Fact vs. Fiction: On reading social issues in Disney’s ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (a response)

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Poster of "The Princess and the Frog," taken from  the movie's Wikipedia entry.

Poster of “The Princess and the Frog,” taken from the movie’s Wikipedia entry.

Yesterday, I came across this blog post called The Pricess and the Frog: A Feminist Fairytale from Feministing.com. It was a trend for me because I was researching on what others had to say about Hercules (1997) and The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) (and their respective TV spin-offs), and yes, I adore The Princess and the Frog (2009). It was the first movie my boyfriend and I saw together (on his laptop in our university’s study hall).

I’ve known a long while now that Disney, even though I grew up with and loved its 90s Renaissance era films, wasn’t exactly known for its feminism, historical accuracy, and cultural representation, to name a few things. But I decided to open that can of worms, in the name of picking up a few useful somethings.

Note that I only carry these opinions because I was raised in a traditionally patriarchal Filipino setting, on a steady diet of Western cartoons and books—but somehow, I don’t buy the traditional gender roles foisted upon women by my own culture. It was not just the Disney Princess line at work on my psyche here.

Anyway, the post itself is all right, but it’s the comments that are a riot. I’m always surprised (occasionally taken aback) by the sheer number of people who misread a work of art, whether this is overreading or not reading enough. Someone in the thread said something along the lines of “It’s okay, it’s just fiction,” and it got me wondering: when is it appropriate to say that and when is it just an excuse?

I’m not saying my own interpretation of the film is 100% correct, but that is the beauty of art: there is no “correct” interpretation.

However, the work itself has a scope and limitations, just like any decent research paper, and some people like to criticize art for things that are way beyond its implied scope and limitations. I’m not saying you can’t stretch its limits, but oftentimes, people forget its scope in a critique.

Case in point. Some of the comments (before they devolved into a critique of one person’s comment about personally not finding anything wrong with wanting a family even after getting an Ivy league education and the first, vicious reaction to this comment) discuss how the film completely disregards the social and classist issues prevailing in 1930s New Orleans that really hindered the so-called “glorified individualism” part of American culture, as exhibited by Tiana’s character.

Also discussed is the “problem” of Tiana and Lottie’s friendship, which boiled down to “why is there a problem with portraying wealthy black families onscreen?”

The issue of marriage naturally came up as well, about whether it was a side plot or something necessary for the hard-working career woman to have. And the speciesism? I couldn’t even wrap my head around that one; more research on my part is needed.

Now, if I said “it’s only fiction” to these people, that would be an excuse to get away from all these arguments.

In art and in life, a delicate balance of both must be struck; you’re never going to get it completely (exhibit A: Disney’s misrepresentation of the Voodoo religion), but you’re never gonna please everybody, either. I laud Disney for really attempting the balance, though.

I don’t know squat about the race issues between blacks and whites in America beyond what I’ve seen on TV and read in books, being a Southeast Asian living in the Philippines whose people have their own race issues. But I do know that The Princess and the Frog is a G-rated Disney musical for children. I highly doubt it could have been classified as such if the problems of the Deep South in the 20s and 30s were accurately represented; liberties will and must be taken. Moreover, it was wonderful to see a Disney heroine with so single-minded a purpose as a achieving a dream that has nothing to do with Prince Charming or happily ever after—something I didn’t quite feel in its successor, Tangled (2010).

Children’s movies need a healthy mix of fantasy and reality to get the message across. Maybe for Disney, some social issues need to take a backseat in order to tackle the main one? I don’t know. They’re not known for being good at that, so I suppose this effort in that context is a big one.

As a children’s movie, I think it depicted just enough of reality (like when Tiana and her mother were taking the bus home and it was shown that their neighborhood consisted solely of financially-struggling blacks). I had no problem with Lottie and her family being rich and white because that was the way things were, back in the day. What was truly remarkable about Lottie and Tiana’s friendship was that it existed at all—and sure, it’s only fiction. Maybe that kind of family with that kind of attitude toward people was not the norm in the American South of the 20s. Lottie and her dad are the exception, and an exceptional fictional example of human decency. Her friendship with Tiana is so strong that she, in full princess-bride get up and inches away from her dream of becoming a princess and getting her prince and happily ever after, offers to kiss Naveen in order to break the spell–no marriage required. How’s that for debunking the infamous Disney Princess image?

Kids are intelligent, no denying that. But the age group to which Disney caters should be shown movies accurately depicting life’s harsh realities when their ages hit the double-digits. Let them have their happy childhoods first, or they will grow up cynical. Besides, many of the more complicated symbolisms go over their heads anyway (example: I did not realize the sexual politics behind Hercules until I was much older); for as long as they’re at the age they are, we should keep molding their foundations with positive messages. And when that’s been built, then do you let them see the darker side and the gray patches of reality.

In the end, I have yet to make up my mind as to whether or not the human race places too much emphasis in the role of media as the hands that form the clay of the human mind. I think of the Catholic Church and well-meaning parents who go to crazy lengths to censor a work for its “depravity” or “obscenity” or whatever, even if all the work does is work along the lines of “what if.” I think that’s when it’s okay to say “it’s only fiction”—when the work is challenging one’s pre-conceived notions and the “taboo” status of a subect. One must delineate between fact and fiction…but at the same time, one must be open to what it might be trying to say, as all good fiction contains a grain of truth.

The only time it’s not okay is when it outright fictionalizes and romanticizes—not merely borrows elements from—an existing culture. That’s a recipe for promoting stereotypes. Perhaps that is why Disney will always have the problem of culture, gender, and sex on its hands, as it often fails to strike a balance when depicting cultures completely foreign (look at the way Genie in Aladdin (1990) and Mushu in Mulan (1998) are so staunchly American—perhaps that is their way of keeping up audience interest).

The Princess and the Frog, however flawed it may be, is a big step in that long way to go. Let’s see how Disney does with Frozen.

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