The Princess and the Product Placement

While I don’t think I could have given 10 bucks to Disney to watch The Princess and the Frog when it came out in the theater, I do remember it making quite a lot of news due to the racial barriers it transcended. And I remember, while reading the reviews, how I wanted to blog about how Disney doesn’t care what color its characters are, as long as they inspire their audiences to empty their wallets for Disney products. In fact, I’d even go a step further: Disney has expanded its world to include Asians (Mulan), Native Americans (Pocahontas), Arabs (Jasmine), and even Mermaids (Ariel)—an undertapped demographic—so why wouldn’t they create a character that African Americans (Tiana) could associate with and take inspiration from, and of course buy the accompanying spin-off dolls, outfits, toys, and books.

What I wasn’t expecting, when I finally watched the movie a few nights back, was just how much Disney’s fantasy world converged with Disney’s own fantasy. The first scene painted a picture of a girl’s bedroom filled with Disney-esque toys and outfits. Any little girl who sees this couldn’t help but envy the dozens of princess dolls and dresses, and surely dream of a similar decked-out room. And while in the film these outfits are handmade by a seamstress, Disney knows few have the time or dressmaking skills for that, and can expect most parents to head to the Disney Store to buy cheap, mass-produced Belle, Cinderella, and Snow White costumes. And now, of course, Tiana dresses.

Young Tiana and Charlotte in Charlotte’s very pink bedroom.

To be fair, Disney could argue that it was simply painting the reality of today’s pre-teen market. And this is clearly the case, as artist JeongMee Yoon’s Pink and Blue Project demonstrates (aside: stay tuned for an interview with Ms. Yoon in coming weeks). But then, to be as fair, we must ask the question of how it came to be that way—and we return to Disney, which made its princess line into a multi-billion dollar industry (for a great discussion of this, see Buy Buy Baby.

Tessa and All Her Pink Stuff, Courtesy of JeongMee Yoon

But in the film, Disney went beyond marketing its toys and the childhood Princess fantasy, even subtly marketing its other enterprises (and related fantasies). The wedding at the end of the film was right out of the Disney fairy-tale archetype (now available as the “Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings” at Disney Resorts, where for the right price, a couple can marry with white horses, stage coach, and all). And sure, this was a nice way for Prince Naveen and Tiana to marry, but in the context of the film, perhaps all that cash should have gone to fulfilling Tiana’s dream of buying a restaurant rather than forcing her to cash in her meager life savings. Or maybe I’m just too practical.

There were, of course, some positive lessons embedded here and there. The song “You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper” reminded listeners of the difference between wants and needs, and what really makes us happy in life. For Naveen, that was a clear explanation that love, not money, was what would make him happy. A good lesson to share with kids in a materialistic culture.

And the movie included a great plotline overall, was technically quite impressive—boasting gorgeous animation and good pacing—and even included original songs by Randy Newman (although his “The World Isn’t Fair,” about Karl Marx’s vision of a just world and the benefits of communism, was surprisingly missing).

But what was most striking about this modern fantasy wasn’t just how much Disney products were marketed, but how the very cult of Disney was celebrated. As children, Tiana and her friend Charlotte “wished upon a star” to make their fantasies come true, and continued to do so even as adults. (Yes, it is the same star featured in Disney’s theme song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” in celebrations at Disney World, and in opening shots of Disney movies.) Tiana (in frog form) even prays to this star at one point—with hands folded and fingers interlaced Christian-style—and at the end of the movie the Lightning Bug that dies is reborn as a companion star to the first star, which during the film is personified as “Evangeline.” Now, I don’t mean to overreact, but I do find it amazing that the lead characters of this film (and de facto role models to the target audience of 4–10 year-old girls) are praying to the star that is a central icon in the Disney mythology.

Let’s just hope that this does not forebode something much worse as our ecological, social, and political systems unravel in the years to come. In darker moments, I envision a dystopian future where Disney cults worship Evangeline, while priests dressed as Mickey Mouse sacrifice virgins dressed as Disney princesses in order to ensure that the congregants’ dreams come true in the coming year. Not something I hope to see—except in movie form. And that would be a movie I’d pay $10 to see.

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