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Disney's Tiana: Self-reliant, ambitious, but still a princess

The Princess and the Frog

Princess Tiana came to life at theatres across the country this weekend, starring in The Princess and the Frog, a new animated movie from Disney.

Although Tiana is the latest in a long line of Disney princesses, the newest incarnation is gaining more attention for the ways she differs from her royal counterparts.

She's the first black princess in the Disney franchise, which dates back to the debut of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Her life unfolds in New Orleans during the 1920s. She has serious career ambitions to open her own restaurant, and tries to make the dream happen by saving up tips working as a waitress.

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That's considerable progress for a company whose first princess spends most of the film waiting hand and foot on seven slovenly men who only give her a place to stay because she can cook.

But does catching up to the 21st century by casting a female lead as something more than a glorified housekeeper represent much progress?

After all, the new princess still waits on others, although in this movie she gets paid for it.

The real issue, according to media and gender analysts, is that Princess Tiana has much more in common with Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella than it first appears.

She might have an independent streak and a desire for more than princely romance, but those messages are diluted by promotional materials and merchandise that feature Tiana in the same stylized fashion as all the other Disney princesses, said Matthew Johnson, media education specialist with the Media Awareness Network in Ottawa.

"They are really communicating the same princess identity, the same princess message, as they have through all the other characters, and it's only in some elements of the script that they've changed anything significant," Mr. Johnson said.

He highlighted another example, Mulan, a Disney princess featured in the movie of the same name, who spends much of her screen time posing as a male warrior but wears a sparkly kimono and plenty of makeup in Disney merchandise bought for little girls.

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"The overall message of the Mulan character and the Mulan franchise is very different from the message we get from the film," Mr. Johnson said.

Fairy-tale princesses have long been popular with little girls. But that popularity has hit manic proportions in the past decade, fuelled by a calculated marketing and branding push by Disney.

In 2000, the company launched the Disney Princess franchise, which "enables little girls to live the life of a princess" through products and entertainment, according to Disney Consumer Products.

The multi-billion-dollar franchise revolves around branded items featuring the nine Disney princesses and has become the top-selling line at company theme parks and stores. It has expanded from basics such as dolls, toys and DVDs to include furniture, bedding, costumes and Disney Princess magazine. Numerous items, such as playpens, are geared toward babies.

Competitors like Mattel Inc. have also jumped on the bandwagon with lines of princess-themed DVDs and toys.

Although popular, the princess push troubles some experts who say the overwhelming emphasis on good looks, thinness and beautiful clothing sends the wrong message to girls, beginning at a very young age.

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"It's possible for a child's media diet to be almost exclusively princess," Mr. Johnson said. "You have to imagine these messages are being reinforced in a pretty powerful way."

While the new movie tries to strike a modern chord, the storyline is not much different than the typical "happily ever after" fairy tale, said Diane Levin, professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston and co-author of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.

The main plot focuses on how Tiana and the male lead, Prince Naveen, must find a way to become human again after they are both transformed into frogs. Although there are a few tweaks - Tiana doesn't simply wait to be rescued and the prince is down on his luck and broke - the overall message is the same, Prof. Levin said: Beauty will save you and appearances are important.

"It's more of the same, but it allows them to ... adapt their marketing a little bit, to be more inclusive," she said.

She added that she believes Disney cast Tiana as a poor working woman to appeal to the black working-class population of the United States.

And long after the credits roll, merchandise from the movie will remain, featuring Tiana not as a working waitress, but a princess, Mr. Johnson said.

"She works in a restaurant. Her family is poor ... but of course all of the merchandising material has her in the princess gown and tiara."

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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