Considering the Toothless Firefly, Among Other Things

Disney’s attempt at FINALLY writing a story about the first black Disney princess went poorly the first time around. The princess character’s story, about a girl named Maddy who was employed as a chambermaid *cough* in 1920s New Orleans, came under so much criticism they had to go back to the drawing board. Apparently,

Disney’s original storyboard is believed to have been torn up after criticism that the lead character was a clichéd subservient role with echoes of slavery, and whose name sounded too much like “Mammy” – a unwelcome reminder of America’s Deep South before the civil rights movement swept away segregation.

Wise move.

According to the Wiki article about The Princess and The Frog, it will be set in New Orleans in the 1920s Jazz Age. All I know about the main character is that she will be part of the grossly saccharine Disney Princess franchise, the “fastest-growing brand for the company’s Consumer Products division.” The cynical side of me believes that the addition of a black princess to the Disney Princess line, which has “generated $3 billion in global retail sales since 1999,” is an attempt to round out a business model that overlooked a major demographic of sales potential.

No doubt there will be some extra attention paid to the race and class issues in this movie, what with the timeliness of choosing New Orleans as a set and the lack of timeliness in choosing an African-American girl as a lead character. Considering the, uh, unfortunate representations of an amalgam of “barbaric” Middle Eastern culture in Aladdin, and that they’re reprising the same story production crew that did Aladdin, Disney has a long row to hoe. Add the recent national conversations about New Orleans and Katrina, poverty and blackness in the United States, long-lived racist stereotypes of black people, and especially considering that this movie takes place during the salad days of Jim Crow, Disney had better tread very, very carefully. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for progressive or feminist representation here, and Disney has a long history of epic failure in this arena.

This week, Disney released an offical teaser for the newest version. The main character is renamed Tiana, she is no longer employed as a white woman’s chambermaid, and as per the official statement released at the same time as the teaser,

Princess Tiana will be a heroine in the great tradition of Disney’s rich animated fairy tale legacy, and all other characters and aspects of the story will be treated with the greatest respect and sensitivity.

I see.

Well, at least Tiana looks pretty cute.

UPDATE: In comments, Little Light points to additional criticism of the movie from Brownfemipower who also links this great take on the movie by lifelong New Orleans residents Bint Alshamsa and daughter VanGoghGirl.


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32 comments for “Considering the Toothless Firefly, Among Other Things

  1. ElleDee
    July 31, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    Huh, so strange – I was just looking at this article earlier today.

    I understand the criticism of “Maddy” sounding like “Mammy” and it’s good that they changed it, but I couldn’t help but think that Madison is a very, very common name for girls lately and those girls would probably like having the same name as a Disney princess, but ah, what they never know won’t hurt them. Maybe then they won’t have the experience of growing up and realizing that the movie they loved as a kid is horrible and racist*. I’m looking at you Jungle Book for ruining “I Wan’na be Like You” for me for forever!

    And coming from a poor background has never held back a Disney Princess before (Cinderella, Belle), so hopefully the race and class issues won’t be too painful to watch, but who knows. I only have so much faith, you know?

    *I’m sure these kids will have this experience one way or another if they are brought up right.

  2. Mel
    July 31, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Cute, yes–also exactly like a white Disney princess, but light brown. (The drawing with the first article you link at least has some Jazz Age-personality.) Generic.

    I’m foreseeing this continuing to spread awful stereotypes about Voudoun.

  3. July 31, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Cute, yes–also exactly like a white Disney princess, but light brown. (The drawing with the first article you link at least has some Jazz Age-personality.) Generic.

    I KNOW! The first drawing was really cool and bohemian compared to the new one.

  4. July 31, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    I don’t know if I’m just impossible to please, because I probably wouldn’t have liked her more bland, but I was a little uncomfortable with the sassiness being the first thing disney wants to show us about this new princess.

    I know she’s the main character, but it seem treacherously close to the sassy black best friend character (like Jennifer Hudson in SATC, or that embarrassing episode of How I Met Your Mother). But I might be overthinking this.

  5. KaeLyn
    July 31, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    I feel like I did when I realized that black barbie looks like white barbie but with dark skin. Or asian barbie (Kira, if you don’t remember her)…looks like white barbie but with shiny black hair and slightly squinty eyes.

    And I am so not comfortable with this whole Voodoo concept. Why do I have the feeling it will all be incredibly culturally, racially, and religiously insensitive?

    I don’t want kids, but if I ever do have them, there will be a moratorium on Disney for as long as humanly possible. Goddess forbid I raise a child that wants to be a Disney princess…. My feminist Wiccan former-goth friend has a brilliant daughter that, despite her effort to raise her feminist, loves pink and princesses. She is a pretty fierce, opinionated, compassionate 11-year-old, though. There’s only so much you can do…

  6. Lalaroo
    July 31, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    Well, at least she doesn’t look like this:
    http://a3.vox.com/6a00c22527361f549d00d09e5c7e1bbe2b-500pi
    I don’t know if you could draw a waist smaller than that. I watched with the sound off, so I might be missing something truly awful, but I’m just grateful that the animated character has relatively plausible proportions (although I did think she looked a lot like Cinderella, with the blue dress).

  7. Leah
    July 31, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Excuse me while I pop my eyeballs back into my face.

    The firefly? Wow. Just…..wow. I am speechless, but not in the good way.

  8. July 31, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    What are people’s thoughts about Mulan? I thought that was probably Disney’s best attempt at a feminist character (based on a real historical figure to boot) but it’s been awhile since I watched it…

  9. Walker T
    July 31, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    Wow, I have to agree with Leah here. I can’t believe they hustled to change her design, name and situation but leave THAT in.

    Also, maybe it’s just me but her character from that short video instantly reminded me of Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

  10. July 31, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    I loved the art for the original concept.

    I honestly don’t know where Disney is trying to go with this. They start out with a character that seems to have some culture to her, and are criticized for some problematic racial constructs in the story. So they decide they’re going to strip just about everything racialized but her skin from her, and in doing so receive just as much criticism about, well, whitewashing the character. It’s a classic clueless-corporation overreaction. Something’s wrong, and they try to fix it, but they have no idea what the fnck they’re doing, so the parts they identify to throw out or change are random and incoherent and they end up leaving half the truly offensive parts in.

  11. Caravelle
    July 31, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    I loved Mulan.
    For the princess, I agree the blue dress is very Cinderella-ish but as far as the face and expressions go I thought she was a carbon copy of Jasmine.

    But maybe all Disney princesses share the same face and expressions and I’ve just forgotten it.

    I don’t know if I’m just impossible to please, because I probably wouldn’t have liked her more bland, but I was a little uncomfortable with the sassiness being the first thing disney wants to show us about this new princess.

    I know she’s the main character, but it seem treacherously close to the sassy black best friend character (like Jennifer Hudson in SATC, or that embarrassing episode of How I Met Your Mother). But I might be overthinking this.

    I think you might be. Or I’m just not sensitive to the same things you are. How else should she be ? Most Disney princesses are at least somewhat unconventional or rebellious so arguing about kissing a frog doesn’t seem that shocking to me. But then I guess they could have chosen to use another scene to show her for the first time.
    And then again, the movie is “The Princess and the Frog”, what other scene could you use ?

    I’ve always thought for their first black princess Disney should use some African story the way they took a Chinese one for Mulan. That would be cool. But as far as representing a demographic goes, I guess an African-American in New Orleans is good too.

    Next year, my African Princess ?

  12. Vail
    July 31, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    I still hate that Mulan got found out by the guys in the Disney movie. In the myth she goes home, dresses like a girl again, and then outs herself. She keeps her secret the whole time. She also doesn’t need any stupid sidekicks to help her out either.

  13. July 31, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    Hat-tip to Brownfemipower?

    Oy, Disney.

  14. July 31, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    There’s nothing *TO* the trailer, either. OK: we all know the kissing-a-frog storyline. OK, she’s just a voice that’s just slightly “black” but not TOO much, cuz, you know. She keeps kissing the frog everywhere but on the lips, the firefly shows up and says “we’ve got a lot to work on” (or whatever), and… we’re done.

    I know it’s not a fully-fledged trailer, but it just feels empty, completely empty, up until you get smacked in the face with the firefly, and then it’s over.

    Like I said — where are they GOING with this? It’s like trying to squeeze your shopping cart between parked cars — it’s just not gonna happen without some serious scraping on the way.

  15. luzzleanne
    July 31, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Cute, yes–also exactly like a white Disney princess, but light brown. (The drawing with the first article you link at least has some Jazz Age-personality.) Generic.

    Throwing out another Amen for this. The two drawings with green backgrounds (the one in the first article and the one linked to in the comments) were the first bits of concept art I saw about a year ago. Even then they’d chosen the poofy bustle dress over the Art Deco look. I remember being a bit peeved about it, not only because I love a 1920’s look, but also because the face shape and expression in the first one actually give the character some personality beyond “Perfect Disney Princess.”

    Although I must say if they weren’t going to go for an actual flapper look I wish they’d gone with the Cheshire Cat dress here rather than just turning her into another Cinderella.

    @Walker–I’m only seeing it a little bit, but in my mind that’s a good sign. If more children’s entertainment featured female characters like Avatar’s the world would be a slightly brighter place :).

  16. DerekSpade
    July 31, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    How about waiting until the movie comes out to judge it?

    Sure, the Disney culture has produced a lot of bad stuff in the past (though if you’ll recall in Aladin, Jasmine says that’s she’s “not some prize to be won”), but I bet most of you would get a bit upset if someone prejudged the next product of any other culture with a reputation for producing bad seeds.

  17. July 31, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    @Little Light – I owe a hat tip to Jezebel, but I really hate linking the Gawker empire.

    @Derek -*yawn*.

  18. July 31, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    At first I thought it wasn’t too bad… but damn, that lightning bug is ridiculous. Fuck Disney. One step foward, 10 steps backwards.

    Between this and the rest of their movies that are set in non-white (American) cultures (Aladdin, Mulan, Pocahantas to a certain extent, etc), is there any way for Disney to make a movie about another culture without relying on overplayed stereotypes? Even in the Jungle Book, the monkeys were Othered to distinct them from the British influence of Mowgli.

    By the way, NO mention of the racist, stereotypical characters in the Wiki page of the Jungle Book movie or the King Louie page. I bet big corporations are over Wiki.

  19. July 31, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    At first I thought it wasn’t too bad… but damn, that lightning bug is ridiculous. Fuck Disney. One step foward, 10 steps backwards.

    You got that right Lindsay and on top of that what is wrong with a black princess have a natural hairstyle? All they did is take a white character and paint her black..the natural hair would have been a really positive step and huge for the self-esteem of young black girls.

  20. Bushfire
    July 31, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    Wow, I feel like a knob. I didn’t even get the racism in the Jungle Book. If there’s anything out there who enjoys writing off-topic explanations for clueless people, please give me an analysis.

    It’s pretty hard to believe Disney wants to make this movie to appeal to a Black audience. Since when do people start buying things from a company that portrays them in ignorantly stereotyped ways? On the other hand, it’s not really that surprising to see this kind of crap coming from Disney because they are all about colonialism and white-American supremacy. Disney movies are an interesting cultural study but definitely aren’t suitable for children.

  21. Rockit
    July 31, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    Am I the only one who glazed over the plot elements and got an Angel Heart flashback?

  22. Molly
    July 31, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Oh, GOD, that clip! I was thinking, “Well, this is OK … OK … OK … OH MY GOD WTF WAS THAT?!”

    Sensitivity my ASS.

  23. unrelatedwaffle
    August 1, 2008 at 11:16 am

    You know, when I saw the concept art for this movie, I was really excited. The character in this preview is beyond disappointing. No charisma at all, a cross between Mulan and Jasmine, if you ask me.

    I thought “The Frog Princess” was quite a clever title, and when it was changed to “The Princess and the Frog” it lost all of its reference/pun value. I understand that they were trying to be less offensive, but if they were going to change the name, they should have gone with something completely new instead of trying to make the old one do linguistic gymnastics.

  24. August 1, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    I thought she looked a little forgetable. Pretty much as everyone says: a colorized version of a white princes. The frog? shudder.

    The bug………..YIKES.

  25. denelian
    August 1, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    slightly OT – Tiana is the name of a VERY famous Native (Cherokee) “Princess” who was very well known in the war of 1812 – she was instramental in the American’s recieveing Native aid against the British.

    i’m not complaining that the new Disney “Princess” has this name, just wondering at, ya know?

  26. denelian
    August 1, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    argh!

    i went and watched the trailer

    Cajuns, rise!!! beat down Disney!!!

    holy FUCK was that HORRIBLE

  27. August 2, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    Bushfire:

    It’s pretty hard to believe Disney wants to make this movie to appeal to a Black audience. Since when do people start buying things from a company that portrays them in ignorantly stereotyped ways?

    You know, I’ve had lots of conversations with other people of color about this. When I had my daughter, I made a promise to myself that I was only going to buy her dolls that looked like her, in other words, non-white dolls. Well, you know, that turned out to be a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. In the USA, it’s REALLY hard to find toys that portray people of color. And if you do find them, there isn’t going to be much to choose from. I had to spend an arm and a leg to find a doll that even remotely looked like my daughter. I’d love to have been able to boycott more companies, especially those that portray people of color in stereotyped roles but, when the only black/latina/Asian toys in the store are made by Mattel and Disney it gets a lot more difficult to just tell your kids they can’t even have the doll that kinda sorta looks like someone who might be a person of color.

  28. Therese
    August 3, 2008 at 2:23 am

    Awful. The accents are awful. The name change is awful (why not just “Marie”, like every other girl on the street in those days?). I can understand wanting to change it from a “chambermaid”, but, goodness, what do you think working gals who weren’t fortunate enough to be born into the elite were doing then? (My grandmother peeled shrimps, shucked oysters, and washed dishes. Her sister was another woman’s housemaid.)

    As always, we’re poorly represented in media, so I doubt that my fellow Louisianians are really surprised.

  29. Scarlett
    August 3, 2008 at 6:51 am

    Oh, goody. On top of all the other problems with the character and the film, from the look of that trailer it seems that they’ve now straightened her hair.

    Evidently, ONE Disney princess with anything other than thick, shiny, straight-to-slightly-wavy hair was too much to ask for.

  30. NicoleG
    August 4, 2008 at 9:16 am

    Oh Christ in heaven, it was all going well until that bug showed up. Seriously??

    P.S. Fantasia was one of my favorite movies as a child (yes, this is a pretty unpopular opinion) and it was very disturbing to see the edited-out footage on that YouTube video. I assume it was removed from my old VHS copy too because I don’t think I’d ever seen that.

  31. Via
    August 5, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    I loved the original jazz era girl look. It had some power. Her features were stronger.

    Now she looks like a generic princess with some brown colouring in a poofy dress.

    Chambermaid was probably a poor choice for a profession but couldn’t she have been changed to something else that did not involve a tiara? How about a musician? A singer? A seamstress?

    Way to go Disney. Obviously you didn’t understand what was wrong at all.

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