LAKE BUENA VISTA
Walking with a practiced regal grace from Liberty Square to Frontierland, from the newly Obamafied Hall of Presidents to the riverboat home of Disney's newest princess, Kennedy Johnson is the very price tag of progress.
As her twin brothers keep Mom and Dad on swivel-headed alert, 5-year-old Kennedy is in a blissful dressup daze. She is begowned in a lily-pad-green dress ($90) and tiara ($20). She holds a doll ($17) wearing the same sparkly outfit and, a first, the same brown skin. She just left the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where wee royals-in-training get gussied up for as much as $190.
"This is a very important day," says Treza Johnson, 37, gazing down at her daughter. A pricey day, too. Visiting from Johns Creek, Ga., the Johnson family "switched the dates of our stay so we could be here for this."
"This" is the Magic Kingdom coming-out cotillion for Princess Tiana, star of The Princess and the Frog, an animated film opening nationwide on Friday. A New Orleans spitfire with a groovin' soundtrack and Jazz Age moxie, Tiana is Disney's first African-American princess, a royal designation not to be taken lightly. Disney, after all, is not a pop culture vanguard; it does not take wild risks for the sake of statement, especially not with the glass-slippered set. Instead, Disney's movies are a carefully measured reflection of who we are and what we want.
So it's meaningful that in 2009 the most dominant entertainment company in the world has no problem handing the keys to the Mouse House — not to mention a multimillion-dollar merchandising line — to a young black woman in a killer dress.
Tiana is a long time coming, especially since the fairy-dusted genre commenced with 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — and especially since Disney has had a wince-inducing history of mocking minorities in its 'toons.
But Lady T is here, finally, and like any good princess, she's going to make us pay. And we will, happily. For Kennedy's mom, money is no object when what you're buying is inclusion in mainstream culture: "I just think it's wonderful to have a princess who looks like my little girl."
Don't matter what you look like, don't matter what you wear!
How many rings you got on your finger, we don't care!
— from Dig a Little Deeper, a totally rockin' bayou ditty written by Randy Newman, featured in The Princess and the Frog
When an in-the-flesh Princess Tiana sashayed into the Magic Kingdom on a warm Monday in October — the character hosts meet-and-greets and a musical revue — Donald Duck met her with flowers on the steps of Cinderella Castle. Buzz Lightyear blew her kisses. And Kennedy Johnson, jeweled in the wares of her hero, gave her a hug.
It was a major moment at the Most Magical Place on Earth, and why not? Tiana is the first princess since 1998's Mulan to be an official cog in the $4 billion Disney Princess phenomenon, the leading lifestyle brand for 8- to 12-year-old girls from Secaucus, N.J., to Seoul, South Korea.
Glittery girls rule, period. And Tiana, whose merchandise is already stuffing shelves, will generate plenty of millions more. Not so coincidentally, The Princess and the Frog is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the duo that helmed 1989's The Little Mermaid, the undersea smash that rocket-boosted our global princess obsession. Early reviews say Clements and Musker still have the touch; Entertainment Weekly gave The Princess and the Frog an A.
Outside Fantasyland, however, Tiana's tiara has been knocked askew a few times. Her original name was Maddy and rumors swirled that she was a chambermaid; after complaints of insensitivity, Disney went with Tiana the chef. Black Voices, an AOL blog, took issue with the light skin color of Tiana's love interest, Prince Naveen (voiced by Brazilian-born actor Bruno Campos). Disney countered that the character is not white. Some critics balked at the film's racially charged setting of New Orleans; others moan that Disney's first black princess spends most of her screen time as a frog.
If that sounds extra-sensitive, the concern is warranted. Disney has a back catalog of dunderheaded racial overtures (to say nothing of the sexist ones, the dwarfist ones, etc.): the jive-pimpin' crows and faceless black carnies in Dumbo; the Middle Eastern stereotyping of villains and the racial whitewashing of the leads in Aladdin; pretty much the entire Song of the South, a movie so zip-a-dee-doo-debasing it's not available in the United States. (It's ironic that Tiana's Showboat Jubilee, her floating live show at the Magic Kingdom, is being staged outside Splash Mountain, an attraction based on Song of the South.)
Disney, which doesn't do anything without audience testing, anticipated resistance to Tiana. The company screened portions of The Princess and the Frog at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Tampa in August. It consulted with the NAACP. It signed on Oprah Winfrey as the voice of Tiana's mother, Eudora, and packed cast and crew with sublime black talents, including Tony Award-winning actor Anika Noni Rose as Tiana, who delivers one of the great powerhouse vocals in Disney's rich musical history.
And yet, in dealing with the public, Disney is going out of its way not to focus on Tiana's skin color. The company is officially calling her its first "American" princess. (Pocahontas might have something to say about that.) "Our guests love the princesses. It doesn't matter what their skin tone is," says Dara Trujillo, the theme parks' manager of merchandise synergy. "These are just gals in great gowns!"
God, these people are good.
• • •
When asked about Barack Obama and Tiana taking charge at the same time, Trujillo says: "It's totally coincidental. The movie has been in production for at least three years." Adds Belinda Frazier, manager of marketing strategy for the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and the water parks: "That (timing) was coincidental, but it's a great coincidence."
It's not coincidental at all, but therein lies the positive, says Ta-Nehisi Coates, a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the author of the bestselling book The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. "This is not so much about the impact Tiana is going to have," says Coates, "but the impact that has already been made. This isn't the meteor; this is the crater."
Coates, 34, says Tiana is a sign of progress, "a statement of where we are." Sure, Disney is inherently built to gobble our wallets, "and I would bet you dollars to doughnuts they focus-grouped the hell out of this thing and figured they could do it." But that's exactly the point: "It shows you where we are as a society. People just don't care how they buy things anymore. Tiana is a demonstration of the changes that have already taken place."
Latoya Peterson, editor of Racialicious, a blog that examines race in pop culture, says the color of a Disney princess' skin has tremendous impact on little girls — herself included. When she was growing up, "it was considered very clear who was considered beautiful," says the 26-year-old. "It also sent a deep subliminal message that the way I look is not like a princess. Kids make those associations very young." Although arriving late, Tiana ultimately signifies acceptance of black beauty. "If Disney is committed to change," Peterson says, "that would be wonderful."
Peterson is also irked by Prince Naveen's skin color (or lack thereof). But it should be noted that Disney is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a kiddie flick about an interracial love story, an overwhelming sign that we're not stuck in a time-warped turret in Cinderella's castle anymore.
Bruce Smith is a supervising director on The Princess and the Frog. The African-American artist was in charge of the film's villain, Dr. Facilier, whom Smith says is a composite of "a little Cab Calloway, a little Michael Jackson . . . with a freaked-out James Brown arrest photo haircut." Smith's main objective was to make the best movie possible; sweeping social statements weren't bandied about in creative meetings. But if The Princess and the Frog has the ability to propel the greater good, so much the better.
"Just think," Smith says, "there's going to be a whole generation of kids growing up that won't know that a black princess is different at all. The parks now look like the rest of America. It's history in the making."
• • •
Kennedy Johnson has been eyeballing the calendar.
How soon until Dec. 11?! she asks her father.
It's almost here, Eddie Johnson, 39, tells his daughter.
A few months before the Disney trip, Kennedy had her bedroom redone. But last week, Kennedy "was looking in the paper with me and she saw a Target ad for a Princess Tiana bedroom set," says her dad. "Now she wants to change her new set of a couple of weeks to Tiana."
The bedroom collection runs about $270. Kennedy will probably have to hold off on that, but her parents understand her excitement. After all, who wouldn't want to grow up surrounded by a princess, especially one who looks just like her?
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.