Disney films are known for their unique story plots: globally diverse characters and magical happy endings.
But their portrayal of multi-cultural characters is less than perfect. Now, with the introduction of its first black princess, Disney Studios has come under attack for racial stereotyping, an accusation that has long tainted its reputation.
Disney, along with Pixar Animation Studios, recently unveiled 10 new animated feature films for release through the year 2012.
Among them is The Princess and The Frog: An American Fairy Tale, in which Disney has cast DreamGirls actress Anika Noni Rose as the voice of the black princess character.
The film, originally called The Frog Princess, is set in 1920s New Orleans. It initially featured a black chambermaid, Maddy, employed by a white Southern debutante. Maddy’s voodoo priestess fairy godmother was tasked with helping Maddy win the heart of the white prince who rescued her from a voodoo magician.
Rumors of the film’s storyline spread quickly, eliciting alarm from black parents.
Joan Gosier, a mother of two and former Pompano Beach resident, was influential in convincing Disney to modify its princess-themed film.
“I was excited that there was going to be a black princess. When my two daughters, who love Disney films, saw her picture and asked me who she was, I told them it was Maddy, the Frog Princess, and they frowned,’’ Gosier said. “My 3-year-old said, ‘I don’t want to be a frog,’ and tears welled up in her eyes. The more I tried to explain to them, the more disgusted their faces were looking.
I knew at that point, psychologically, this was harmful.”
Concerns such as Gosier’s poured into Disney’s online blog. Gosier sent many letters herself. As a result, Disney began the process of eliminating the film’s racial undertones.
“Maddy” sounded, to many, too much like “mammy,” a stereotypical image of a rotund black caregiver dating from the early 1900s. Maddy was renamed “Princess Tiana.”
Disney also revised the film’s plot to depict Tiana as a 19-year-old princess who finds herself in a country never ruled by a monarchy. Tiana ends up living “happily ever after” with a man of Middle Eastern heritage.
Hence the name change: The film is no longer the The Frog Princess, but is now The Princess and The Frog
Gosier, who now lives in Richmond, Va., doesn’t take all the credit for Disney’s capitulation, but she is ecstatic that her efforts – and those of others – were effective.
“It took a while for others to understand my passion behind this,’’ Gosier said. “I just wanted the production studio at Disney to talk to the kids, just to do some type of market research before this project was complete. I felt I would be a neglectful parent if I didn’t say anything.’’
Gosier has launched a website for black parents, www.blackparentconnect.com. It aims to help parents navigate the world of images to which children are exposed.
Disney Studios’ modification of this children’s film evidences Disney’s commitment to socially-aware entertainment.
“The story takes place in the charming elegance and grandeur of New Orleans' fabled French Quarter during the Jazz Age,” a Disney representative said. “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.”