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Racial Animal Transformations: Starring Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”

By: Inoka Jayaweera and Kaarianne Smith, BA Students

August 15, 2018

When it comes to representation, people of colour have only been featured in Disney’s most recent films. However, there are still underlying issues that exist within these animated films. Many of Disney’s animated films contain different tropes, and despite incorporating people of colour into their films, Disney has also concealed their presence.

From our years of watching Disney, we have noticed how the company has masked people of colour through racial based animal transformations. Alarmingly, there are many films which exhibit this pattern. This pattern can be traced back to “The Emperor’s New Groove,” and it also appears in “Brother Bear,” “The Princess and the Frog,” and the new adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast.” Although the trope is perceived as a means of advancing the narrative, we would argue that this is not the case. In reality, Disney has utilized this trope as a way to claim their diversity.

For this piece, we would like to focus on one of Disney’s more recent films, “The Princess and the Frog.” Released in 2009, “The Princess and the Frog” is the only Disney animated film which features a black woman. At the time, the only princesses of colour were Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. Although there are some positive elements which make the film revolutionary, the trope takes away from the film’s potential. Although Disney producers can claim to have a black lead, the lead’s human form is only given 30 minutes of screen time. As a result, the impact of the character’s presence is lessened in the film itself.   

Unlike many of the Disney princesses, Tiana’s character is developed without the assistance of her male counterpart. Rather, Tiana is driven by her ambition, as she works as a waitress to save enough money to have her own restaurant. In the film, Tiana is a determined young woman who is willing to put in the work to accomplish her dreams. However, Disney acknowledges some of the difficulties which Tiana experiences as a woman of colour. There is one scene in the film when two real estate agents inform Tiana that she was outbid. Tiana hoped to purchase an old sugar mill, as she wanted to transform it into her own restaurant. Despite having enough money for the down payment, the men tell her that “a little woman of your background… woulda had a hands full, trying to run a big business like that.”

With this scene, we appreciate how Disney does not gloss over the racism of the time, as it delivers the following message: no matter how hard you work, there will be times when someone from a more privileged background may swoop in and take the glory. This scene is a delicate balance of wanting to present the real-life difficulties that women of colour, particularly black women in America experience, but also keeping to the fantasy of a children’s film.

With this in mind, representation in children’s films is of great significance. On one hand, black girls should be able to see representations of their bodies on screen. On the other hand, non-black children can see the diversity of our current society reflected in animated films like “The Princess and the Frog.” However, it is important for these films to feature people of colour in their human form throughout the film, as opposed to the beginning and the end.

With the ending credits, the feature length of the film is 1 hour and 37 minutes. However, the main leads, Tiana and Prince Naveen, who are both characters of colour, spend the majority of the film as frogs. As mentioned, this trope is apparent in other Disney films, where people of colour spend more than half of the film as animals or objects. Essentially, this demonstrates how non-white bodies are hidden in Disney films. Although there are Disney films which contain people of colour, they are often represented as nonhumans. As of 2018, Disney has produced a total of 56 animated films (not including sequels). Approximately 11 of these films contain characters of colour in their main casts, though the majority of these characters are whitewashed. To illustrate, Disney has a long history of casting Caucasian actors to perform the voices of these characters. Films like “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” and “The Emperor’s New Groove” feature an almost white cast. The characters are also coded for children, as the heros in these stories present more Western features and their villains possess more prominent Asian or African features.  Not to mention, many of these films make their non-white characters either background characters or two dimensional.

Amongst these 11 films, 3 of them portray the main lead as a nonhuman. From the total number of Disney animated films, 6.1% of them contain people of colour. Within this limited figure, nearly half of these films possess the racial animal transformation trope if all the characters in the film are counted (and not just the main leads). From this, we see how the trope becomes less of an advanced plot point and more of an erasure of representation. Even though these bodies are not fully present, the existence of films, such as “The Princess and the Frog,” allows Disney to lay claim to diversity. However, we would like to make it clear that the very existence of these films is a metaphorical step in the right direction.   

Bearing this in mind, these forms of media should be analyzed and critiqued for any elements of racism, no matter how subtle they may be. Disney has room for improvement, and we are slowly seeing these changes emerge, with the release of the 2016 animated film, “Moana.” With the majority of the cast being Polynesian, the culture is actively visible within the movie. Although the film’s second lead, Maui, transforms into various creatures throughout the film, this power is merely shown as an ability. This is proven with the amount of screen time that Maui’s human form has in the film, as his ability does not consume the overall character.

Due to public demand for authentic representation, Disney’s films have evolved in the recent years, proving that we cannot stop fighting for intersectional media. With this, we ask for the end to racial animal transformations, so that real representations of diversity are present in their films.