Disney’s Voodoo Princess

Originally posted on USC’s now-defunct TRANS/MISSIONS: Media, Culture, Religion, Society blog.

By Judith Weisenfeld

On November 26, audiences in New York and Los Angeles will have the opportunity to attend the premiere of The Princess and the Frog, featuring Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Disney’s first animated black princess. The various trailers and teasers at the film’s web site indicate that the movie’s story will focus on the aspirations of strong-willed Tiana to open her own restaurant in 1920s New Orleans.  Disney is using its latest romantic fairy-tale musical as an occasion not only to broaden its racial horizons, but also to reassert its commitment to hand-drawn animation.

Disney’s announcement that it planned to create a black princess drew a range of excitedly positive as well as sharply critical responses, with some reporters, bloggers, and members of the general public expressing little confidence in the racial sensitivity of the studio that gave us Song of the South (1946), or in the company that still features a ride based on the film at its theme parks. Other controversies during the new film’s production included negative audience response to the princess’ original name (Maddie) and work as a chambermaid, both of which were interpreted as signifiers of slavery. The racial indeterminacy of the love interest, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) of the fictional country Maldonia, has also generated strong response, with some wondering why a black man – even an animated one – was not fit to be a prince.

Those interested in religion and media should stay alert for responses to the film’s villain, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a Voodoo “witch doctor,” and the Voodoo priestess version of a fairy godmother, in the character of Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis).  The New Orleans setting provides reasonable justification for the choice to root the magic required of such fairy tales in the historically-specific context of Louisiana African American religious history.  At the same time, the history of representation of black people in American popular culture has been deeply reliant on visual and narrative associations between “primitive” religious practices and racial backwardness, and “voodoo” has often served as a simple short-hand for such cinematic arguments.

In recent weeks, press coverage has turned away from controversy to focus on the pre-release success of Disney’s marketing of the character, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s story on the unexpected demand for Princess Tiana Halloween costumes. The October 26 welcome of the character to Disney’s theme park was a splashy affair that garnered coverage as well.

It would be unfortunate if, once the film is released, the press focused only on the story of Tiana as “princess” and failed to be attentive to the film’s rendering of African American religious practices.  There is a story as well, perhaps, in a musical stage show at Disney World called “Tiana’s Showboat Jubilee.” According to a Disney press release, selected guests at the park will be able to don choir robes and shake tambourines during the “entertainment spectacular.” Is the opportunity to participate in a live-action version of one stereotype – happy, naturally religious black folk with their faces turned heavenward – meant to offset the on-screen deployment of another?  The commercial success of Disney’s first black princess should not blind us to ubiquitous popular-culture conflations of religious behavior and racialized essence, particularly when they involve representations of African-American religious life.