The Power of the Star
by Caitlyn Hill
What does it mean, in a country with a history of institutionalized racism and enslavement, when Disney makes its only black princess a waitress? Well, what doesn’t it mean?
It doesn’t mean they’re being unrealistic, because in the bowels of the South during the 1920’s, it was very realistic that a colored woman would serve as a waitress. It doesn’t mean they’re degrading her into a mere stereotype, because Tiana isn’t just anyone’s waitress––she is entirely self-possessed. Above all, it does not mean that they are placing a limit on the aspirations of young black girls––because Tiana has absolutely no illusions that she will end her life as a waitress. She’s an entrepreneur, with fierce aspirations of developing and owning her own restaurant. Tiana is no mere serving woman; she is no one’s maid. Tiana is a dreamer.
Disney released The Princess and the Frog in 2009. A highly anticipated film starring the company’s first (and thus far only) black princess, it was quickly swallowed up by the waves of hype following its successor, Tangled, in 2010. Nevertheless, The Princess and the Frog contains cultural value and commentary which must not be overlooked.
Tiana’s story places greater focus and value on the virtue of hard work out than that of any other Disney princess. And not only does Tiana work hard––she works hard with purpose. A critical moment in the film is the point at which young Tiana, gazing at the night sky with her parents, informs them of the lesson she learned from a friend’s book of fairy tales earlier on in the day––that making a wish on a specific star would guarantee its fulfillment. In response, Tiana’s father gazes into her eyes and kindly cautions her: “That old star can only take you part of the way––you have to help it along with a little hard work of your own.” Tiana’s father allows her no doubt about what it will take for her to succeed in life––the magic of the wishing star is not to be depended upon. Instead, she must be willing to work for what she wants. Yet by the same token, after tucking her into bed, with an arm wrapped around her mother as they gaze lovingly down at their daughter, Tiana’s father extracts a different promise from Tiana: that she never forget what’s important.
The fact that there’s no way for Tiana’s dreams to be realized without a healthy dose of hard work is indisputable. Set in 1920’s Louisiana, the movie frequently shows the contrast between the lives of Tiana and her sweet but self-absorbed white friend, Charlotte, a decidedly spoiled girl raised in a mansion in the ritzier part of New Orleans. Unused to having any want uncared for, Charlotte makes an art out of wishing on the star from her storybook––and more often than not, her wishes seem to fall directly into her lap. In this way, the movie showcases the extremes of the lifestyle differences between the two races.
A princess of a particular race becomes, by default, a role model for the members of that race who watch her. And without doubt, the message of hard work is an essential one for young black girls, who will spend their lives constantly being forced to prove their possession of traits simply assumed to be present in their competitors due to a lighter skin tone. This is the reality that black women face in the world; while this reality is unfair and must be countered by all means, it remains reality nonetheless, and thus young black girls must be prepared for it. The power of the star is significantly weaker for the black woman than for the white.
Amongst all of this, where does love fit into the equation? Is there even space for it? Well, consider this: at the raw core of the thing, the immediate goals of Tiana and the movie’s villain, Dr. Facilier, are quite similar. Both want to make money. But while Facilier desires to accrue wealth so that he might hold power in and over his society for himself, Tiana’s wish for wealth is so that she might use it to establish her own restaurant––a dream ultimately rooted in love for her father, and a wish to see his dream realized in his stead. Along the way, Tiana comes to see work as paramount––the only route to achieving her dream, and attaining fulfillment. That is until Naveen––a carefree, fun loving prince who is, vitally, bereft of funds––comes into her life and unwittingly draws her into a wild adventure. Naveen’s financial status means that he is incapable of solving all her problems by merely marrying her, in fact creating a situation where in order to afford her her dream, he would have to marry someone else. Yet ultimately, Tiana reaches the realization that, whatever his status, Naveen’s presence in her life is essential, because without him, she wouldn’t be happy.
In this way, the film smartly divides the notions of love and dreams. Tiana’s dream can do many things for her––including inspiring the hard work and grit that motivates her to pursue it––but it can’t fill her soul completely. And love, while it might not serve as a direct route to the fulfillment of her dream, is ultimately the most important factor in both her inspiration and contentment as a person.
Tiana’s story is an important reminder for anyone, of any race, gender, or orientation, that while hard work might be the only path to career success, love is ultimately the most important ingredient in the soul’s fulfillment––whether it be the love of a family member, friend, or romantic partner. Yet in a world where immense obstacles threaten the ascendency of black women, and where relationships may easily be viewed as unimportant and consequently hurled by the wayside––Tiana’s message is particularly poignant for young black girls.