As Nina pointed out last week , and the Times pointed out over the weekend , Disney's The Princess and The Frog , its first animated feature to star a black heroine, Tiana, is already controversial, and it doesn't come out until December. Watching the trailer for it on the big screen over the weekend (it's playing before Pixar's totally awesome Up! ) got me thinking about another potential source of contention: Tiana's voice.
There are currently eight Disney Princesses (Tiana will be the ninth), and whatever the other princesses' ethnicity-five are white, and Jasmine, Mulan, and Pocahontas are Persian, Chinese and Native American respectively-they all speak in clearly enunciated, accentless, standard American English. Tiana does not. She has a Southern-Cajun drawl, which, in Disney's defense, is probably what a girl born and raised in New Orleans, as Tiana supposedly has been, would sound like. That said, what constitutes a "black voice" versus a "white voice"-not to mention the stereotypes attached to Southern accents in particular-is hugely fraught: It's not just a meaningless character quirk that the black princess is the only princess who sounds different from all the rest. It can't be.
It's vaguely plausible to me that Disney didn't think about this, that giving their first black princess a Southern accent signifies something more than just geographical accuracy. After all, this is the company that had to scrap the initial version of the film because they didn't realize that having their first African American princess be a maid named Maddy was boneheaded to the point of ignorance. Perhaps they only intended Tiana's voice to be "sweet" and "different"-and maybe to some viewers that's all it will be. Maybe if Tiana had sounded like the other princesses, some viewers would have been incensed that Disney had chosen to white-wash her. Am I making too much of this?
It seems to me that when it comes to the princesses, there's good in difference-every little girl, of every race, deserves to feel represented-and also good in sameness. Whatever the various princesses' races or cultural backgrounds (and certainly, Disney could have more variety in this regard), they're all similar: resourceful, plucky, kind-hearted, and Kewpie eyed, with some adorable animal friends, a habit of bursting into song, and luck with the princes. The more different kinds of princesses that there are available, the more similar little girls' experiences of the princesses become. Every little kid who has a princess that she feels connected to, represented by, akin to will know what it feels like to want to be a princess, dress like a princess, and beg her parents to buy all the tons and tons of schlocky merchandise branded with a princess' face. Belle and Pocahontas are different, and may appeal to different children, but adoring Belle or adoring Pocahontas probably feels pretty much the same. So, to bring it back to Tiana, does her voice add to the good difference, subtract from the good sameness, or change nothing at all?