MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And here's one more thought on that new animated fairytale from Disney featuring Disney's first black princess, Princess Tiana. Our commentator, Kim McLarin, is cautiously optimistic.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. KIM McLARIN (Writer): Get set, America. Disney has announced that its next major fairytale film will feature an animated black heroine, the studio's first. After dipping his toes into the multicultural waters during the '90s with Jasmine, "Pocahontas," and "Mulan," the mouse that roared is finally ready to plunge in neck-deep with a beautiful, young African-American girl living among the faded grandeur of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Let's all take a moment to cheer - cautiously.
No doubt, this is cause for celebration for those of us struggling to raise confident, self-loving black girls in a society that still, in many ways, devalues the beauty of dark skin and kinky hair. And certainly, this is good news for any parent who's grown weary of policing Disney movies both classic and contemporary for scenes of casual racist imagery.
Think of those ridiculous, jive-talking hyenas in "The Lion King".
(Soundbite of movie "The Lion King")
Mr. CHEECH MARIN (Actor): (As Banzai the Hyena) Yeah, we could have whatever's lion around.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WHOOPI GOLDBERG (Actor): (As Shenzi the Hyena) Wait, wait, wait. I got one. I got one. Make mine a cub sandwich. Whatcha think?
Ms. McLARIN: And who can forget that bouncy, drum-heavy song "What Makes the Red Man Red"?
(Soundbite of song "What Makes the Red Man Red")
Unidentified Group: (Singing) What made the red man red? What made the red man red?
Ms. McLARIN: From Disney's 1953 classic "Peter Pan." And as recently as 1992, the blockbuster "Aladdin" incensed Arab-Americans with its jaunty lyrics casually linking Arabs and barbarity.
(Soundbite of song "Arabian Nights")
Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Actor): (As Genie) (Singing) Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.
Ms. McLARIN: So now comes Disney's multimillion-dollar mea culpa: our own black princess over which to swoon. The story, according to sources, will be an updated version of the old European fairytale. We want to root, but given Disney's history, it takes a leap of faith. A friend of mine scoffed when I relayed news of this film. Oh, great, she said. The first black princess, and she has to kiss a frog to get her man.
(Soundbite of frogs croaking)
Ms. McLARIN: But honestly, that part doesn't bother me. All of us women - black, white, Latino, Asian - have had to kiss a lot of frogs in our day. That's part of our sisterhood. No, what bothers me about Disney's heroines in general is that their path to happiness always leads through a man or a manly beast. And what bothers me about "The Frog Princess" in particular is our heroine's occupation: the chambermaid.
(Soundbite of movie "Cinderella")
Mr. JAMES MACDONALD III: (As Jaques) Poor Cinderelly. Every time she find a minute, that's the time when they begin it. Cinderelly, Cinderelly…
Ms. McLARIN: Okay. I know that several previous Disney princesses - including the Asian heroine Mulan - were not born of royal blood, but are princesses in beauty and in spirit. And I get the egalitarian impulse behind the classic rags-to-riches tale.
But come on - the first black Disney princess, and she has to be domestic help? Have the people at Disney lived so long in La-La Land that they missed the cultural significance of assigning their first black heroine such a stereotypical role? I mean, did they make Mulan a laundress? Did they require Pocahontas to strap a papoose to her back and sit by the side of the road selling beads?
On the other hand, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in "Gone With the Wind," was roundly criticized by black intellectuals for her portrayal in that movie. Her response? I'd rather play a maid than be one.
In the end, I suppose for small favors, we should be grateful. And the black princess in the 21st century is small favors indeed. So thanks, Disney. Thanks a lot.
MARTIN: Novelist Kim McLarin is a writer in residence at Emerson College.
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