“Tiana’s Bane: Or how the White Sidekick, whose name I shall not utter here, somehow matters more than the African-American Protagonist in fandom”
2009’s “The Princess and the Frog” heralded a lot of good things for the fictional Black Characters (the Black Female in particular) as it did a lot of laundry problematic things*. The story centralized on Tiana, the fledgling entrepreneur who wished to own and work at her own business (“Tiana’s Palace” or “Tiana’s Place”, Disney seems undecided). Her goal gets sidetracked when she agrees to try and free a cursed and froggish Prince Naveen from a spell placed upon him by the “Shadow Man” (Dr. Facilier) with a kiss, which turns her into a frog as well. Long story short, she spends the rest of the film as a frog on top of dealing with the uncouth Prince’s hijinks and the repeated criticism of working too hard to get want she wants in the name of financial security and personal freedom; somewhere along that line she snags herself a boyfriend turned husband (Naveen), but she gets what she wants in the end, both financially and personally speaking.
Got it? Good.
“Princess and the Frog” doesn’t break any barriers in regards to Disney tropes. It maintains the safe road that worked for them in the 90s, and combined with treading softly (as they should) around the portrayal of African-Americans (50/60 in that issue, methinks), they did an decent job. Shit, I came out loving the move despite its problems. Like Mulan, Tiana —- as far as Disney is concerned —- is extremely progressive character, both as a woman trapped within the framework of Disney’s outdated storytelling themes and a Person of Color. She achieves and controls a level of agency that is not dependent on anyone but herself and never resorts to foolish deals or sacrifices physical or mental aspects of her person to get what she wants. Basically, she (and Mulan) challenges some of the problematic blueprint the other Disney Princesses embody. Tiana is the Disney Princess the fandom wanted and got. The problem?
- She’s African-American, so that’s no good for the majority of the “Ariel, Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty etc., etc.” fans. (Jasmine fans, like Ariel fans, grievances with her is that she removes the central focus from her “spotlight” — especially since she’s no longer the only “brown” character in the Princess line up, yet they have no problems with Mulan and don’t beef with Esmeralda (most likely because of the “not princess” thing).
- She’s too independent – which somehow translates into “You’re shoving feminism down my throat, Disney!” – fancy that.
- Her Best Friend – Charlotte LaBeouf —- embodies all the things the Disney Fandom professed to be tired of, and on top of being white, she’s the one the fandom will eventually gravitate to (including the POC fanbase, who typically spurn Tiana for reminding them too damn much of how hard they’ve worked all their lives just to get by).
On top of a highly critically-minded fanbase, “The Princess and the Frog” has had to deal with the opposite end of the Disney Princess fanbase that has internalized and digested racist imagery, overt and subvert rhetoric that has effectively made sure that POC characters —- most especially Black female characters —- as something lesser than their white counterparts. In the three years it’s been available to the public, PATF’s fandom has never been above to rise above writing essays/rants like the one before you and idolizing Charlotte, who works in the same way as Emma Stone’s Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan in 2011’s “The Help”. She exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to make white people feel better about being a part of a group that perpetuates racism by doing the exact opposite: not being a racist and being rewarded for with her “niceness”.
In the same way People of Color are tired of having to watch a film or read book, dealing with stories written by white people who render them ultimately powerless to save themselves from a problem (like they did and usually do), white people are just absolutely tired of portrayed in the framework that was the majority of the said community during any time predating the 80s, 90s and 2000s. They’re tired of being portrayed as the “Hilly Holbrook” of the story because, hey, they’re not all like that! Thus desire has given rise to the continuation of the popular “Mighty Whitey” and “White Savior” tropes in media. They want to be the Skeeter of the story, they want to be that ally that doesn’t blink twice at discrimination as experienced by POC and be patted on the back for not being “one of them”. What does this have to do with Charlotte? Like, I said, she embodies both tropes mentioned above in a subvert manner.
In a film that unequivocally focuses on Tiana’s journey, it also feels the need to focus on Charlotte’s hijinks with Naveen’s manservant, Lawrence, assuming that the audience somehow gives a hoot about what she’s been up to since being jumped on by frogs. Other Disney films were pretty content to leave “best friend” hanging somewhere in the back until the end that required des ex machina interference. “Princess and the Frog”, however, feels the need to add insult injury. In order for Tiana (and Naveen) to achieve their humanity, the storyline misleads (or so it thinks) the audience with the assumption that Naveen needs to sacrifice his and Tiana’s newfound happiness by giving up his interpersonal freedom for Charlotte after he kisses her (said kiss will turn them into human beings again).
This goal once again places an importance on Charlotte that not even Nakoma or Flounder experience in their respective films as best friends at the same time it elevates her to “Princess” status before Tiana (not that she gets to keep it). Had I been as aware of things like I’m trying to express in this ‘essay’, I’m pretty sure I would’ve heard the simultaneous Orgasm white fandom had when Charlotte decided to “give up her dream” of being a Princess and marrying Naveen for Tiana. I never realized it, but Charlotte became Jesus in that single moment; she sacrificed herself so Naveen and Tiana could be absolved of his sins for mucking about with black magic.
At every turn Charlotte’s presence is constantly reinforced as “sweet, kind and important” refuses go away when you want to turn your attention to Tiana. She jumps around the screen, talking at the top of her voice like she doesn’t have home training, talks over folks and tosses money around like old clothing. The movie wants you to focus on how “great and nice” Charlotte is being to Tiana because she’s a white woman in a position of power with the greatest privilege of all (being rich) and doesn’t behave like Hilly Holbrook.
I’ve seen it constantly reiterated that Charlotte’s uncouth behavior is necessary for the juxtaposition of Tiana’s behavior —- which is constantly reinforced as some type of negative or character flaw in the film and, like wtf —— but honestly, for me, it all leads back to assuaging that good old halo of “white guilt”.
If you visit any of the corresponding tags for “Princess and the Frog” on Tumblr, visit any general forum for a Disney community, the volume of “stans” for Charlotte comes in droves at the same time they dismiss or accuse Tiana for being “too critical”, “boring”, and every other stigmatic label that has followed Black Characters since somebody dared to expand them beyond the occupation of “black best friend” or “sassy background that purses their lips at weave snatches”. As a result any criticisms of Black characters by white people are treated with initial suspicion until proven otherwise or if it’s coming from a POC that hasn’t sipped the bleach.
To them Tiana’s only important because she allowed them to default on Charlotte’s presence —- a presence which I highly doubt would be the teacher’s pet of the white PATF fandom if she were Black as well. To them Tiana’s only important in the aspect that they can talk about how much Charlotte contributes to the film because she’s a Skeeter and wasn’t raised to treat Black people like shit on her heel like the majority did in the 1920s and onward and backward. You search the tumblr tags for PATF and the search engine is just hemorrhaging Charlotte graphics, Charlotte ask blogs, reaction .gifs and reasons upon reasons about why Charlotte is so great, why she should have a face character, a movie, an action figure, Naveen, etc. You’ll get these long ass rants or paragraphs about how “Lottie and Tia’s Friendship is so great because feminism, progression and colorblindness!” However, I’ve seen these goddamn arguments enough to know now that t’s not the friendship their interested in, not really, it’s how Charlotte is portrayed in the “friendship” that tickles their jimmies. Tiana’s contribution the “friendship” means all but jack spit, Lottie, however, Lottie’s the fucking Moon Princess with the way folk go on and on about her and that precious “friendship”. Tiana’s only greatness in that aspect is that she reciprocates and doesn’t mistrust Lottie for plethora of justified reasons and that it’s a Disney movie (they’re not gonna portray white characters as being in the wrong unless they can make an argument that the POC is somehow in the wrong as well. Basically, just watch “Pocahontas” and listen to “Savages”, which implies the Native American characters are somehow wrong for wanting kick the English settler’s asses for wrecking shit and killing Kocoum).
I’ll be frank, I dislike Charlotte with the fire of a thousand suns (and that’s a direct quote) because of what she represents. The character, not unlike Rapunzel and her film (Tangled), is a white privilege enabler if I ever saw one. But, do I think Tiana or this film would be treated or fared better had Charlotte being a fellow Black Woman*, not existed or avoided the crappy pitfalls it rests in? No, but I do think it would be harder for a white-centric fanbase to justify their shallow dislike for Tiana by hiding behind Charlotte, who acts as the perfect alibi to a murder. Lottie is just there for the disarmament of the white audience, and thus she effectively derails the entire reason for Tiana’s existence or purpose within her own story, fandom wise anyway. Tiana might as well not exist and the funny thing is, no one would bat a lash if she didn’t, not even the POC. They’d be all too entertained by Lottie’s “cute and bubbly personality” at the same time requesting equality and diversity from a company that has shown time and time again that it just doesn’t given a shit about POC representation. They just don’t care and I can live with that (angry as it makes me), primarily because there are others who do and want to do right by POC. Will they succeed? God willing, I hope so.
The Tiana tag in general has its fair share of graphics and fans, but almost zero the amount of adoration or appreciation you see painted all over Charlotte (and thanks to petitetiaras’ Princess Challenge, the tag also gets visited by “Princess you Like Least” in droves). POC blogs I’m monitoring are more interested in the flaws of PATF than boosting Tiana up. From her hair, to her dress, to her boyfriend, to her songs (which are somehow “bland” or “bad” because “lolz Randy Newman!” and not Alan Menken, because, yeah, because that saved “Tangled”’s blanch musical numbers), it’s a debate-fest for Tiana. And worst of all, most arguments made against PATF I agree with, but quite frankly, I’m tired of seeing them pop up and watching bloggers (especially the PATF-supportive blogs) remain silent as the grave about Charlotte unless someone else steps up and says “Charlotte was Problematic because legit reasons”. Even then it’s just a “lolz, so right, but I like Lottie so…” This has constantly given me the feeling that Lottie is somehow off-limits from [POC] criticisms that don’t extend beyond a sentence because they like her, but Tiana’s easier to deconstruct because she as a character didn’t meet the multitude of expectations of the Black Community wanted her to reach and she’s compounded by the skewered perspective of the white gaze in her film.
Why does it take the person next to you to point this out, why do I feel like the only special POC snowflake that notices the absolutely intrusion of a character Charlotte LaBeouf is in the narrative to “Princess and the Frog” (a narrative that partakes in the “not all white/rich people are bad. They dream for things like POC too, guyz!”)? Why is it easier to find a deconstruction of PATF/Tiana than it is for Lottie, who’s treated like a queen by the fandom in comparison because all they can focus on is the “WE COULD’VE HAD IT ALLLLL” aspect of PATF? Yeah, you could say “people already know”, yet essays about PATF itself and Tiana will continue to be grounded out because “this is brand new information” and somehow Lottie doesn’t need to be addressed Sure, fine.
In the end, should anyone publish this, it wouldn’t surprise me that the usual droves of Lottie defenders will swoop in and say the usual “calling me racist because I dislike Tiana, sjws are stoopid” and etc., etc. and etc. and truth be told, I’ve nothing to say to them because there’s no changing their minds and they’re missing the point, but that’s expected (just visit waltdisneyconfession’s “charlotte” and “lottie” tags and this if you don’t believe me about the worship and the friendship thing). Their reactions, however, will be amusing to watch nonetheless. If this doesn’t get published. Well, there are other avenues.
- *Google for semi-complete tally of the dissertations concerning the problematic elements of PATF as a result of being written from the white male gaze. Long story short, you’ll be able find a lot of breakdowns about what’s wrong with the movie more than you’ll find about what’s right with it. While that’s not wrong by any means… fuck, that’s hard for a fangirl.
- *[…]A friendship like something out Living Single, Girlfriends, Moesha or the Proud Family?