Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Disneyfail: Pocahontas vs The Princess and the Frog

When I look at Pixar movies, I envy today's kids. Imagine growing up with your earliest cinematic memories being of Wall-E and Up and Toy Story 3.

But then, I myself grew up in a pretty sweet age of children's cinema. I'm a child of the Disney Renaissance: I grew up with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, which are hardly to be sniffed at. Of course, if we're talking feminism, they leave something to be desired, but Pixar has its own problems in that regard.

People who are new to feminist, womanist, or otherwise SJ-oriented pop-culture criticism sometimes miss a crucial point: just 'cause I love something doesn't mean I give it a free pass on its isms. Conversely, of course, I can slate something for its genderfail, racefail, etc. and still love it. As Sparky puts it, “My most favourite of favourite things I love are sadly rife with stereotypes, erasure, damaging tropes and out right prejudiced portrayals.” To my thinking, being a responsible pop-culture consumer requires applying critical thinking even to your most beloved properties, and it doesn't necessarily mean you love them any less.

That said, some beloved childhood properties are just too toxic to be looked on with any degree of fondness once you're old enough to think about them critically.

Take Pocahontas. I was six years old when Pocahontas came out, and, with the undiscriminating consumption of young children, my brothers and I watched and rewatched the video. We played at being the characters (primarily the animal sidekicks, so much more interesting than the tedious leads), and we often listened to a cassette of the soundtrack on car journeys. As I grew older, I maintained that the film wasn't very good but the music was.

This assertion was based on fickle memory rather than recent experience, because it's been well over a decade since I either watched the movie or listened to the soundtrack – until the other day, when combined nostalgia and morbid curiosity led me to give the songs a spin.



I realize this movie came out in 1995, when commercialized internet was a brand-new thing, and that it would be a good fifteen years before fuck yeah cultural appropriation came along to succinctly and brilliantly call out this kind of crap, but Orientalism was published in 1978. Are you telling me no one working at Disney in the early nineties had even a passing familiarity with the general concept? Because ICK. I know I'm saying nothing new in pointing out how gross Disney's Pocahontas is, but what shocked me was how much my skin crawled at just the songs, not even the movie itself.

Every damn song is like “woo, the brown people are ~spiritual~ and ~in touch with the land~! The brown people ~understand nature~ and can magically learn foreign tongues by ~listening with their hearts~ and ~communing with the trees~! Fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water...” UM WHAT. And in the song “Savages” there's a painful attempt to draw an equivalence between the invading British forces and the defending American Indians.

Leader of invading British colonialists: “They're different from us, which means they must be evil!

Leader of American Indians: “They're different from us, which means they can't be trusted.

Even as a small child, I recognized the pungent stench of BS in that false equivalence, though I couldn't have articulated why it bothered me so much. Well, now I can: the invading British forces actually can't be trusted. The tribal chief is RIGHT. The invaders want to kill him and his people and steal all their things! Don't give me this “there was wrong and misunderstanding on both sides” revisionist horsepuckey. I'm supposed to condemn the indigenous peoples for not just cheerfully handing over their land, resources, vaginas, etc. to the invading colonial forces? Fuck right off.

Up until Mulan (WHO WINS ALL THE THINGS, NATCH), the only Disney heroine I identified with at all was Belle, obviously. She liked reading a lot, she wanted much more than this provincial life, and everyone thought she was a bit weird: she's just like me! – provided we ignore the entire second half of the movie where she up and Stockholm-syndromes her way to a “happy ending”, as this fabulously ranty piece points out.

That same piece does an able job of describing everything that's wrong with The Princess and the Frog. I don't disagree with any of Ashley's points, but heck if I didn't enjoy the mucus out of that movie. I think it's because I saw the Tiana/Naveen/frog business as a humdrum, easily-ignored subplot. The movie isn't really about princesses, frogs, or any iteration thereof. The movie is about celebrating New Orleans culture: the food, the music, the accents, the color of the city. If you conceive New Orleans as the protagonist, and the actual storyline as stuff that's just happening in the background so we get to enjoy the milieu, it's a less frustrating film.

Tiana's character arc is certainly profoundly disappointing. [SPOILERS, but it's a Disney movie so you knew what was coming:] Apparently we've progressed to the point where a woman can have ambitions of her own, but mayn't realize them unless she has an all-important Man first because what really matters is MARRIAGE!

...Um, Disney? Can I ask you a question? Why do all your movies have romance in them anyway?

I mean, I get that some kids must like love stories. They must do, because it takes all sorts and whatnot. But... in my house, at least, romance plots were something to be suffered through so you could have the awesome songs, wacky sidekicks, magical enchantments, and goofy jokes. My brothers and I were not fans of “mushy stuff”, and surely millions of kids feel the same way. Why have romance in your kids' movies at all? Kids are kids! They're not interested in ~love~ and ~romance~ and ~special feelings~. Kids want stories of adventure and magic and fun and friendship, the things they seek out in their everyday lives. At one stage during The Princess and the Frog, I briefly entertained the notion that Tiana and Naveen might just realize they liked and valued each other as friends, and that would've been awesome. If I were writing a kids' film, the interpersonal relationships would all be friendships, because I think kids deserve to know that friends are more important than romantic partners. (YMMV, of course, but surely we can all agree that's true for six-year-olds!)

But, for all its faults, The Princess and the Frog does take unmitigated delight in Louisiana Creole culture, in a way that seems genuine and reasonably non-gross. I'll take that over Pocahontas any day.


  1. Great post! I watched bits of The Princess & the Frog and was disappointed by how empty it kind of felt, mostly because I grew up with Ariel and Belle and all those other silly gals. The magic wasn't there for me, but then I guess neither was the empowerment. But as you said, at least it wasn't as racist as Pocahontas!

  2. FINALLY. I also adored Princess and the Frog, despite the problematic elements therein, and I'm happy to find someone else who feels the same about it.

    The setting was one of my favorite things about it--New Orleans came to life, so much that it was almost a character in and of itself.

    And I actually love Tiana, a lot. She reminds me of, well, every college-age girl I know, who works two or three jobs trying to get by and get to where she really wants to go.

    And I may go down for this, but hell, I'll say it--I loved Naveen, too. He was more interesting than the usual Disney prince, because he had actual *flaws*. Big, huge, glaring ones that should've made me want to rip my hair out. (His flirtations, for example.) And yet, he was also funny and perceptive, (he understands Mama Odie's message well before Tiana does) and way more empathetic than I expected him to be.

    Yeah, I'll say it--Naveen was actually charming. His change happened quickly, but I found that it worked rather well--pay attention to his facial expressions while he's a frog--the change is right there.

    Also, he might be the first biracial prince I know of. (Mom looks Indian, Dad looks Spanish.) That's kind of cool just in and of itself.

    Oh yeah--and there's the small fact that he's more or less working for Tiana by the end. And LOVING every minute of it.

    In a way, Naveen represents a new kind of Disney prince--or at least, an alternate kind. He's not hung up on rescuing 'his' girl--though he can and does, in a pinch. Naveen is a more supportive version of masculinity than I'm used to seeing in Disney films. (Spoken as a woman who's dated a LOT of guys with a hero complex. Who wanted to 'rescue' me from stuff like depression, etc. It got on my nerves after awhile, lol.)

    I think that's one thing I liked as well--the frog element was adorable rather than annoying, not to mention funny as hell.
    Also, there's just something about a man in 1920s-era clothing that does it for me. Look, I watched "Public Enemies" for much the same reason. I can't explain it, it's just a thing. ;-D