Blackness in Disney’s the Princess and the Frog: Introducing the Zippy Mae series by A. E. Costello

The magical Disney castle

I know that Disney’s the Princess and the Frog came out over ten years ago at the time of this post. But that doesn’t necessarily make it old news either. People still talk about Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, and they came out in 1950 and 1989 respectively.

There’s a reason I’m bringing up that movie, and how it ties into the treatment of blackness within fantasy as a genre, and what my new series, the Zippy Mae series, has to do with combating it. This post is not specifically about cultural diversity within Disney’s canon, but I am using Disney as my main example.

That is where the Princess and the Frog comes in.

What we should have gotten:

A beautiful black princess

What we got:

A frog for 90% of the movie

First off, this post is going to lay out the differences in race that comes into play when we talk fantasy. I mean white skin versus black skin, and if that’s offensive to you, rather than click away, keep reading to understand what I’m talking about, and what black people have to deal with every day.

Facts, Disney has made movies for little white girls for like a century now. Little white girls can aspire to be like the princesses Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, Aurora and Rapunzel. Beautiful and fair, and fair means pale-skinned. Little white girls get to imagine a Prince Charming to sweep them away. An adorable pet sidekick. Princesses and fantasy castles and singing and magic.

Black children were never invited into that fantasy, because the black representation in Disney’s movies has been supremely subpar. Like the Jim Crow character in Dumbo or the racist black centaur they’ve tried to erase from their Fantasia film. Or how about the blackfish in the Little Mermaid?

Black centaur with gap teeth serving whiteness
Jim Crow
Blackfish

Then steps in Disney’s the Princess and the Frog, their attempt to placate the black masses who rumbled there wasn’t a black princess. So Disney throws us a bone, here’s your black princess, and stop complaining.

So what do we get?

Well, to start with, the male prince lead was a horrible womanizer playboy who had squandered away his money so his parents cut him off. So that’s Prince Naveen, our only black prince in Disney. He is no Prince Charming.

Let’s compare Prince Naveen to other princes in Disney’s canon, shall we?

The prince in Snow White was not like that, who comes to free Snow White from her spell, and he’s gentle and polite. Prince Eric in the Little Mermaid was not like that, who falls in love with the beautiful redhead, and then saves the day by killing Ursula who had become a giant sea monster, saving both Ariel and her father’s life. Think about the prince in Sleeping Beauty, Prince Philip. He was strong and brave and fought off a dragon to rescue Aurora. He put his life on the line. Those princes were all tall strapping handsome young men.

Prince Naveen in the Princess and the Frog was a whining coward who was a damned frog for the entire movie who only wanted things for himself. He was not someone that a little black boy could point to and be like I want to be just like him! What little black boy dreams of being flat broke? What little black girl dreams of a womanizing prince who only wants to use her, rather than sweep her away?

Thanks Disney.

What’s with this lazy excuse for natural hair?

Then we have “Princess” Tiana who first off WAS NOT A PRINCESS. She was a waitress. Not only was she a waitress, her dream was to OWN A RESTAURANT. Why do black people get dreams of something as plain and simple and ordinary as owning a restaurant? Isn’t this supposed to be a fantasy story? So the black girl’s dream is to work for herself . What was Cinderella’s dream? To get swept away from her miserable life by a handsome prince. Realistic, no. But great to dream and yearn and fantasize about? Absolutely.

So black girls get to dream about working hard while white girls get to dream that they’re princesses. And that’s really one of the points I’m making here. Fantasy is about escaping reality. It’s reality to work hard. Its reality to own a restaurant. Its reality to do things on your own and be independent. So sure, Tiana is a good “role” model for children, but that’s totally missing the point of a fantasy movie. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

But fantasy isn’t necessarily about role models. Its about dreaming. It’s about when you’re drifting away on a long car trip, or in a too warm classroom not paying attention to the teacher. Are you laying there dreaming about working hard and doing everything on your own?

Not necessarily…what about dreaming that you’re flying? What about dreaming you have magic powers? What about dreaming that there’s a prince out there longing for you?

And that’s what I want, to have that for black girls. I want to write a story that little black girls can fantasize about. The Zippy Mae series features a black girl protag that they can be like I want to be like her. A magical setting that black girls wish they could go there, an entire world full of mysterious and fantastic things to explore.

I want to spin the glorious fairy-tale that invites black girls in for the ride. There’s the magic castle, and the unicorns and the adventurous quests and flying on dragons and fighting evil and winning the day.

That’s where my Zippy Mae series comes through, ready to fulfill that. Featuring a black girl protagonist, who starts out young, and grows up along with readers who can pick up a fantasy novel and see a curly-haired black girl smiling out to them from the cover, holding a magic wand with a talking cat and magic sparkles and they are like this is it.

This is the book that they are in.

Go back to Disney’s the Princess and the Frog for a moment. Think about the animal sidekicks. Snow White got forest creatures, deer and rabbits and bluebirds who sung and danced and helped her clean. Cinderella got mice, yes, but they talked and wore clothes and were cute. Even Ariel got an adorable puffer fish.

What did Tiana get?

A really hideous FLY. Like with buck crooked teeth and bulging eyes and a scraggly facial hair.

A fly.

Now THAT is an adorable sweet face!

Mulan got a bug too, but that cricket was drawn as sweet and adorable as possible. Has anyone seen a real cricket up close? They look like disgusting mutated monsters. Not the Cricket from Mulan, let alone Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio, did look as nasty as that fly from the Princess and the Frog.

So why do Snow White and Cinderella and Ariel get adorable fuzzy creatures, and the black princess waitress Tiana gets a fly?

It’s racist. Period. The white princesses get handsome strong princes, they get the fantasy castle, they get the adorable animal sidekicks and they get to dream and yearn and get swept away.

We don’t get that. Historically in fantasy black people are either erased entirely, or if they are there, they’re stereotyped or killed off.

Don’t believe me?

Are there any black elves in J. R. R. Tolkien’s series? When you watched the Lord of the Rings films, did you see a black elf?

the Rivendell elves

That entire cast was white, and there’s no room for a black kid to wish they were an elf.

Take the Eragon movie. There’s a black king, played by Djimon Hounsou.

Djimon Hounsuo as a fantasy king. But not for long

And what happens? They killed him off. He doesn’t die in the first book, and plays roles later in the series. But in the movie they killed him (which instantly made it impossible to adapt the next book, seeing as they killed off a principal character.)

Do you maybe believe me now?

There’s not a single black kid who saw The Princess and the Frog and wished they could be womanizing broke prince and a waitress who dreams of having her own restaurant.

Not right. Not fair.

The Zippy Mae series features the lot:

  • A main black girl protagonist.
  • Unicorns.
  • Dragons.
  • Magic.
  • Adventures.
  • And a fantasy world that can sweep up little black girl and little black boy readers, take them away and give them something they can sit back and think I wish that was me.

The main draw is a story that black people can want to be like the black characters within. The fantasy world where black kids (and adults) can wish they could go to. My books main characters are going to be black. The Zippy Mae series is about black people on magical adventures.

Now I’m not daring to say I’m the only one who’s writing black people in fantasy stories. Not at all.

That’s what black speculative fiction is all about.

Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okotafor, N. K. Jemisin, Tomi Adeyemi and Nalo Hopkinson are just to mention a few authors dominating and succeeding in the black speculative fiction arena.

I’m talking about the story I exactly want to tell. It has nothing to do with what other authors are doing with their black main characters.

A story with black main characters who black readers can dream and fantasize and aspire to. With princes and palaces and unicorns and magic and adventures. The same thing that white kids get to get carried away with, while erasing black people entirely.

Maybe white people will be complaining that the white characters don’t get enough “screen” time in the Zippy Mae books.

I will honestly tell any complaining white person…I did not write this story for you. I expect that everyone can enjoy it, I’m not saying that my books are for only black people and whites need not apply. Of course not! I want everyone to read and enjoy my work.

What I am saying is that I wrote it with intentions for one specific target audience. An audience that is historically dismissed and ignored within the fantasy genre. That’s why black people had to make our own space: black speculative fiction.

And that audience I’m writing for in my upcoming Zippy Mae series is:

Black girls and black boys.

White people write stories for white audiences all day and every day. White authors erase or shunt or ignore colored people in their stories and their movies and their shows all the time. And even if they are there, they get stereotyped or killed off.

Yes, there are white authors who do write about black characters.

Think about Ursula K. Le Guin. She wrote her fantasy stories with dark-skinned main characters. That was her POINT. And in movies and TV shows they white-washed her characters. Took away the main thing.

Erased the blackness.

I want my story to have such a varied cast of black people that any black kid can pick out the character that they are the most like. Without stock characters. I’m not going to have the ghetto kid, the brainy kid, the nerd or the jock.

Living breathing characters who have more than one personality trait. There’s no goofy friend, no stuck up bully, no whiner that no one wants to be around, and no abused pitiful orphan with an incredible fate or destiny.

Zippy Mae is my story, my way. Stay tuned for future updates and news!

And as always, while I write, my cat Aomine keeps me company at my side.

there’s nowhere else she’d rather be

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Elizabeth Costello says:

    I am so ready to read what you have for little black girls/ boys and everyone else! You have an amazing mind and gift and I can’t wait for you to share it with the world. Godspeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tira says:

    I am so excited to read your work again! Your Zippy Mae series sound like just what black lovers of fantasy need.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! And yes, that’s what I aiming for. Something new and fresh and FUN.

      Like

  3. Joseph Messner says:

    Well thought out and well written …. you make excellent points.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! And yes, I simply did the compare and contrast, and noted the high level of discrepancy. I dislike drawing white/black lines but when its this obvious, I have to say something. And then I also have to do my part, and that’s by writing a book

      Liked by 1 person

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