indirect justification why Disney was ready to risk having a poor black woman kiss a dark white prince?
The poor black woman was laboring and skimping to save enough pennies to buy a restaurant that was her father’s dream before he worked himself to death to no avail. Here the young woman was about working herself to death as well to the scorn of others who jeered that she would never save enough to buy that restaurant. Even after she thought that she had saved enough for a down payment through her hard work, the real estate agents took her money only to tell her that another investor had offered them the full payment in cash and unless she could come up with the full payment for the dilapidated warehouse, she should kiss her dream goodbye. Here Disney is alluding to the discriminatory reality in real estate which makes it difficult for African Americans to get a fair loan especially in places like the New Orleans location of the movie where the recent memory of Hurricane Katharina remind us that African Americans and poor whites were concentrated in the poor neighborhoods that were flooded out.
Her own mother had labored as a maid for the rich white girl whose obese father enjoyed being waited upon and served as part of the motivation for the young girl, now a grown woman, to seek to realize the dream of owning a restaurant just so she could wait upon the rich all her life. Neither the rich white girl nor the poor black girl was presented with the now more common option of going on to college (where female students now outnumber male students by far) to earn higher education with which to access better paying jobs or access more profitable entrepreneurship. All the young women were presented with from the beginning in the story read by the black woman as the maid to the two young girls was the chance to kiss a frog and marry him when he turns into a prince! The black girl was horrified and said that she would never kiss a frog for any reason while the white girl said that she would kiss a million frogs and begged the nanny to read the story again and again.
The black girl learned from her own parents that hard work is the best way to make an honest living as President Barak Obama told students in his surprisingly controversial school address but look where all that hard work got her parents – perpetual poverty. Once upon a time in America, working hard was known as working like a Negro and look where all that hard work got African Americans after many centuries! We need to emphasize that working smart produces better results than working hard all the time. The Shadowman in the movie worked really hard  trying to use voodoo to change the porter of the prince into the prince and turn the prince into a frog in order to fool the rich white girl into marrying the pauper so that the voodoo man would get his hands on her father’s riches after he killed the rich man with a voodoo doll. He could have worked smart by looking for a woman of his own to fall in love with and build a family to prosper together. Instead, he spent his whole life trying to pimp a rich white girl to a poor white man and ended up losing his life to the forces of darkness that he slaved for and that he recruited to serve him. The blind voodoo woman did not work as hard but used smart tactics to get the two people who were now frogs to fall in love and kiss each other of their own volition in order to break the spell that Shadowman had used in turning them into frogs.
In the end, all the black people in the movie appeared to be created just to satisfy the needs of white people in different roles. None of them was put in the movie to address the urgent needs of the black community in New Orleans – from the joblessness of Shadowman, to the multiple-job working poor of the girl’s father and mother, to the disability of the voodoo mama. All that mattered was to make sure that the disgraced white prince regained his parents’ approval and thereby his inheritance by marrying a princess. The white people in the movie had power as the rich white man whose daughter had to be waited upon by a black woman and her unpaid child and as the real estate agents who decided who could buy what choice property or as the cruising rich being entertained by poorly paid musicians. In fact the white prince did not even have the courage to propose to the black girl who risked everything to kiss him in a vain attempt to turn him from being a frog into a human and in return for a promise to help her buy her dream restaurant and who labored to paddle him on the raft and cook for him on their way to find a cure. In the end, it was the poor girl who proposed to him by asking him not to kiss the rich white girl because she, the black girl, loved him. Then the rich white girl proceeded to plaster kisses all over the frog and claimed that she was doing it patronizingly for the poor black girl as if she did not have the ability to kiss her own frog especially now that she too was still a frog. 
As a black parent of a young black girl, I was uncomfortable about the moral of the story and I hope that when my daughter grows up, she will follow her father and shun the gospel of hard work (as I tell my students: hard work is for dummies) and instead choose the more rewarding smart work of highly educated or talented people. I hope that she would not go about the disreputable quarters of New Orleans looking for white frogs to kiss in order to be able to afford a dilapidated old warehouse where she could die on feet waiting on rich white people but that she would be using her great intelligence to invent the future (the motto of Virginia Tech) where everyone (irrespective of race, class or gender) would have equal chances to be the best that they could.
However, despite my reservations about The Princess and the Frog, the positive roles of the talking firefly and the alligator may have redeemed Disney’s storytelling by emphasizing the Copenhagen Green Summit message that we should live in harmony with our bio-diverse environment rather than burn everything in pursuit of greed.
Dr Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies Program, Virginia Tech. agozino@vt.edu

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