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Disney debuts black princess in animation

Mon., Nov. 16, 2009

New character receives favorable reactions

Holly Price Alford is over the moon about Disney’s first black princess. Her 8-year-old daughter is, too, but not because the princess is black.

“She understands that this is a princess who is African American,” said Alford, who is black and lives in Meadowbrook, Va. “But do I think it’s a big deal to her? No.”

Princess Tiana debuts in the animated movie “The Princess and the Frog,” opening in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 25 and nationwide Dec. 11, and grown-ups have certainly been buzzing.

But for many little black girls growing up with Malia and Sasha Obama in the White House, the historic nature of Tiana’s debut in Disney’s mostly white princess lineup doesn’t quite seem to register.

Girls of all races have already caught princess fever, and young black girls embrace the white stars of “Hannah Montana,” the Jonas Brothers and “High School Musical” without worrying about race.

But some of their moms are making sure their daughters understand the significance of the princess with her brown doe eyes, fuller lips and elegant tiara.

Erica Branch-Ridley, of West Orange, N.J., said her 7- and 11-year-old daughters were excited about a new princess, but the younger one didn’t really understand the importance.

“She sees Obama, the first girls, she’s like, ‘That’s nice,’ ” said Branch-Ridley, broadband supervising producer for the TV program “The Electric Company.”

Branch-Ridley showed the girls pictures, and her younger daughter now wants to dress up as Tiana for Halloween next year.

“I want them to understand how important it is, not only from the perspective of a new Disney movie and a new princess, but how historical it is that we have this,” she said.

Disney has expanded its princess lineup in recent years to include the multicultural Mulan, Pocahontas and Jasmine, but Tiana is the first black princess – and the first princess of any color in more than 10 years.

In “The Princess and the Frog,” which is set in 1920s New Orleans, Tiana is a waitress and chef who dreams of owning a restaurant. She is persuaded to kiss a frog who is really a prince and becomes a frog herself.

The movie has not been without controversy – because the prince is not black, and because Tiana is a frog for much of the film, among other things.

But little girls are simply excited about the story, said Alford: “She’s another princess. In the end, if she gets to kiss the prince, that’s all that matters.”

Younger girls don’t see color distinctions as much as older girls, said Charlotte Reznick, a child educational psychologist and author of “The Power of Your Child’s Imagination.”

But she said Tiana will register on some level with little black girls and boost their sense of themselves, even if it’s subtle.

Some black moms, while praising Disney for its efforts, think its influence is overblown.

“There is far too much invested in the idea that Disney has somehow affirmed black women and girls with this production,” said Tracy D. Sharpley-Whiting, who teaches African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Sharpley-Whiting said her 7-year-old already sees herself as a princess, and has watched the live-action version of “Cinderella” that starred Brandy and Whitney Houston.

Other mothers say Tiana has made them feel more comfortable letting their daughters embrace princesses.

Dee-Dee Jackson, national president of Mocha Moms Inc., is planning to outfit her 8-year-old daughter’s room with Tiana gear. Disney consulted Mocha Moms on the film.

Tiana has already sparked a merchandising frenzy: beauty products, dolls, a cookbook, a cooking set. There’s even a new Tiana wedding dress as part of the “Kirstie Kelly for Disney Fairy Tale Weddings” line.

The “Just One Kiss” doll was named one of the “Hot Dozen” toys for the holiday season in FunFare Magazine, a toy industry publication.

While her daughter has princess costumes, movies and dolls, Jackson has been reluctant to let her put up images that don’t look like her.

“I wanted her to understand that princesses come in all colors,” said Jackson, a mom of five in Snellville, Ga.

Tiana has already made an impression on 8-year-old Tykeisha Crockrell of Brooklyn, N.Y. She loves princesses – she was Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” for Halloween.

“When I heard that Tiana was going to be an African-American princess that made me more proud to be black,” she said. “Tiana is my role model. I want to be like her.”

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