The Princess Diaries

After a long line of white heroines -- and, more recently, minority characters -- Disney is introducing its first black female lead

April 10, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

The damsel cast an image of striking beauty: mocha-colored skin, captivating eyes, coiffed hair, posing in a feathery dress and see-through veil. For a character that won't be in an animated movie for another two years, her arrival has been the subject of discussion for years -- long before she was ever drawn.

Maddy, a 19-year-old heroine to be featured in the coming film The Frog Princess, will be Disney animation's first black leading lady. That makes her the Sole Sister among a group of cartoon icons that brings out the inner princess in preteen girls worldwide -- characters like Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel and Mulan.

Some say Maddy's debut is long overdue. Disney's characters have become firmly etched in American lore ever since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the studio's first animated feature, in 1937.

In 1992, the animated version of Aladdin featured its first princess of color, Jasmine, of Arabian descent. Since then, Disney has had animated film hits featuring a Native American princess, Pocahontas, in 1995 and an Asian heroine, Mulan, in 1998. But even as real-life black actresses and actors have won major awards and helped dissolve barriers in the film industry in recent years, a divide remained for cartoon princesses on the big screen.

Black families have clamored for a Disney character crafted in their image, even circulating petitions. If that seems overly anxious about a cartoon, it also underscores the power of fictional princesses to become role models for little girls.

"It's always good to have positive stories and positive images where the main character is of your background," said John Powell of Salisbury, shopping with his wife and daughter near The Disney Store at White Marsh Mall. "It lets you know that you have no limitations."

Like other Disney features, The Frog Princess is bound to resonate not only with black Americans, but with children of all backgrounds. Eight other so-called "Disney Princess" characters generated more than $3 billion in retail sales last year. Five Disney Princess films rank among the entertainment conglomerate's top six video releases of all time.

"It seems as if Disney is reaching into" the psyche of young girls "and feeding into it, but girls are responding to it," said Angela M. Nelson, chair of the popular culture department at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Like other parents, she often chooses princess themes when planning parties for her two daughters, ages 7 and 13.

"It could be that what Disney is showing, to a certain extent, is the possibility of femininity: the makeup, the hairstyle, the dress and even the attitude," Nelson said.

Disney unveiled Maddy at its annual shareholders' meeting last month, even summoning Randy Newman's Dirty Dozen Brass Band for a performance. The award-winning Newman will write the music for the movie, which will be set in 1920s New Orleans and be hand-drawn rather than computer-generated.

But the announcement of Princess Maddy hasn't settled the issue. Information about The Frog Princess, including a list of characters put forth in a voice-actor casting call, spread across the Internet. It appears that the prince in the story is not black, which has raised dissatisfaction. There are also people criticizing the creation of yet another cartoon princess whose story, they contend, undermines a modern message of individual empowerment.

Disney risks having well-intended attempts backfire if the story doesn't resonate with, or offends, certain viewers. It's a problem the company has run into with previous films featuring characters of color.

Disney officials have declined to comment on aspects of the film beyond the news release they issued last month when they announced the film at their meeting in New Orleans.

"We're very proud and excited about this," John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios and director of Toy Story and Cars, said at the time. "This is a fantastic story. This movie is going to be classic Disney, yet you've never seen one like it before."

Progressive Disney

To its credit, Disney has a reputation for being progressive in offering characters that appeal to people of all backgrounds, particularly on television. It created popular cartoon characters of color in such shows as The Proud Family (which began on Nickelodeon) and Lilo and Stitch, which features Hawaiian characters. Disney's comedies, including That's So Raven and the made-for-television film High School Musical, feature diverse teens.

"Disney, beginning with Walt himself, was way ahead of all other Hollywood filmmakers in terms of offering a highly progressive and nonstereotypical view of minorities," said Douglas Brode, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University and author of Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment.

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