It has only taken 72 years, but Disney has created its first African-American princess, a New Orleans beauty called Tiana. Initial fears that that princess No. 9 would be an offensively stereotyped Southern chambermaid have proved unfounded. As audiences will see, when The Princess and the Frog opens November 25, Tiana is an ambitious, hard-working gal with plans to open her own restaurant and little time for dancing. She is, in fact, the kind of impressive young black woman that makes Oprah Winfrey tear up with pride. Literally, too: Oprah supplies the voice of her mother.
But all the fuss over Princess Tiana's PC credentials has overshadowed an equally grave crime of royal stereotyping—the decades of terrible treatment meted out to Handsome Princes in the Disney kingdom. Was there ever a bunch of leading men more lacking in charisma than this bunch of plank-like stiffs?
The prince in Snow White is so bland, he doesn't even get a first name. Poor guy, he only has one song to sing, and it's a song about only having one song to sing. Prince Charming, whose name promises so much, turns out to be nothing more than a polite socialite whose only skill is dancing until midnight. His emotional complexity is limited to a perfectionist streak about dating. His parents have to throw a ball, remember, to find him a potential mate.
Prince Phillip in Sleeping Beauty has a real first name, but that's as colorful as it gets. No jokes, no banter. His idea of flirtation is to sing at you.
Characters in fairytales are of course simple for a reason. As Bruno Bettleheim wrote in his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, the purpose of such stories is "to allow children to grapple with their fears in remote, symbolic terms." But the princes carry the additional burden of setting the tone for emergent sexual desire. They are kept safely bland for good reason.
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The problem is that in terms of romantic conflict, the result is stultifying: Impossibly virtuous heroine meets insufferably noble hero. It's no wonder Prince Charming and Cinderella dance all night. They don't have anything to talk about. It explains why fairytales boast such a profusion of curses, dragons, witches, and potions. Anything to keep these two apart until the very end.
Walt Disney and his storytellers knew as much. Their inspired decision was to surround their princesses with comic relief. Cinderella gets her tubby mice, Gus and Jacques. Snow White gets her dwarfs and woodland creatures. Aurora, from Sleeping Beauty, gets three eccentric fairy godmothers and so on.
But what, pray tell, does the Handsome Prince get? A pair of green tights and a mildly pleasing baritone—if he's lucky.
It is telling that Disney didn't make a princess movie for three decades after Sleeping Beauty in 1959. The era of free love and the rise of feminism effectively put the nix on passive heroines who merely had to be lovely and wait for the hero to rescue them.
It's no wonder Prince Charming and Cinderella dance all night. They don't have anything to talk about.
Disney finally re-animated the brand with The Little Mermaid in 1989, but only after making some very artful changes to the original story. There were no scullery chores or sewing for this spirited redhead. She was rebellious, athletic, and curious about the outside world. A real catch (pun intended), except her taste in men was woeful. Prince Eric is the standard-issue square-jawed hunk. Yes, he's kind and he's got a dog and he sails. But he's not far-thinking or competent. She has to rescue him when he fails to navigate a storm. And he is a complete squid when push comes to shove on date night. Even with a swampful of animals urging him in unison to "Kiss the Girl,” he still doesn't make the first move.
Things were no better after Disney broadened the ethnic mix in 1995 with Pocahontas, the first hard-body princess. Her love interest is an explorer, not a royal, with the prosaic name of John Smith. Most bafflingly, the story is technically not fairytale at all, but a historical drama.
Three years later, Mulan introduced the first kick-ass princess for the so-called Oriental Yentl. Feisty Mulan pretends to be a boy to join the Chinese army, which means another active, dynamic female lead. But again, it is at the expense of her love interest, Shang, a proud son of a colonel, who once again has to be rescued. (Let's not even mention the ponytail.) Like Eric and Charming before him, Shang has to be pushed toward the good thing right in front of his eyes: "You don't find a girl like that every dynasty."
It got to the point where I was ready to launch a campaign for the fair treatment of Handsome Princes. The prince in Beauty and Beast is agreeably abrasive, but he's buried under a pelt and he needs private tutoring in everything from table manners to dancing.
Then along comes The Princess and The Frog. Disney Animation, with a little help from Pixar maestro John Lasseter has come up with a genius solution to the prince problem. They've rolled the prince and animal comic relief into one. Tiana's love interest in the film is the majestically self-adoring Prince Naveen. Even before he gets turned into an amusing frog, he has plenty of time for dancing—and women, too. He's not just a prince; he's a player. He's such a ladies man, he talks Tiana into kissing him! Of course, the kiss turns her into a frog too. But you can't have everything.
Sean Macaulay was the L.A. movie critic for The London Times from 1999 to 2007. He has also written for Punch, British GQ, and The Mail on Sunday. He was most recently creative consultant on the award-winning documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil .