Society will tell you that to fully life your best life, you have to say “Yes” to stuff all the time. But
personally, I’ve always found “No” to be a far more empowering word. Life will happen to you, whether you want it to or not. In a world where women are generally expected to go with the flow, keep the peace, do the work nobody else wants to do, and conform to the expectations of others, “NO” can be an even more direct way of seizing control than a “yes”.
This was the idea that began to glimmer in my high school brain as I drove home with my
windows rolled down, jamming to TLC’s No Scrub. I delighted in the repetitive negative. Still do.
No, I don’t want your number.
No, I don’t wanna give you mine.
No, I don’t wanna meet you nowhere.
No, I don’t want none of your time and
No, I don’t want no scrub
A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me
The song goes on to further elaborate that the singer doesn’t want a man with no car, no house, no money, and that doesn’t know how to show his girl he loves her and is committed to her.
Which brings me to Prince Naveen, the would-be prince in Disney’s rendition of The Princess
and the Frog. Naveen basically checks all of the scrub boxes when he meets the movie’s heroine, Tianna, a hard-working, single-minded waitress who dreams of owning and running her own restaurant. Tianna’s father, who taught her to cook and shared her dream, dies, presumably fighting in World War I. Since then, Tianna has worked tirelessly to support herself and her mother, and save money for the down payment on a building to make their dream come true. She eschews star-wishing for double shifts, storing away all her tips in jars in a drawer. However, on the night she is scheduled to sign the paperwork and pay the down payment, the bankers renege in favor of someone who can pay the full amount in cash. It is then that she meets Naveen, a penniless prince who has been turned into a frog after a deal with a voodoo witch doctor goes awry. Mistaking her for a real princess, he promises her a
fortune if she will kiss him and turn him human again.
There is a lot to unpack here. I’m going to hold off on the significant issues I have with the whole idea of kisses in exchange for favors or money, and the idea that women should take risks on an apparent scrub in the hopes that he will turn out to be more than he appears. Instead, I’m going to focus on the cultural mis-handling of the whole scenario, because I feel like Tianna herself and all the obstacles that she already has to deal with, even before voodoo complicates her life, are just erased, which is such a disservice to the Black community.
To begin with, Disney made the conscious decision to set the story in 1920’s New Orleans – a
real time in a real place whose history shaped the lives of the people who call it home. The food, the music, everything that you immediately think of when you think “New Orleans” is wrapped up in that history, which is what makes it so rich and iconic. And this creative choice comes with some responsibility.
First, the briefest possible history of Louisiana (because I don’t recall being taught much about it in school, so I looked it up). Louisiana was colonized by the French in the 1600’s. They established vast sugar and rice plantations and imported African slaves to farm them. While slaves stolen from Africa made up the dominant portion of the workforce, Indigenous people from tribes destroyed by the settlers were also enslaved, as were members of the Roma (gypsy) ethnic group, who were traded from Spain in periodic ethnic purges. These were the hands that built New Orleans into the fourth largest port in North America, with the so-called Sugar Barons wielding incredible wealth. Ships arrived from all over the globe, bringing all kinds of influences with them. Then, during the French and Indian War, France sold all of its holdings to Spain. During this time, from 1762-1801, the Spanish-controlled territory observed a legal practice called coartacion. This practice required slave owners to grant their slaves one
day off per week. Any money they made on that day was legally their own and could be used to purchase their freedom. One of the many ways that woman made money to free themselves and their families was by selling pastries. Everyone knows about the beignet, the fried and sugar-coated heart of New Orleans, a pastry of French origin that’s basically a square donut. But in addition to making these tasty treats, enslaved women put their own spin on it with the Creole version called “calas”. Also a fried and sugared pastry, these differed from
their French cousin by resourcefully repurposing left over rice as a filler for the dough and no yeast. By selling these, along with all mater of other food pieced together from a little of this, a little of that, and whatever you can catch, New Orleans created its own unique food fusion identity, and let hundreds of slaves lift themselves and their families out of slavery into freedom. In 1801, Spain briefly hands Louisiana back to France in a treaty signed with Napoleon Bonaparte. Of course, we all know what happens next. Along came President Jefferson and his expansionist land grab, and in 1803 the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of America and abolished coartacion, giving full control back to Jefferson’s
fellow plantation owners.
Fast forward to the Emancipation Proclamation, and the slaves are all freed in the South, though only in the most technical sense, thanks to the racist Jim Crow laws that institutionalized segregation and barred people of color from virtually any social mobility. Banks were allowed to deny bank loans to Black people, preventing many of them from owning land, a home or any other appreciable asset. There was also a practice of redlining. Districts and neighborhoods were marked off that expressly excluded people of color. Even if they had the money, the realtors and owners would refuse to sell. These practices would continue beyond Tianna’s time into the 1960’s when the leaders of the civil rights movement fought for social and legal changes that would allow equal opportunity and resources to people of color. It wasn’t just a war waged in the streets, it was fought in kitchens too. Black restaurant
owners fed protesters, Black women sold food to fund the movement. Plans and strategies were formulated at dining counters and around kitchen tables. Yet again, food funded freedom from oppression.
This is just scratching the surface of the culture and legacy that Tianna was born and raised in as a New Orleans native. Food was freedom, security, a vehicle to a better life, and a way to honor her father’s memory. So where does some random prince fit into this equation? Answer: He kinda doesn’t. He kinda just makes her life worse. He promises her the money she needs to buy her restaurant outright (I don’t know why they couldn’t have just found another building) if she will kiss him, turning him back into a prince which allows him to get married, which gets his fortune back….I think. The Shadow Man who ends up turning him into a frog advises Naveen to court Charlotte, the mayor’s daughter, because she is rich. So it’s unclear if he is marrying to obtain money from a rich wife, or if the marrying will convince his royal parents that he’s responsible enough to deserve his inheritance back. He doesn’t want to settle down, but he needs money to live the high life he wants, so he’s in a self-absorbed Catch-22 no matter how you slice it. His plan backfires however, and instead of restoring his human form,
Tianna is turned into a frog for her troubles. (See what happens when you kiss frogs!) They then go on a journey to break the spell, and by proxy, teach him how to be responsible and set goals, while teaching Tianna how to loosen up and take a risk on a relationship (because that’s worked out great for her so far).
I feel like you need a degree in magic spell legal-ese to break down exactly how the spell is
resolved. They think if Naveen kisses Charlotte, who’s father has been made King of Mardi Gras and therefore she, a princess, the spell will be broken. (I don’t know how Naveen, as a royal himself, has no idea what it actually takes to qualify as a princess. Apparently, he thinks it’s solely outfit-based.) Initially, Naveen promises to marry Charlotte in exchange, but when she hears of how he has now fallen for Tianna, she releases him from any obligation and volunteers to kiss him for free. But they appear to have run out of time, and the clock strikes midnight before she can land her spell-breaking smooch. Tianna and Naveen are stuck as frogs together forever. And seeing how they are the only frogs in the swamp that can talk,
well, it just makes sense that they should marry each other. The swamp witch performs a marriage ceremony, pronouncing them frog and wife, and when they kiss then the spell is broken…? The witch explains that somehow Naveen was still a prince even in frog form, and when he said “I do”, Tianna became a princess by marriage, which means when he kissed her he kissed a princess and the spell was broken.
I have to point out that gentry marrying into royalty does not make them a princess. To have
“princess” as one’s official title, one must be born a member of the royal family. Which is why Kate Middleton is the Duchess of Cambridge, not Princess Kate. Per royal protocol, technically (which is the best kind of royal protocol!) the wife of a prince must take his name, but that results in her being referred to as Princess Naveen of Maldonia, which erases her identity entirely. I’m just saying if we’re going to make up our own rules here, make them simpler, Disney!
I just don’t find this ending satisfactory at all. The movie closes on Naveen and Tianna twirling
on the rooftop of what is presumably her new fancy restaurant. She has acquired what should have been hers at the get-go. The movie starts out emphasizing the rather refreshing notion in a fairytale, that hard work is what gets you what you want, not wishing on stars. But that’s kind of not the lesson affirmed at the end. She gets the restaurant because a titled rich dude who could pass for white gave her the money she needed to buy the building outright, and presumably, since there were very few Black banks at the time and women couldn’t open their own bank accounts without a man’s permission until 1970, open a bank account to actually run the business. Sure, Naveen turns out to be a basically decent person at the end of the movie, but I still think their relationship is doomed. Their entire relationship is built on
mutual financial hardship, shared trauma, and a biological lack of options. People don’t change overnight. It’s easy not to be a womanizer when there are no women to womanize and you yourself lack the requisite human equipment. Naveen didn’t want to give up his bachelor lifestyle because he didn’t want to be tied down, and nothing ties you down like being married and owning a business. I give the relationship 18 months, tops. She will be fully immersed in running the restaurant, he’ll get bored and feel neglected and useless and find some chick who will give him all the attention he craves, they’ll fight over money, his parents will probably have some problem with her, she’ll resent him because she doesn’t need him, and he brings very little to the relationship, and then he’ll run off with a stripper. Or
something like that. You don’t have to be a witch doctor to read those cards.
This just shows how Disney always falls back on the mantra that there is only one prescribed
recipe for happiness: Get married, have a family. It’s ok to have a dream of owning your own business as long as you make time to land a man. Tianna doesn’t need a fictitious prince. She needs a more egalitarian social system. The thing is, Tianna’s father doesn’t actually say she has to get married and have a family, he just says “It’s good to work hard as long as you don’t forget what really matters”. But he doesn’t elaborate. He says it standing with his arm around his wife, so the implied right answer is “family”. Traditional nuclear family. But in the next moment, he opens the door and invites all the neighbors to share the gumbo they just cooked. “Food brings people together. Fills ‘em up and makes ‘em happy.” THAT should have been the thrust of “what’s really important”. Family in the very broadest sense. Community. People who are there for each other, who share resources, and support each other’s dreams. There is a legitimate intimacy that comes from sharing food. I’ve worked in food services and restaurant people basically become their own little family by default. You all keep the same odd hours. You put up with all the same bull. Loyal customers gravitate to restaurants and favorite bars, not just because they have nowhere else to be, but because they want to
be there, want to be a part of that place and around those people. Tianna’s mental block wasn’t that she didn’t know how to have fun or needed to date more. It was that she couldn’t see the swamp for the trees, so to speak. She was so intent on fulfilling her promise to her father, that she needed to be reminded that she was doing for her own self fulfillment too. Food was the medium through which Tianna connected to other people. Even when they were trekking through the swamp, she felt the need to stop and cook dinner. Food brought focus, food forged connection. Throughout the whole movie, she was always most relaxed and happy at a table or chopping board. Food was something she could create and control in a world where she couldn’t control what the bank would do or whether or not her spell would ever be broken. Food makes people feel like everything will turn out ok. And to be sure, it seemed to bring out the best in Naveen, because helping prepare it made him feel useful, but I don’t see that as being enough to build a romantic relationship on. He seems ADD enough that his gilded yet sheltered existence would make him curious to explore the world and have a great deal more life experience before marrying.
I am glad that the notion that representation matters is starting to percolate through the movie
industry. And every little girl deserves to see a princess in a pretty dress with a face that looks like her own. But don’t they also deserve to see a girl get what she’s earned on her own merit? The social obstacles that Tianna faced were so real, the story didn’t need a prince from some faraway place (Maldonia is where? Southern Spain? Next door to Monaco? A Greek Isle?) to rescue her. It undercut her struggle. The line between fantasy and reality seemed to blur in all the wrong places. If we’re making up the rules, why not make society fair and let the conflict come from dumb magical hijinks? If we’re being authentic to a particular time and place, let her succeed by overcoming the parameters set by her environment.
I’m sure Tianna would make a lovely princess. If that had ever been a thing she was remotely
interested in being. (I don’t know why Naveen had to be a prince anyway, he could have been a run of the mill rich dude and the plot would have been the same.) Besides, is being a princess really all that great if it isn’t what you wanted? I would prefer to see a woman get what she wants and needs after striving for it, not just see her turned into something by someone else, be it frog or princess. Women get turned into things by other people all the time. Witches. Scapegoats. Idols. Pigs. Harlots. Saints. Monsters.
Women deserve better. Black women deserve better. A better real world and a better