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December 12, 2009 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Disney movies: Why is The Princess and the Frog not considered to be inappropriate or racist along the same lines asSong of the South?

I saw the Princess and the Frog last night. It was adorable, and I laughed and had a generally good time. However, there were several elements of it which reminded me of the Uncle Remus stories.

1) Uncle Remus is heavily criticized for its use of black Southern dialect. The Princess and the Frog uses Creole accents in much the same way.

2) It seems as if The Princess and the Frog plays as much into stereotype as Uncle Remus, just in a different time period... a poor black woman whose only dream in life is to be promoted from being a waitress to owning her own restaurant. Both she and her parents work servile jobs to rich, white people.

3) All the lightning bugs seem to be funny, but ultimately mean stereotypes of backwoods, backwards Cajuns. Voodoo. The Shadow Man? Mama Odie?

If you want to say it's trying to give an "historically accurate" portrayal of 1920's New Orleans, what is different about 1920's New Orleans and 1850's Mississippi?

What is the difference between portraying classic stereotypical "Uncle Remus and Aunt Jemimah" characters, and lesser-known/written about Creoles?
posted by chicago2penn to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Some of my friends DO see parts of it as inappropriate.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:21 AM on December 12, 2009


I think people do think it's racist/inappropriate. And basically just more of the same from Disney (or fill in the Hollywood studio making children's movies). I try not to think about it too much, and then I see an animated children's movie and get ENRAGED, and then I try not to think about it too much.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:24 AM on December 12, 2009


I certainly see it this way based on the previews I've seen. It was shocking, to me. It's really never gone away in Disney. The caribbean-mon crab in Ariel is unbelievable.
posted by fullofragerie at 11:33 AM on December 12, 2009


Here's an interesting article from the New York Times on this very subject. There are plenty of critics out there, and this article discusses some of the counter-claims to the criticism as well.
posted by k8lin at 11:39 AM on December 12, 2009


I agree. It's just disney wanting the street cred of having a black princess whilst relying on tired values and the same old plot-mold to propel the film.

it was that racist I am sure the black people who actually voiced the charecters wouldnt have voiced them.

no.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:45 AM on December 12, 2009


Intention may matter, here, and it's also a matter of degrees. Song of the South isn't just problematic because of what the movie itself shows, but because the whole production of it was very questionable in terms of the beliefs and intents of the people who were involved in making it. And it's not just that it contains stereotypes--having watched it as a child, I was very confused and disturbed at the time by the fact that all this happy sing-song stuff was happening and Uncle Remus was supposed to be a slave. The depiction in the film isn't, to say the least, an attempt at historical accuracy.

That doesn't mean there aren't still issues in Princess and the Frog in quantity, but I don't think it's along the same "children should not even be exposed to this film" kind of lines.
posted by larkspur at 11:47 AM on December 12, 2009


Here's a good article on Racialicious about the problems with the film.
posted by desjardins at 11:50 AM on December 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure if this has a definitive answer.

I can see why it may be perceived as racist to some degree, but for some of it, it may help to look at what else Disney has done recently. To that effect, it seems (outside of dialect) is pretty consistent with how the company runs this sub-genera of films.... isn't it always some poor girl, working a shit job for people who are wealthy and is (more or less) saved by the prince. If that is the case then it is at least consistent across ethnicity. And as to dialect, should the black character speak like a white person? It very well may be that stripping any trace of "blackness" from her voice would have been more racist than not.

I have not seen the movie, and so can not subject it to a full scale critical analysis, but dialect does not automatically equal racism. Nor, does economic circumstances. Does the movie treat her as less than human (actually: or less than everyone else in the movie)?

Frankly, I have a much stronger case that the movies are sexist than this one is racist because of ongoing patterns.
posted by edgeways at 11:55 AM on December 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't have any interest in the movie or how this issue plays out, but as a data point, just as a person with a tv who has seen these commercials, I too got the feeling right off the bat that it was out of place. At least as depicted in the commercials, it seems like a step backwards. Something about that voodoo guy. It's a tricky situation to get right given our history and the nature of the medium, but it doesn't feel like they got it right.
posted by Askr at 12:07 PM on December 12, 2009


what is different about 1920's New Orleans and 1850's Mississippi?

That 1920s New Orleans was created in the 21st century while he 1950s Mississippi was created in the 1940s. A lot of things changed in how black people were viewed and accepted into society in those 60 years.

I haven't seen The Princess and the Frog yet, but to immediately equate it with Song of the South smacks of a different type of racism to me. Where there no another films, live action or animated, that you could compare it to? Because it's main character is black, is it forever doomed to be sized up only against other movies that contain black people? Must the world endlessly reduce the title character to just being a black woman and endlessly examine in minute detail how that black female character compares to every other black woman, real or imagine that has been in America the past 400 years? When does a black character become a character who is black instead of as a BLACK character?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:17 PM on December 12, 2009 [8 favorites]


For what it is worth I was waiting for a train in DC last night and I was sitting on a bench with some students from Howard and I overheard them talking about how much they liked it that there was finally a black princess. So while it isnt perfect, it does seem to be a sincere effort on Disney's part to be more inclusive.
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:35 PM on December 12, 2009


I think what most people find offensive about Song of the South is the way that it whitewashes (so to speak) the relationship between blacks and whites in the post-war South. Watching it, you'd never know that slavery had even existed, let alone sharecropping, lynchings, segregation, voter intimidation, or any of that stuff. It's kind of like writing a non-ironic musical comedy set in a concentration camp.

I haven't seen the new film, so I can't comment on the differences between the two, but while I wouldn't be surprised to see objectionable stuff in it, I would be very surprised if it were to the same extent.
posted by EarBucket at 12:38 PM on December 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mod note: few comments removed - please stick to the pretty narrow question here - there is a MeFi thread about this topic if you want to discuss it more at length
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:52 PM on December 12, 2009


I have to agree with Brandon that automatically reaching for Song of the South as a comparison is an inappropriate approach.

With regard to the dialect, I've only heard what I've seen in trailers, but accents do exist. The question is if the accent is lampooned or presented in a way to mock the people who possess it. I would guess that rather than go for a safe neutral mid-western news accent for all characters, Disney opted to regionalize the film with accents from the geographic area that the film takes place. What level of accent would have made you comfortable?

2) It seems as if The Princess and the Frog plays as much into stereotype as Uncle Remus, just in a different time period... a poor black woman whose only dream in life is to be promoted from being a waitress to owning her own restaurant. Both she and her parents work servile jobs to rich, white people.

If Tiana had been white, you wouldn't be casting this in a racist perspective. It's both a common thematic element (poor person wanting success), and also, somewhat a historically accurate representation of the South in that time period. That's not to say some black people didn't work for other black people, but due to the economic restraints forced up on African Americans during that era, more often than not a black person with a job in the service industry probably worked for a white person. (And as I said, not always, but probably more common). Back to the thematic element, its evident in books and movies for decades and centuries.

If you want to say it's trying to give an "historically accurate" portrayal of 1920's New Orleans, what is different about 1920's New Orleans and 1850's Mississippi?

Song of the South isn't considered racist because it took place in 1860's Mississippi. It's considered racist because its a 1940's representation of a period of history that was both inaccurate and stereotyped. Uncle Remus is an insulting caricature created by a white Southerner to perpetuate the Lost Cause philosophies that slavery hadn't been a bad institution. Song of the South isn't an honest attempt to produce an accurate picture of 1860's Mississippi.

Once again, I've got to ask, how would 1920's New Orleans have been properly represented as to not make you uncomfortable due to feelings that its a racist depiction?

I'll probably see this movie in the next couple weeks due to family enjoying Disney musicals, and I certainly will keep your questions in mind when watching so I can offer a more valid position from having seen the actual film.
posted by Atreides at 2:23 PM on December 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Uncle Remus is an insulting caricature created by a white Southerner to perpetuate the Lost Cause philosophies that slavery hadn't been a bad institution.

That is, I think, the answer you're looking for. I haven't seen Princess and the Frog yet, but I have seen Song of the South. From what I remember, Uncle Remus is portrayed as still happily the slave to his white masters in a post-Civil War time. Some of the criticism goes back to Joel Chandler Harris' tellings of the Br'er Rabbit stories (upon which the movie is based) which are traditional African-American (literally) folklore that he (a white journalist) gained notoriety by printing. Here's the section of JCH's wikipedia article that talks about the divided opinions his stories have caused. The section on Song of the South's reception in that article is also enlightening (but unfortunately unsourced).
posted by sleeping bear at 2:57 PM on December 12, 2009


Disclosure: I am a white guy, and am inescapably tied to my privilege when it comes to evaluating films from a racial perspective. That said, I do think the Princess and the Frog does pretty well in this regard.

1) Uncle Remus is heavily criticized for its use of black Southern dialect. The Princess and the Frog uses Creole accents in much the same way.

I don't know, does it? If you're talking about Ray, I feel like his Cajun dialect is supposed to a barrier that the other characters in the film overcome in order to realize his fundamental wisdom and sensitivity. I cannot speak to whether the caricatured nature of the character and his language would be offensive to actual Louisianan francophones, but I feel like as one of the most sympathetic and heroic characters in the film, the issue of whether or not he is offensive is at least debatable.

2) It seems as if The Princess and the Frog plays as much into stereotype as Uncle Remus, just in a different time period... a poor black woman whose only dream in life is to be promoted from being a waitress to owning her own restaurant. Both she and her parents work servile jobs to rich, white people.

The film is obviously acutely aware of the race dynamics in its own story. Whether or not it is completely successful in every conceivable way, I really don't think you can accuse it of being tone-deaf or "playing to stereotypes" in this regard. The language of your question is not quite honest w/r/t to the actual dynamics of the film—Tiana does not "want to be promoted from being a waitress to owning her own restaurant." She wants to save enough money to promote herself, thus escaping from a system that oppresses her. The film even includes a veiled reference to the kind of racism she would've faced in a non-disneyfied version of 1920s New Orleans when the real estate agents she's trying to deal with suggest that "a woman of her background" is better suited to staying a waitress.

The parents are clearly aware of the challenges their daughter faces, and have tried their best to equip her with the tools to face these challenges. Unlike Song of the South where Uncle Remus is depicted as fundamentally comfortable with his place in the world, Tiana is aspirational and in fact has been taught to be aspirational; she wants more. She knows what stands between her and her goals, and she works actively and independently to overcome those obstacles.

3) All the lightning bugs seem to be funny, but ultimately mean stereotypes of backwoods, backwards Cajuns. Voodoo. The Shadow Man? Mama Odie?

As I said above, I cannot guess at whether or not the fireflies' caricaturing heads into offensive territory. I think the fact that Ray is in some ways the most heroic character in the story goes a long way towards elevating beyond a mere comedic ethnic sidekick.

I'm going to have to think more about Dr. Facilier; my initial feeling is that if he'd been the only black character in the story, there would be a problem. I feel like it's hard to make the case that his villainy is implicitly tied to his race.

As far as Mama Odie is concerned—I don't know. She seems like a crazy old "good witch" type character. She stands for good things and offers good advice, and not in an othered, magical negro kind of way—or at least it didn't feel that way to me (note disclaimer). I think it would've been potentially much worse if she'd been white, because then you would've had Tiana turning to a white person for help solving the problems that a black person created, which would've potentially been a real mess.
posted by pts at 4:17 PM on December 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


I haven't seen the movie, but am familiar with the firefly-in-question. He sounds exactly like people do "down on the bayou." A lot of them don't have teeth or high school educations. I'm not trying to be mean, but it's a fact.
posted by radioamy at 5:31 PM on December 12, 2009


2) It seems as if The Princess and the Frog plays as much into stereotype as Uncle Remus, just in a different time period... a poor black woman whose only dream in life is to be promoted from being a waitress to owning her own restaurant. Both she and her parents work servile jobs to rich, white people.

But no, not really. It's strange you came away from the movie with this impression. She's poor but works hard (in a restaurant that doesn't appear to be owned by any white people) and saves every penny she can get so she can buy and renovate her own restaurant.

Even when she marries the prince, they still use her money to buy the place and they renovate it through their own work, together.

She doesn't work for white people. The rich white girl was her mom's client, and they were basically friends raised together. I mean, as a waitress she serves people but it wasn't an all-white clientele or anything.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:18 PM on December 12, 2009


Agreed that Ray was the most heroic character. When he was introduced I thought "oh nooo" but he turned out to be more than just comic relief. He was wiser than the other characters in many ways except for thinking the star was a firefly, and even then he was sorta right.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:20 PM on December 12, 2009


Disney uses stereotypes in almost every film they've ever made. Think of Lumiere & Cogsworth in "Beauty & the Beast."
posted by timoni at 11:39 PM on December 12, 2009


1) Uncle Remus is heavily criticized for its use of black Southern dialect. The Princess and the Frog uses Creole accents in much the same way.

It's been a long time since I last saw Song of the South, and I'm pretty sure the version I saw was heavily edited, but I don't think that Uncle Remus' regional accent is the reason that SotS was criticized. I could be wrong though.

2) It seems as if The Princess and the Frog plays as much into stereotype as Uncle Remus, just in a different time period... a poor black woman whose only dream in life is to be promoted from being a waitress to owning her own restaurant. Both she and her parents work servile jobs to rich, white people.

Tiana's dream isn't to be promoted from one position to another, her dream is to own her own restaurant in order to fulfill her father's dream. (whole 'nother kettle of fish right there) Tiana is working to promote herself through her own means.

3) All the lightning bugs seem to be funny, but ultimately mean stereotypes of backwoods, backwards Cajuns. Voodoo. The Shadow Man? Mama Odie?

Once again I could be wrong, but I don't think that The Shadow Man was ever explicitly linked with Voodoo. It's implied, and Mama Odie is definitely presented as Voudoun, but I think that The Shadow Man is presented as a more general dabbler in Dark Arts. For what that's worth.

I did have a bit of a problem with Ray's teeth. I don't really why the designers thought that particular signifier added anything of value. If the over-all character hadn't been handled as well as it was I think I would have had serious misgivings.

If you want to say it's trying to give an "historically accurate" portrayal of 1920's New Orleans, what is different about 1920's New Orleans and 1850's Mississippi?

I don't really know that either one was about historical accuracy, but the racial power dynamics of those two eras, and the movies set in them, and the way those dynamics are portrayed within those movies are fairly different. Once again, it's been a while since I last saw Song of the South, but my impression is that while Tiana is an employee, Uncle Remus is a servant.

What is the difference between portraying classic stereotypical "Uncle Remus and Aunt Jemimah" characters, and lesser-known/written about Creoles?

I think the difference would be the milieu in which they act. The fireflies are their own society, while Uncle Remus and Aunt Jemima act as servants within white culture. I'm not sure that this is enough, but it is a difference.

Now, I may come across as an apologist, and I don't mean to. I did my best to watch The Princess and the Frog with a critical eye. I'll be the first to admit I may not have done a very good job of that, firstly because of my cultural blinders, and secondly because I was enjoying myself immensely. Students shooting for their PhDs in Sociology or Cultural Studies are going to be writing their theses on The Princess and the Frog for decades.
posted by lekvar at 12:08 PM on December 14, 2009


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