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Parents: Disney's 'Princess' is a hop toward progress

By Breeanna Hare, CNN
Despite the criticism heaped on Disney's "The Princess and the Frog," parents and kids have been pleasantly surprised.
Despite the criticism heaped on Disney's "The Princess and the Frog," parents and kids have been pleasantly surprised.
  • Despite plentiful critiques of the film, parents are in love with "Princess and the Frog"
  • The story makes up for the fact that she's a frog for most of the movie, they say
  • Parents are happy that African-American kids have a Disney film they can relate to
  • The movie isn't perfect, but parents see it as a good sign of more to come

(CNN) -- For the generations who waited years to see an African-American princess enter Disney's line of royals, the movie "Princess and the Frog" has been like love at first sight.

The film, featuring Princess Tiana as a determined waitress and chef who gets sidetracked from her entrepreneurial dreams by a smooth-talking frog prince, has been mired in controversy for more than a year.

Critics pointed out that Princess Tiana spends most of her time mucking through the movie as a frog. A Charlotte Observer column noted that the film's combination of voodoo and alligator sidekicks in the setting of New Orleans, Louisiana -- a city still trying to heal racial wounds exacerbated by Hurricane Katrina -- was a decision made in poor taste.

Those criticisms aren't holding much weight with parents. There's " way more good in it than the negative [aspects] some picky person is going to find," said Denene Millner, an author in Atlanta, Georgia, and mother of three. Instead of criticizing, they view Princess Tiana as the wonderful beginning to more movies, books, television shows and games made with children of color in mind.

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"I loved everything about the movie," said Kimberly Coleman, a blogger and mother of two boys, ages 2 and 5, in Forest Hills, New York.

"The story is so well done," Coleman said. "Princess Tiana is beautiful, smart, hardworking. She's not waiting for a man to come rescue her; she's working to make her dreams come true."

Since Disney didn't include African-American animated royalty in feature films, African-American moms responded in kind, "pushing Disney princesses as far away as we could," said Millner, whose daughters are 10 and 7.

"When I had them, I had to consider how I was going to get them to navigate the low self-esteem that black girls end up having when you're constantly bombarded with images that don't look like you and people are constantly telling you that beautiful is not what you are," Millner said. "I'm bothered by the criticism because as a mom, my heart is full. Finally, there's a princess that looks like my little girls."

Disney is aware of its poor reputation in communities of color and has tread very carefully with its latest princess, said Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Occidental College.

"The character was originally cast as a maid, which wouldn't have been a problem if it was a white character. Look at Cinderella," Wade said. "But she's not, so Disney has to manage this history and contemporary racial politics, and that's a big job."

Part of the problem, Wade said, is black women have been historically denied the femininity and "the beauty attributed to white women, because femininity wasn't compatible with hard labor."

This view was pervasive enough to be replicated in animation with regularity in the first half of the 20th century, said Christopher Lehman, an associate professor of ethnic studies at St. Cloud State University and author of "The Colored Cartoon."

"With female characters, there was either the mammy -- the overweight, submissive woman -- or there was the vamp stereotype, a very light-skinned African-American female who was thin and drawn to be more attractive," Lehman said. He counts "Princess and the Frog" as a step in the right direction because it deviates from those polarized caricatures with characters that are crafted with individuality.

While it may be perverse to be happy that black women are now also part of the princess trope -- a stereotype in and of itself -- it's still a huge step forward, Wade said. "To have a young black woman held up as beautiful, feminine, as a role model -- and not just for young black girls, but for all girls -- it's a big deal."

This kind of on-screen diversity really is crucial for children of all backgrounds to see, said media psychologist Karen Dill.

"Kids don't assign anything to color," Dill said. "I believe kids when they say race is 'no big deal.' But if you grow up and see [diversity] as part of the landscape, it normalizes it. It makes it a non-question. You're taught unconsciously that everyone has the chance to be what they want to be."

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Even for a mother with young sons, the "Princess and the Frog" is a pleasurable landmark.

"This is the first generation where they can see a black president and see a black princess. Coming from a mother of two boys, that sets a standard. It shows how a black woman should be treated and what a black woman can be," said Yolanda Rodgers-Howsie, national co-chair of arts and letters for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, an organization of more than 250,000 women that has planned to show adamant support of "The Princess and the Frog" during its opening weekend.

"Our hope is that by showing [that], Disney and other companies will continue to create positive and uplifting projects that accurately portray African-Americans and the African-American experience," the organization's president, Cynthia M. A. Butler-McIntyre, said.

The movie's Prince Naveen character has also drawn criticism. His skin is brown, but he isn't African-American.

"A lot of moms had issues with that," Coleman said. "It felt like it was a slap in the face to black men."

Coleman asked a Disney executive if Prince Naveen was Creole and was told that his background was made up; he's whatever ethnicity they have in fictional Maldonia.

When Coleman found out the prince hailed from the land of far, far away, she thought, "Hmm. OK. Not only is it not a black love story, it's not even an interracial love story. What does that say to little black girls...that [her prince] doesn't exist? That we would have to make up someone for you because no one of any race exists to be your prince?"

But then, Coleman said, she saw the movie, which changed her perspective..

Despite her adoration of "Princess," she still thinks an opportunity was missed. "All the other Disney princesses have been linked with men of the same racial/ethnic background except for Pocahontas, and that was supposed to be based on historical accounts," Coleman said.

Millner admits that she, too, was a bit disappointed that Disney didn't draw an identifiably African-American prince, but that's not stopping her from being full-on Team Tiana.

"Would it have been nice if he was [African-American]? Absolutely. But I'm not bothered by it," Millner said. "I'm not looking to cartoons to give my kids an idea of what a good black man is. They have the perfect example right here in their own home."

For Rodgers-Howsie, the question of the prince's race became irrelevant when she saw that her 5-year-old son identified with him anyway.

"He has yet to realize that this guy is from another country, and he can still identify with him because he's brown. That gave me a sense of comforts and made me overlook that very easily," she said.

Yet and still, Rodgers-Howsie said, although her son may know the difference between a brown guy and a beige one, the issue of race isn't on his radar.

"It was great that he was able to identify with the prince. He saw someone that was brown like him, but it wasn't a big deal. We talked more about Princess Tiana following her dreams. They're still unaware of the race thing."

Coleman felt the same way, noting that "the race stuff is so over their heads right now," choosing "not to put that baggage on them if they don't have it yet." Instead, she wanted her sons to simply have fun and enjoy watching Disney's milestone.

It's taken more than 70 years to see an African-American princess in a feature-length Disney film, Coleman said.

"'Princess and the Frog' might not be the ultimate goal," Coleman said, "but it's progress."