First Black Disney Princess Debuts, 70+ years after Snow White

First Black Disney Princess, 70+ Years After Snow White

Posted Dec 04, 2009

This holiday season, Disney introduces a new princess to join its other 8 wildly popular Disney princess characters. Tiana, the star of the movie The Princess and the Frog is already playing in LA and New York, with a national release date of Dec. 11. Take a look at the list of what are now 9 Disney princesses, and the movies where each made her screen debut:

The 9 Disney Princesses and their Debut Films

1) Snow White - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
2) Cinderella - Cinderella (1950)
3) Princess Aurora - Sleeping Beauty (1959)
4) Ariel - The Little Mermaid (1989)
5) Belle - Beauty and the Beast (1991)
6) Jasmine - Aladdin (1992)
7) Pocahontas - Pocahontas (1995)
8) Mulan - Mulan (1998)
9) Tiana - The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Before I go any further, I should say that I have reservations about the notion of perfect, beautiful princesses as role models for little girls. The notion of a girl's ideal being based on an incredibly high standard of beauty--and a definition of beauty that's prescribed--makes me uneasy as a parent and a psychologist. I'm a much bigger fan of something like PBS's Fetch with Ruff Ruffman - a television show that presents real children of a variety of races and backgrounds who not only appear authentic, but who are valued for all the right reasons. The show emphasizes the real process of learning, as well as important values like cooperation, hard work, and finding your own strengths, as well as having fun. For smaller children, Dora the Explorer, Diego, and Ni Hao Kai Lan also make good choices.

Aside from my reservations about beauty ideals, it's a positive step by Disney, albeit a late one, to include characters of a variety of colors and backgrounds. And Disney has shown very appropriate sensitivity and responsibility in some of the actions it has taken in creating this character. They consulted on the film with both the NAACP and with Oprah, who is the voice of princess Tiana's mother in the film. Tiana herself is voiced by Broadway actress Anika Noni Rose.

One great aspect of the film, and one that required a lot of sensitivity to deliver, is the film's New Orleans setting. Given the extreme hardships New Orleans residents have endured, and the controversies over government response to African American citizens of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, making the effort to portray Jazz Era New Orleans, in all its glory, is truly a delight to behold and a great choice from Disney.

Another wonderful aspect of the film is Tiana herself as a character. She is a hard worker has dreams of being a New Orleans chef. In other words, she is her own woman who thinks of something other than handsome princes.

Speaking of handsome princes, the film has already taken some criticism for deciding on a prince for Tiana who is not African American. Prince Naveen, from the land of Maldonia, is voiced by the Latin (Brasilian-born) actor Bruno Campos. I actually do not share this criticism, although I understand it. To my way of thinking, this choice embraces the notion of loving relationships between people of different races. Also, given the population of the US is growing rapidly and currently at about 20% Latino, I appreciate the choice Disney made. A look back at the list of Disney prince/princess films reveals a lack of diversity among the princes too, with only Aladdin fitting the bill. You may recall that Mulan, Disney's Asian princess, was more independent and less man-focused than the previous lot. Again, bravo on that count to Disney. Pocohantas' love was the very White John Smith. That wasn't a choice, of course, but a nod to history.

Overall, and based on the notion that positive representation of one's race and gender are helpful to the self esteem of the little girls who watch, this marks a happy moment in the history of film and in the history of American race relations. With sensitive topics like these, I find a sense of humor so helpful. Therefore I leave you on a humorous note. It has not escaped my attention that the first Disney princess was literally called Snow White - a full blown incarnation of the ideal of Whiteness as purity and beauty. Now, a whopping 70+ years later, we see an African American princess demonstrating that black is also beautiful.

Media psychology research has shown that just watching stories where people of different colors and backgrounds interact actually encourages more interracial friendships in real life. For me personally, one thing I look very forward to is seeing girls of all colors proudly wearing the image of Princess Tiana, showing that Black characters aren't just adored by Black fans, but by fans of every color.