Academic journal article Gender Forum

She Was a Beautiful Girl and All of the Animals Loved Her: Race, the Disney Princesses, and Their Animal Friends

Academic journal article Gender Forum

She Was a Beautiful Girl and All of the Animals Loved Her: Race, the Disney Princesses, and Their Animal Friends

Article excerpt

1In 2009, Disney fans were buzzing with excitement over the announcement of Tiana, the first African-American character to be included in the popular Disney Princess product line. Before the film ever arrived in theaters, "Tiana-themed products were being promoted in Disney stores across the nation" and a "version of Princess Tiana [could] be found at Disneyland, ready to pose for photos" (Gehlawat 429). However, cultural critics found themselves perplexed upon the film's release, as Tiana's story in The Princess and the Frog was quite unlike that of any princess who came before her. In fact, Tiana spends more time as a frog over the course of the movie (fifty-seven minutes of the film's ninety-seven minute running time), than she does as a human being, let alone as a princess (Breaux 405). Disney Princesses have always been famously beloved by their animal friends, [1] but never before had a princess spent so much time literally mucking about in a swamp. Never before had a princess transformed into an animal herself.

2The Disney Princesses provide several different kinds of traditionally feminine models for little girls to choose from as they learn different ways they might perform their gender. However, like all socially validated categories, the princess is defined against an Other, an opposite object against which a subject can be created. In the earliest Disney films, animals provided the perfect foil for the princess. They were a class of peasantry whose simplicity and devotion proved the princess's worthiness as a ruler and a role model. The princesses proved they were exemplary (human) women by demonstrating their benevolent superiority over their animal subjects. However, when the role of the Disney Princess expanded to include women of color, the line between the animal and the human seemingly grew a bit fuzzier. Rather than contrasting sharply against their fellow animals, princesses of color were often depicted as being of equal stature with their animal friends or even as having beast-like traits themselves. As such, an account of the princesses requires an intersectional approach with a perspective on how constructions of gender, race, and class intersect and dissolve in the play between the categories of the human and the animal. Cary Wolfe argues that "you can't talk about race without talking about species, simply because both categories - as history well shows - are so notoriously pliable and unstable, constantly bleeding into and out of each other," (43) that "the distinction 'human/animal' - as the history of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism well shows - is a discursive resource, not a zoological designation" (10).

3An examination of the relationships between the various Disney Princesses and their animal companions bears this out, revealing a continuum of humanity (Weheliye 3), with white human at one end of the spectrum, animals at the other, and with non-white humans occupying an intermediate position, sharing some of the characteristics of animals and some of the characteristics of human beings. As Alexander G. Weheliye points out, the design of this range of discursive categories with regards to human/animal relations utilizes "black subjects, along with indigenous populations, the colonized, the insane, the poor, the disabled, and so on [...] as limit cases by which [the straight white] Man can demarcate himself as the universal human" (24). The princesses of color and their animal friends serve as a kind of "troubling double" (Haraway 11) against which whiteness can define itself through contrast. In other words, the Disney Princess line [2] sorts its members "into full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans" (Weheliye 3). As such, these depictions of princesses of color actually reinforce white hegemony by occupying the boundary that divides civilization and savagery, culture and nature. Their existence allows whiteness (and white femininity in particular) to separate itself from animality. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.