Dossier » The ties that bind

Political Subtexts in The Princess and the Frog and Kirikou and the Sorceress

by Cécile Coquet-Mokoko

The last thing parents taking their children out to watch a Disney movie want to hear about is politics. If the blogosphere is any indication of the educated African American public's reception of The Princess and the Frog, it seems the Disney magic and promise of wonderment can only function with the caveat that we shouldn't try to read too much into it, but "simply" enjoy the artwork "through children's eyes."


The ties that bind - Political Subtexts in The Princess and the Frog and Kirikou and the Sorceress -

While the posts preceding the film's national release were often critical, the comments posted over the following month were overwhelmingly positive, many commentators and bloggers expressing relief and pleased surprise at the representations of a "normal" African American family that they and their children could finally identify with, and downplaying the facts that such representations lasted only a few seconds in the whole film, that the father figure was quickly eliminated from the picture, and that Tiana the workaholic, overly-respectable, no-nonsense waitress displayed many defining features of the more recent stereotype of the Black Lady.(1)

It cannot be denied that, if one chooses as a reference scale the long and tormented history of the representation of African American characters in the American animated film industry and especially Disney Studios, then one cannot but rejoice when seeing distinctively African American features on human characters, as opposed to more or less minstrelsied animals ranging from the buffoon to the noble savage. But what if we watch The Princess and the Frog through eyes that have already beheld empowering representations of Black male and female characters in animated movies? And what if we choose to face the fact that children's animated films are no more politically innocent than children's literature?(2)

Because Kirikou and the Sorceress, a 1998 Franco-Belgian 2D animated film set in Africa with human protagonists, was an unexpected hit in Europe and Francophone Africa and won, among other awards, the British Animation Awards for best European feature in 2002 (jointly with Chicken Run,) it is interesting to compare its approach to the representation of Blackness with that of the Disney Studios in The Princess and the Frog, especially from the perspective of empowering renditions of Black characters and the values they stand for. This essay will mainly focus on the political subtexts behind the use of structural folk tale elements such as magic and illusion, the protagonist's loneliness and destiny, individual aspirations versus the social order, and gender relations.

Contrary to most fairy tales of European origin, such as Charles Perrault's or the Brothers Grimm's, the hero of Kirikou and the Sorceress is immediately identified as an extraordinary being who not only births and names himself, but defines himself as a savior figure from the very first scene of the film, as the official synopsis highlights:

A tiny voice is heard from inside the womb of a pregnant woman: "Mother, give birth to me !"

"A child who can speak from his mother's womb can give birth to himself", replies the mother.

And so a little boy is born, cuts his own umbilical cord and declares: "My name is Kirikou"

The tiny Kirikou is born into an African village upon which a sorceress called Karaba has cast a terrible spell: the spring has dried up, the villagers are being blackmailed, the men of the village have either been kidnapped or have mysteriously disappeared.

"She eats them!" the superstitious villagers declare….

Karaba is a stunning and cruel woman, surrounded by fearless and servile fetishes. But no sooner has Kirikou delivered himself from his mother's womb than he wants to rid the village of Karaba's curse and understand the cause of her wickedness.

His adventure-filled voyage leads Kirikou to the Forbidden Mountain, where the Wise Man of the Mountain, who knows of Karaba and her secrets, awaits him. (http://www.kirikou.net/synopsis.html)

The French director, Michel Ocelot, spent most of his early childhood in Guinea-Conakry, in West Africa. This firsthand experience of African life provided him with the basis for this tale, which he loosely adapted from the West African traditional tale of Ize Gani, a thumb-size boy who combats a wicked witch. In the Director's Notes on the film's official website, he insists on his intent to give his feature film both a universal set of values regarding good and evil, and esthetic authenticity rooted in his love for Africa:

The story of the film is loosely based on the African tale which I used as a starting point in order to develop a nice, simple story with the questions I asked as a child and the convictions I have assumed as an adult. I developed the contrast between small child/mighty sorceress: Kirikou is tiny and wears no clothes, Karaba the Sorceress is statuesque, over-dressed with jewels, malice and power.

The main topic of the story is the question that Kirikou raises throughout the tale: "Why is the sorceress wicked?" Adults have ready-made answers, when they do have them. But Kirikou will reach the truth, his actions are not pre-determined, he does not simply kill Karaba as in the original story.

The second topic is that one should never fear "sorcerers" and that you will achieve what you want, not by believing in superstition and lucky charms, but by taking matters into your own hands. My heroes are independent: Kirikou, his mother, his grandfather and Karaba.

Other themes came naturally too, from very African topics such as the importance of the family and of the group, a certain harmony with the body, to universal topics such as war of the sexes (the sorceress is a beautiful woman and she fights her battles with men), altruism, shrewdness, forgiveness, time ticking over, love—that between a man and a woman, of course—but also that between mother and son, an emotion not dealt with in traditional folklore.

How to treat Africa graphically presented a problem: Africa has a great tradition of decorative art but not so much that of a figurative graphic art. For inspiration purposes, I imagined an African Douanier Rousseau. That idea helped us design the decor of the background scenery. As for the characters, we made use of Egyptian art as I wanted to avoid caricature and I also wanted the handsome individuals to immediately appear striking.

The fetishes are obviously inspired from "Negro Art". In this case, there was no lack of choice. As far as colour was concerned I used the vivid memories of my childhood; an ochre village, the yellow savannah, the emerald forest, the green river, the hut of the sorceress, the outside as grey and black as death and the inside as red as hell, and the rainbow-coloured finale of a crowd at a fancy-dress party.

Quite naturally an African musician composed the music. It is an African tale and Africa has made a huge impression on the world with its music. We asked Youssou N'dour to compose the soundtrack. He still lives in Dakar despite international fame. Furthermore, I asked him to be even more African than usual and to use exclusively traditional instruments. We also recorded the original French voices in his studio using African actors. I wanted to make a film in my language, which is also the language of a part of Africa and I did not want my villagers in the bush to have voices arranged and recorded in Paris. I enjoyed immensely recording French speakers in Africa, thus bringing an authentic African flavour to the film.(3)

The representations of Black identity in Kirikou are thus inscribed in the timelessness of folk tales. As in founding myths, the hero's village stands as the center of the known world, and the origin of the disruption of harmony is lost in folks' memories, although we sense that a restoration of order (both natural and social) is close at hand. The luxuriousness of nature around the African village suggests that the continent is anything but dark; quite the contrary, the splendor of the landscapes, explicitly inspired from Le Douanier Rousseau's Naïve style of painting, may be understood as an underlying political commentary on the rich possibilities of a continent under a spell which is more complex than the argument of a divine curse on the sons of Ham. On the contrary, the African masks in the Voodoo Emporium of Dr. Facilier, the Shadow Man of The Princess and the Frog, are unequivocally associated with evil and death—the "other side" they belong to is clearly that of Satan, thus reinforcing the nineteenth-century associations made by Europeans and Euro-Americans between African traditional belief systems and devil worship.(4) Dr. Facilier, like Karaba, is apt to steal souls from human beings and change their appearances to make them serve his evil designs; but the emphasis put in the film on Naveen's blood, as the necessary ingredient for the charm sustaining the illusion that Lawrence the servant is Naveen, only serves to further confirm in viewers' minds the notion that African traditional beliefs are not only intrinsically alien and impossible to grasp, but, above all, anti-Christian, akin to human sacrifice, and thus better ignored than deconstructed, let alone valued or appropriated. 

Significantly enough, no deity is evoked throughout Kirikou and the Sorceress; God is just as absent from this animated movie as in any Disney movie—or fairy tale, for that matter; but fascination with evil is less present than might be expected. Kirikou's self-initiation has more to do with preparedness, without which he cannot meet the challenges raised by Karaba the sorceress against his village. Rather than rely on magic himself, he learns on his own that it takes courage to believe in his personal ability to confront his innermost fears; as we watch him overcome one obstacle after another, we gradually understand that it is not until he has decided to identify the root of a problem and solve it that he may prove worthy of confronting evil in its various manifestations (i.e., the monster of the cursed spring, the warthog, the snake, and finally Karaba herself, demythified into a victim of men's cruelty and lust.) His questions to his mother and grandfather only help him make sense of the behaviors of others, but the process of assessing his own unsuspected strengths and the risk of overconfidence in himself or others (such as his uncle or grandfather) is an inherently lonely one.

The political subtext of the film is one of its richest dimensions. As Kirikou learns from his mother, evil does not exist as a separate entity just because it seems to be impersonated by Karaba the sorceress; but it exists in each person, and it is the amount of power that people can wield that makes them more or less destructive of others. The film's narrative draws a distinct line between individual evil tendencies, embodied by the other children, the stout woman and the old man, and the systemic form of evil embodied by Karaba, founded on the ability to maintain fear in others. Except for Kirikou, everyone in the village has accepted the norms they live in, enforcing upon themselves and the rest of the group the constraints decreed from afar by the sorceress. Thus, the political subtext describes how human beings placed in a situation of oppression seemingly justified by commandments and taboos ("the Cursed Spring," "the Forbidden Mountain," the recovery of the jewels stolen from the villagers as a "sacrilegious action") are apt to learn to accommodate even to systems that kill them—the lack of water and the barrenness of the land surrounding Karaba's hut telling plainly enough the absence of any future for the village she has parasitized, while Kirikou's mother imparts to him the crucial wisdom that "you can live without gold; but you cannot live without water and without those you love."

The absence of male role models makes the sense of loss almost palpable in the film, but just as Tiana keeps working and saving for the sake of her departed father's dream, the absence of any father figure does not stop Kirikou from striving for a better future for himself and his community. Faced with the need to invent a way out of such destructive conformity for his village and himself, Kirikou is given no outside help. Finding excuses for himself is not an option, for this would only amount to mirroring the villagers' contempt for their unwanted savior. His nakedness, which caused the movie to be banned from all but a select few theaters in the USA and never broadcasted on TV, is not just true to the realities of rural life for many African children, as the filmmaker Michel Ocelot protested, insisting he would not sanitize his African characters for the sake of conservative audiences. It is also clearly presented as a symbol of innocence and worth, beyond the little hero's apparent frailty. When Kirikou approaches the Sacred Mountain (as the English version has it; in French it is a termite mound, a symbol of wisdom in West African oral tradition) on the back of the warthog, he realizes his own purity as opposed to the uncleanness of the wild animal.

At the other extreme of the spectrum of representation of young Black bodies in the process of coming of age, the literal downfall of Tiana from the dreamlike perfection of a costumed princess to a slender but slimy (or mucus-covered, as Naveen puts it) frog complicates, or possibly interrupts, the process of identification with the heroine for young (or not-so-young) female viewers. This extreme instance of de-sexualization of Tiana is all the more disturbing as it reinforces the ultimately de-humanizing politics of respectability involved in performing the role of the Black Lady as a female who is morally upright to the point of (f)rigidity and absolutely bent on disproving the stereotypes of the promiscuous, lascivious “welfare queen” or “video vixen” that American children of the BET and present-day generation are bombarded with. As Lisa B. Thompson (2009) stresses out:

Acting like a Black lady became a highly conscious performance developed in part as a response to social codes and ideals of propriety dictated by nineteenth- and twentieth-century reformers who strategized for more humane treatment of African Americans. … Advocates for Victorian values and impeccable conduct, these Black activists established a tradition that positions middle-class women as the arbiters and models of domesticity, chastity, and propriety among African Americans. Therefore, what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham calls the ‘politics of respectability’ became a foundational ideal of racial uplift and a survival strategy…. The performance of middle-class black womanhood is tied to impossible standards of respectability. No other group of African Americans find themselves responsible for setting professional, aesthetic, political, moral, ethical, historical, and cultural values…. To present themselves as ladies, they must either adhere to conservative sexual standards or cloak their sexuality in what Darlene Clark Hine identifies as a culture of dissemblance, a strategy for concealing their private lives while simultaneously performing ‘openness and disclosure.’… The choice between either betraying their responsibility to the race or embracing their own sexual choices (which may or may not be in line with societal expectations) presents a dilemma. One’s individuality and subjectivity is a high price to pay to frustrate demeaning stereotypes. (pp. 3-4)

As a Black heroine and as the first Black “princess” character in addition, Tiana unequivocally embodies the values of hard work, self-help and respectability at the expense of her budding sexuality, as is emphasized in the restaurant scene where her friends, while being waited on by her, insist in vain on taking her out for a dance and complain about her inability to have fun and let her hair down. Her excuse (“I have two left feet”) sounds more like an attempt at preserving her hard-earned bourgeois respectability than like an expression of adolescent shyness, and her dream of finding her true self as the chef and hostess of “Tiana’s Place” significantly shows her swirling alone between the tables and customers. Such a dream of personal achievement is not simply to be taken as a feminist’s version of a princess tale, for it also acts as a subtle message to little Black girls, telling them they should dream whether or not they find a partner to share their ambitions, because there might well never be any significant other in their adult lives. Wahneema Lubiano (1992) has shown how the overachieving type of the Black Lady, while doomed to remaining single, has also been instrumentalized, since the Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991, as a traitor figure threatening Black masculinity in national narratives:

[T]he flip side of the pathological welfare queen, as Moynihan’s own language tells us, is the other kind of black woman—the black lady, the one whose disproportionate overachievement stands for black cultural strangeness and who ensures the underachievement of “the black male” in the lower classes because “ours [the U.S.] is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs.” … Whether by virtue of not achieving and thus passing on bad culture as welfare mothers, or by virtue of managing to achieve middle-class success via education, career, and/or economic successes (and thus, I suppose, passing on genes for autonomous female success?), black women are responsible for the disadvantaged status of African Americans. (p. 335)

The choice of setting the plot of The Princess and the Frog a decade before the New Deal thus appears as anything but incidental: Tiana and her hard-working mother are as distant as can be from the pathological “welfare queen” anti-model, because they are culturally and historically embedded in a culture of self-help and confidence in individual achievement that no recession had yet disclosed the complex assumptions of in terms of race, class, and gender. The magic of New Orleans is supposed to iron out all the realities of social inequality thanks to the power of its inhabitants to make their dreams come true; but it does not spare the father figure’s life or raise his dream to the level of possibility, as if his only honorable destiny was to enroll in the Army and get killed overseas. Little African American girls are thus being subtly warned that their fathers’ life expectancy will never be comparable to that of the White “Big Daddies” of the world, and that a missing father not only pertains to the order of things in an African American family, but also represents an additional motive for sacrificing themselves for the sake of achievement.

Under such circumstances, it seems, African American boys their age cannot be trusted to lend them a helping hand and listen to their dreams with a compassionate ear; it will take an exotic prince to rescue Tiana from the (glossed-over) trauma of her father’s loss and her subsequent renunciation to her own sexuality. This may explain why so many comments posted on blogs and in response to analyses of the film(5) expressed rage and frustration over Naveen’s unclear ethnic and racial identity and his not belonging to the community: Tiana’s character is overachieving and individualistic to the point of threatening Black masculinity even as she is supposed to embody the princess figure, whose promise is universally understood as one of ultimate recognition of a little girl’s inner beauty and eventual sexual fulfillment with her soul-mate. She is a lonely character, even in the way she is finally commodified on supermarket shelves—standing on her own in her superb princess gown and tiara, with a tiny, coarsely designed frog in her hand.

Paradoxically, while her manchild counterpart Kirikou is supposed to represent a culture based on collective values, and indeed defines his mission as a collective one, he is well aware of the abnormal loneliness the villagers have confined him in on account of his small size and lack of conformism (or "manners", as they word it.) When he has obtained the answers he needed from his grandfather about the cause of Karaba's evil doings, he confesses to finding the burden hard to bear and asks for a talisman to assuage his fears and solitude. The old sage's response is hardly in keeping with African founding myths such as the saga of Sundiata: he flatly refuses to give Kirikou a talisman, because people with talismans think themselves protected, and hence, begin "acting carelessly." The message to the viewers is clear: you can only count on yourself and overcome by knowing the full extent of your courage and fears. Preparedness and observation is all; magic is a false solution. If you are tired of fighting a never-ending fight, take some rest and resume the fight when you feel refreshed.

But the film's political message goes further, as Kirikou's final encounter with Karaba discloses the weak points of the system of control she has implemented. Her trust in the fetishes and in the snake, to which she has so far delegated her powers, has proven ineffective faced to Kirikou's ingenuity. Her confidence in the power of superstitions to keep the villagers submitted to her will is still intact, but now the viewers are aware that she only thrives on the ignorance of the oppressed, which keeps alive the partly ungrounded fears she embodies for them. It is not simply by knowing the secret of her physical Achilles' heel that Kirikou can ensnare Karaba out of her hut, but by identifying the weak point in the oppressor's way of thinking—here, her greed, which, again, cannot but evoke an almost transparent critique of modern African régimes.

The Princess and the Frog, set in New Orleans in the Roaring Twenties, entertains a more ambiguous relation to the realm of magic and witchcraft, and places the viewers in a less clear-cut divide between illusions and reality. All the characters in this film are dreamers, even Dr. Facilier the charlatan, who promises Naveen that in his Voodoo Emporium, "Dreams come true." What opposes them is the nature of their dreams. Contrary to Kirikou's mission of saving his community from famine and oppression, Tiana's dream of owning her restaurant is, as mentioned earlier, an essentially individualistic one, which rests on the self-assigned mission to fulfil her father's dream and thus maintain her connection with him, rather than on actually defining her own gift as inherent in the development of her personality and meaningful to the community. Her cooking does make customers happy, but it does not help her define deeper relations with the other characters in the film. We even get the impression that the connection with the neighbors that had made the dream real to her during her happy childhood in her poor, all-Black section of town is irretrievable behind the images inspired from Aaron Douglas's paintings of Harlem Renaissance dinner parties, and that the sugar-powdered beignets are simply meant to be consumed by self-centered customers who stuff themselves (like the two attorney twins who give precedence to a buyer who has allegedly outbid her, or Big Daddy, whose name, La Bouffe, means food or rather, grub, in French slang) and do not perceive cookery as the art it really is.

As a matter of fact, perhaps due to concerns over the reception of the fact both Tiana and her mother fill positions that make them subservient to rich white customers and remain symbolically related to the roles of African American women on the plantations—i.e., seamstress and cook—, we do not really get to see Tiana starting a dish from scratch, inventing one of her own and putting her own magic as an artist in it; instead, we have an image of her reading cookery magazines to get inspiration. We only see Tiana pouring drops of Tabasco hot sauce into simmering gumbos, in reality adding a final touch that seems quite accessible to anyone, since Mama Odie's python does it just as gleefully, rather than having her own variety of secrets as any chef would; and she typically serves beignets she has already made.

Her genius almost appears when, as a frog, she invents a bayou gumbo from the pumpkin and mushroom she has found; but the viewers' attention is much more focused on Naveen's problem of finding something to do with himself, than on the artistry of the cook, who is reduced at this juncture to the role of the loud housewife who needs to bark her orders to get her shiftless, good-for-nothing husband to mince the mushrooms. The familiar nature of the scene, reminiscent of the scenes between Sapphire and Kingfish in The Amos n' Andy Show,(6) elicits laughter from the audience; but the beauty of cooking with next to no ingredients to bring love and comfort to those you care for is lost on the viewers. When Louis the alligator licks his fangs and the smooth-talking frog Naveen asks her for a second helping, we simply get confirmation of the principle—stated earlier in a "girly" conversation between Tiana and Charlotte—that the way to a male's heart (human or animal alike) is through his stomach.

 As already mentioned, Tiana's dream is also indirectly shown as something which overshadows all other aspects of her life and isolates her from the rest of the world, even as it makes her special. Naveen is finally attracted to her because of this ability of living for her dream, which makes her eyes sparkle even as a frog; but in this same scene when he almost proposes to her, she appears so engrossed in her own project that she does not even suspect his feelings and evolution, and keeps talking about "our" restaurant in reference to the pair she used to form with her father, even as she is leaning on Naveen’s chest. She is willing to resort to believing in fairytale (or "white") magic to make her plans real, even if this entails using her friend Charlotte as a financial pawn to get the funding she needs. Tiana's father's warning that she must learn to distinguish what she needs from what she wants becomes clear at the dénouement, when she confronts the Shadow Man who tempts her to give him back the pendant containing Naveen's blood in exchange for the much-needed money for her restaurant; and here again, the strength to reject the temptation of a pact with the Devil comes from reflecting on her father's dream and realizing that although it remained unfulfilled, it was informed by love, contrary to hers so far.

Kirikou's personality is strikingly different, for in his first face-to-face encounter with Karaba the Sorceress, he defines himself as (the) one who knows what he wants. He is not impressed by her, and makes it clear to all; what sparks his interest is to try to understand why she is mean and evil, while no one cares to understand why the Shadow Man is what he is: what you see is what you get, and when looking at him, any fool can see a charlatan, as Lawrence warns Naveen before he yields to the temptation of becoming the prince and living an easy life.

In Kirikou and the Sorceress, there is no such thing as an easy life, and it is made clear that Karaba's power implies loneliness, suffering, and despair she has locked herself into. Dreams are less important than restoring decent living conditions for human beings, while in the bayou scenes between Naveen, Tiana and their "real" animal friends Louis and Raymond, viewers get the impression that life as an animal, while dangerous in itself, may still be a pleasant and acceptable one, since the alligator and the firefly enjoy their lives in their communities and dream as big, if not bigger, than their human-turned-frog friends. This is probably where the socio-political subtext of The Princes and the Frog is most problematic. "When I'm a human being, at least I'll act like one!" Tiana spits at Naveen who continues playing music and dreaming of "living the high life" with his newfound friend Louis, the gator trumpeteer whose kinship with Satchmo is difficult not to perceive—which makes his hope of being transformed into a human being to overcome the rejection of the scared audiences a particularly poignant one. Likewise, one cannot but question the way in which he joins the Big Boys band during Mardi Gras, literally passing for a human being thanks to his obvious talent; for this resolution of his dilemma can only take place in the space and (limited) time of the carnival, when, by definition, traditional roles and the social order are inverted and subverted until they return to normal.

While Louis is really gifted and, as such, would deserve being raised to human status, the viewers are subtly told that his appearance will never match his inner self and that his "real" nature is not human, an inescapable fact that Mama Odie's magic cannot do anything about; on the contrary, the message about Naveen is that he is not as deserving of the human nature and privileges he has lost, for he is lazy by nature and happy to be so. In other words, characters who are still clearly, though subtly, identified as happy-go-lucky minstrel types (with Louis as a Sambo and Naveen as a Zip Coon) have to demonstrate that they are worthy of being considered as human beings, while the equally heavily stereotyped bayou hillbillies who hunt the frogs for food are perceived as their (almost) natural counterparts, that is, humans whose incurable stupidity brings them down to the level of dumb animals, outsmarted as they are by the trickster Naveen.

On the contrary, in Kirikou's village, even those who unquestioningly submit to the sorceress's rule and thus seem to deserve her scorn and contempt are never perceived as deserving their oppressed status. The men have been transformed into fetishes whether or not they have tried to fight her, because they let themselves be fascinated by their fantasized vision of her powers; but, because the real nature of Karaba's fetishes is only revealed at the very end of the film, the audience is never led to question humanity in terms of a status that may be lost or must be deserved. It is a condition made of weaknesses and strengths, clearly distinguished from that of the animals of the forest, even though Kirikou quickly learns to communicate with the squirrels, shares their survival strategies and their food, and gets from them the first genuine expression of appreciation he is to receive until Karaba is freed from her spell. At no point is Karaba stripped from her own humanity in the eyes of Kirikou; he knows the key to understanding his village's slow death is in making sense of her deep-seated, all-encompassing hatred and finding the remedy to it. The implicitly Christian twist added to the traditional folktale combines the commandment, "Love your enemy", with the filmmaker's insistence on representing Black bodies in their beauty, unfettered from Judaeo-Christian guilt and colonial phantasms alike: once Kirikou has removed with his teeth the poisonous thorn from Karaba's back, the dialog they have in the forest returned to its edenic, primeval innocence and luxuriousness demonstrates that his desire for her was part of the same plan to deliver her from her own evil. While kissing a frog may appear as part of the disgusting "recipe" a girl has to follow to fulfil her dreams (since the book says so,) desiring to see Karaba and discover the inside of her hut—with the implicit sexual overtones this conveys—is not implicitly condemned as an improper attraction to Evil: Kirikou's mother laconically comments that this desire makes him similar to the men.

The resolution of the problem of evil as posed by Karaba is totally different from the eternal punishment dealt by Tiana to the Shadow Man, who is sucked up from the world of the living by his devilish "friends" from "the other side" and leaves nothing behind him but a tombstone and a horrified face etched in stone. As for the final twist of fate giving Tiana the status of royalty by kissing Naveen after the marriage vows have been pronounced between the two frogs, it does not give the feeling she has truly earned recognition as a woman. Rather, because she has succeeded in giving a purpose to her good-for-nothing frog prince, she is rewarded for her efforts, but this happens only because she has accepted to forsake her dream (i.e., what she "wants") to tie the knot with the one whose love has touched her and made her realize what she "needs," even if this means living as a pair of frogs, hence in subhuman status and amid the dangers of amphibian life in the bayou (a metaphor for discrimination and second-class citizenship,) for the rest of her life.

Gender relations in Kirikou are addressed in a more straightforward manner when Karaba, although filled with gratitude after Kirikou has removed the thorn from her back, warns him that she will never be any man's servant and that she distrusts men's promises prior to marriage, stating flatly that she prefers to stay on her own than have to obey anyone's orders. Dignity is never slighted in either character's choices and attitudes. This is made especially palpable in the way they carry themselves, from their first encounter, when Kirikou proudly marches past the crouching women to meet Karaba face to face and ask her why she is mean and evil, to their first loving embrace under the trees, when he tenderly thanks her for the kiss that has just turned him into a handsome, strong young man, and she offers to adorn his body to acknowledge his manhood in the eyes of all the village.

The representation of Black sexuality in this scene is at the same time beautifully erotic and edenic, particularly when the two protagonists fall into each other's arms, none of them taller than the other, and Kirikou softly murmurs, his cheek against Karaba's natural hair, glittering with gold pearls, "It is so soft!" It is difficult not to ponder on the widely different implications of the three scenes where Tiana and Naveen exchange a kiss. In the first one, the puckered lips of the prince frog cannot but avoke an anus in the minds of the viewers, who have no choice but to share Tana's disgust. Then, when we have become accustomed to the idea of viewing the two frogs as a black-and-brown pair, the grotesque scene where their tongues become entangled as a result of chasing the same bug is anything but erotic. The two amphibians are in each other's arms, trapped in their intertwined tongues, but Tiana's consent is evidently nonexistent, and they need the help of Raymond, the Cajun firefly with more gaps than teeth in his mouth, to help them out of this predicament. One could not imagine a less poetic experience of the Other's body, all the more since Naveen's identity as a foreigner with an indefinite (Middle Eastern? Indian? Italian?) accent and his much-touted reputation as a womanizer has already made him a suspicious male figure in the minds of the audience. Finally, the last kiss, which restores Tiana and Naveen to their human condition, is practically lost in the wonderment of seeing the deferred miracle happen and the she-frog finally recover a human appearance as a "real"—i.e., believable—Disney princess.

Few love relations in The Princess and the Frog are fully developed as satisfying human relations, in reality: the love between Tiana's father and mother is just sketched, while it might have been interesting to convey a message to the young audiences about a loving African American couple, especially as they are finally the only one in the film. We only understand that the father has passed away when Tiana's mother tells her she misses him, too, and the loss is made more acceptable by the evocation of war when Tiana kisses the picture of her father as a soldier, promising him to continue their dream of opening "Tiana's Place." The friendship between Tiana and Charlotte is based on sharing musings on each girl's personal dream, but none of them actively helps the other reach it, except when Tiana contemplates using Naveen to reach her goal of finding funding for her restaurant by letting him kiss Charlotte on Mardi Gras night. She renounces this plan because she has realized that Naveen was in love with her, but it is Charlotte, rather than Tiana herself, who proves that she has a noble, selfless heart when she offers—too late, though—to kiss Naveen so that he can eventually marry Tiana.

Charlotte herself, as Tiana's only White friend, is interesting to analyze as a naive consumer of ready-made fantasies about princes, whose dreams are finally satisfied when she sees a romantic story enacted, even if it is played out by frogs. It is quite telling that the only "color-blind" character in the movie, insofar as she is capable of overcoming prejudice against frogs based on her childlike belief in fairytales, characteristically lacks the refinement, the ladylike demeanor and speech of traditional princesses. She belongs in the world of money, where wants are already met and filled; and her needs are assimilable to fantasies that can easily be deferred, since they are rooted in the world of fairytale romances. We do not feel sorry for her when, in the very last scene, she tells Naveen's six-year-old brother that she will wait for him to grow up so that she may finally marry a prince; for by the end of the movie we have already been accustomed to considering her as an easy, shallow young woman who is ready to hitch up with anyone without any reflection, so long as appearances entertain her fantasies of living in a fairytale world where all her wishes come true.

Her love for her father is itself much more ambiguous, and possibly disturbing, than Tiana's devotion to hers: not only does she call him "Big Daddy," hardly an equivocal nickname in the context of the 1920s when prostitutes typically called their patrons this way, but her treatment of him is also indicative of a domineering relationship which displaces her to the role of the wife instead of the daughter: she makes him spend his money on her every whim, speaks in his place, and clearly does not take his viewpoint into account. When Dr. Facilier the Shadow Man tells Lawrence about his scheme of making him appear as the prince, he echoes the same pessimistic vision of matrimony as a relationship in which the wife literally rides her husband. This intrinsically imbalanced conception of the couple may not completely discarded when we are given a vision of Tiana and Naveen's happy "ever-after" life as they fulfill their dreams in Tiana's Palace: Naveen is allowed to party through the nights with Louis because he has first rolled up his sleeves to help Tiana rebuild the sugar mill into the restaurant of her (father's) dreams, and Tiana herself joins into the dance, finally accepting to relax and enjoy life. But it is clear that she remains the dominant one, as she has consistently been throughout the film, for Naveen has only evolved into adulthood insofar as he has realized the difference between chasing women and finding true love—or so it is hoped, for the sake of the little Black Lady turned princess.

 

 

(1) The concept was first delineated by Wahneema Lubiano as the “black female overachiever” type, standing as the opposite of the “welfare queen” stereotype. See Wahneema Lubiano, “Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels: Ideological War by Narrative Means” in Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison, New York: Pantheon Books, 1992, p. 333. It has been developed more recently in Lisa B. Thompson in her book Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

 

(2) See Nick Kelly, "Reading From Left to Right: Political Children's Literature, Parenting, and Free Will," Columbia Political Review, April 2009, Volume VIII, Issue III, pp. 14-19.

 

(3) http://www.kirikou.net/teachers.html

 

(4) See Jan Nederveen Pieterse, White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992, particularly the subchapter entitled “The missionary as hero and the evil witch doctor”, p. 69 and sqq. See also Curtis Keim, Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind, 2nd edition, Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2009, p. 45, on the Victorian myth of African depravity.

 

(5) See, for instance, comments on Angela Bronner Helm’s article “Disney’s First Black Princess… Has a Prince Who’s Not Black”, Black Voices on Love, March 19, 2009 3:30PM. http://www.bvonlove.com/2009/03/19/disneys-first-black-princess-has-a-white-prince/

 

(6) “Forever trying to ‘get over’ with one scheme or another and never appearing to have any kind of full-time employment, Kingfish spent most of his time at the lodge of his fraternal order, the Mystic Knights of the Sea. Usually, Sapphire was yelling and yapping at the top of her lungs about his shortcomings and shenanigans”, Donald Bogle, Prime Time Blues: African Americans on Network Television, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, p. 32.

 

REFERENCES:

Bogle, Donald. Prime Time Blues: African Americans on Network Television. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Keim, Curtis. Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind, 2nd edition. Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2009.

Lubiano, Wahneema. “Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels: Ideological War by Narrative Means” in Toni Morrison, ed., Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992, pp. 323-361.

Nederveen Pieterse, Jan. White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.

Thompson, Lisa B. Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

http://www.kirikou.net/teachers.html Retrieved on December 29, 2009.

http://www.bvonlove.com/2009/03/19/disneys-first-black-princess-has-a-white-prince/ Retrieved on January 9, 2010.