Talking Race: Disney's Princess Tiana For the first time in Disney's history, there is a black princess, Tiana. Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice talks about the surprising reaction among some black women to Disney's remake of The Princess And The Frog.
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Talking Race: Disney's Princess Tiana

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Talking Race: Disney's Princess Tiana

Talking Race: Disney's Princess Tiana

Talking Race: Disney's Princess Tiana

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For the first time in Disney's history, there is a black princess, Tiana. Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice talks about the surprising reaction among some black women to Disney's remake of The Princess And The Frog.

NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, like all her predecessors, Disney's latest princess is a beautiful young woman with an angelic voice, a puffy pastel ball gown, and in the end, of course, she finds her prince. But as you probably know, Princess Tiana is Disney's first African-American princess.

The animated film, �The Princess and the Frog,� debuted in selected cities last week. It hits theatres nationwide this weekend. As part of our Talking Race series, we've asked Dawn Turner Trice, who writes the Exploring Race column for the Chicago Tribune, to talk about the film and about reaction to it.

If you've seen �The Princess and the Frog,� what did you think? Does her race matter? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. You can also the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Dawn Turner Trice joins us now from Chicago Public Radio.

Always good to have you on the program.

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Chicago Tribune): Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: And what did you think of the movie?

Ms. TRICE: Well, I loved it. I went to a special screening on Saturday with my 14-year-old daughter, and we both loved it. I was shocked. I was pleasantly surprised. I thought it would be a damsel in distress Disney princess movie, and it absolutely wasn't. She's strong, she's beautiful, she's smart, she believes in working hard, and she's self-sufficient.

And I thought that the message - you know, you have to have a message with a Disney movie.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRICE: And I thought the message was solid and it was - it wasn't syrupy. And it was a good movie. It was a good message for the time.

CONAN: And was her race significant?

Ms. TRICE: The movie isn't about race. Her race is not a major factor. There are some racial overtones in the movie. For example, it's set in 1920s New Orleans, and you can't escape the race element there. Very early on, you see the two distinct worlds that are black and white. Tiana spends time with her mother at her employer's home, and the mother is a seamstress. And on the way home, Tiana's looking outside the window of a trolley as the opulent white world dissolves into this kind of the squalor of rundown shacks that's her neighborhood.

But - and so you see those two distinct worlds. But there's a closeness and a richness there in her community, and often people gather in the porches and commune over lavish meals. And she learns that you can recreate that sense of community in a restaurant, which is her goal and her dream that's bequeathed to her from her father.

So there are some racial - some of the language is cultural and some of it is not just racial, but it's kind of - it's part of the New Orleans culture. But it's all woven into the story so that it's not so intrusive.

CONAN: And it's interesting, this is not Disney's first non-white princess. Mulan, Jasmine, Pocahontas had been featured in previous animated films, yet a lot of people saying it's about time.

Ms. TRICE: Yeah. And it's interesting, I've heard a lot of people, blacks, whites, Asians, say that this is about time. But you know, what we have here is a character who will really, I think, stand on her own. And her skin color is just a part of who she is, and it's just - it's not - it doesn't make her who she is.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking about the new Disney movie with an African-American princess. 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

Tiffany's on the line with us from Leavenworth in Kansas.

TIFFANY (Caller): Hello. Yes, thank you. I just, you know, had a comment regarding, you know, it is about time. And it seems, you know, that, you know, in my opinion, Disney is kind of late. And I'm happy, you know, and my daughter and I will go to see it once it's out. But it's refreshing and comforting to know that the next generation of, you know, young African-American girls to come up can actually see something that I didn't get to see, you know, and I think it'll be good for them. And I just - I'm�

CONAN: One more barrier down.

TIFFANY: Yeah. Pretty much one more, you know, better late than never. But it's definitely a good thing. And I mean, race isn't an issue, which is why I don't understand why there haven't been more, you know, different race princesses or characters, you know, in Disney or any other, you know, production company. But it's a good thing and I'm glad.

CONAN: All right. Well, have a good time at the movie, Tiffany. Appreciate it.

TIFFANY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

TIFFANY: Bye-bye.

Ms. TRICE: You know, Neal, I think that when people say it's about time, they're giving Disney kind of this wait or it's like, well, there's a validation that's kind of implied there. And I don't know. I find that - I understand why people say it's about time, and I appreciate it. But I find that a little disturbing in that, you know, until Disney puts it out there�

CONAN: It's not valid, yeah.

Ms. TRICE: It's not valid. Yeah.

CONAN: It's also interesting in your piece in the Chicago Tribune, you wrote that this film has attracted a specific demographic.

Ms. TRICE: Yes. I - before I arrived at the theater, I had been talking to some people, colleagues, friends and even readers, black women - middle-aged, black women. I'd say black women between - well, I'd say maybe over 35 years old and middle class. And these women were just really - I mean, you could see the twinkle in their eyes when they were talking about going to see this movie. And it occurred to me that - and, you know, and some of them - some of the women weren't necessarily mothers. They were taking nieces and, you know, planning to take nieces and maybe neighbor friends or something.

But it occurred to me that there is that something that has carried over from maybe childhood, back when it - in the time when, you know, little black girls, it was almost the furthest things from our imagination to think in terms of being a princess or even a Disney - I should say a Disney princess.

CONAN: Disneyfied princess. Yes.

Ms. TRICE: Yes. Yes. And so that - this is welcomed to them, and it is historic, and it's a big deal. And I was - even in the theater, I was sitting not far from a group of women who were just - I mean, they were - I would say they were as captivated by this movie as maybe the children who had come with them.

CONAN: Let's talk with Sidiqua(ph), Sidiqua with us from Tallahassee.

SIDIQUA (Caller): Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SIDIQUA: I don't have any girls. I have all the boys and I am, like, those women, I suppose, excited to see it. I'm in my 30s. And I don't think it's about - I don't think that it's, per se, that if Disney doesn't validate it, it's not validated. But I think it's more about branding. We all know the branding the Disney do and we all know the effects on the self-esteem their branding can do.

CONAN: So are you�

SIDIQUA: I think it's about time in that context.

CONAN: And are you going to take a small child as cover?

SIDIQUA: I'm definitely looking for a little girl to take in. I would like to take black and white. And my family, we aren't necessarily allowed, if you will, and it's common in the black community. You can't buy - like I have a niece. And if you're going to buy her anything, it can't have a white face on it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SIDIQUA: And it's not too strictly not about white people, it's about the branding aspect. Like you see that already on TV and everywhere else. And so we need black dolls, we need black princesses, and so I think it's about time in that aspect. But I'm very excited about it. I'm very excited that they put Carol's daughter with it to get the product, which is another - she's a sister. So I'm very excited about the whole concept of it.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. TRICE: And you're talking about the merchandising. The - I mean, there's a lot. Of course, it's Disney, and so there is that line. There's a line of beauty products�

SIDIQUA: Right.

Ms. TRICE: �that will accompany - and dolls and other - and clothing that will accompany Princess Tiana, the brand. But�

SIDIQUA: Yup.

CONAN: Sidiqua, have a good time.

SIDIQUA: Thank you. I will.

Ms. TRICE: You know, Neal, there's a generational difference here, as well. And I do believe that younger kids - as I said, I went to the theater with my 14-year-old daughter. And I think that younger girls - and whether they're black or white - but specifically black girls, they aren't - I'm not certain that they're really getting the same - or feeling that same level of intensity of -that this is such a historic event because, you know, they live in a world in which they've got two little princesses in the White House�

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. TRICE: �and Malia and Sasha Obama. And they're - how they view themselves, it's not perfect but it's very different from the way that their mother, their parents view themselves coming up in terms of beauty and body image.

So I think that while they appreciate Princess Tiana, they - you know, she's kind of a part of their existence these days, you know? It's like it's no biggie.

CONAN: Let's go next to Donna(ph), Donna with us from Cincinnati.

DONNA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I am one of those middle-aged, black women. And when I grew up, of course, you know, we didn't have a black Disney princess. Well, now, I have a daughter who's eight years old, and I intend to go and see the movie with her to make it sort of a girls' day out. But I think it's important on more than one level because, you know, when you have a daughter who doesn't really have a positive image in the doll collections that she has, and she has all the other Barbie dolls or the other -I'm sorry - the other Disney dolls.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DONNA: And we have our collection, and I decorated her room with them. And she has Jasmine - Princess Jasmine and - but she doesn't have Tiana as of yet. And I, obviously, plan on adding that to her collection.

But I think Disney did a great service to black women and girls by doing this because, you know, yes we do have the Obama girls in the White House. However, they don't see them all the time. When they come home and they're in their room playing, they're not playing with those kids. So they go to schools and my daughter goes to a predominantly white school. So she needs a positive image when she's playing with dolls and looking for toy options. So I just want to thank Disney for that.

CONAN: All right, Donna. Thank you.

DONNA: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Dawn, we just have a few seconds with you left. But the prince in the movie, well, for most of the movie, he's a frog but he's green. But he is not�

Ms. TRICE: They both are, actually.

CONAN: Yeah, they both are. Yeah. But he is not black, and has that turned out to be important to people?

Ms. TRICE: Well, it may be important to some - it has been important. Some people have commented about that. But I think what's really interesting, at least for me, was that Tiana had such a strong father figure, and he was such a huge presence in her life, like her first love. And I think - and for me, that kind of - it - you know, it doesn't matter - it wouldn't matter anyway. But I think that it does kind of water down the whole notion that we don't know what - we don't know the race of the prince, but he's not African American. And -but I think that it's in keeping with the theme of this movie that, you know, race really kind of - it's not all that important. You don't know the race of the alligator or the firefly. They have a certain dialect, but maybe it's that they're black, maybe they're just of New Orleans. It's the accent there. So I kind of like the melding of that - the race issue.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice writes the �Exploring Race� column for the Chicago Tribune and appears in this program regularly. Thanks very much for your time.

Ms. TRICE: Thank you.

CONAN: She joins us today from Chicago Public Radio. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

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