The Provenance of a Princess

On the way back from the AALS Annual Meeting, I was chatting with co-blogger Deven Desai who will be familiar with this question but I’m not sure that either of us has a clear answer to it.  I was intrigued when Disney released its first full length animated feature with an African-American princess (The Princess and the Frog) both by the fact that Disney had never depicted an African-American princess before – which a lot of people wrote about at the time – and by the context in which they placed the princess.

It seemed odd to me that Disney’s Princess Tiana appeared in a tale that was clearly set in New Orleans (and thereabouts) – where a black princess would not be out of place.  However, Disney’s white princesses all appear in more generic worlds that do not necessarily depict a particular place.  Deven pointed out to me that all of the white princesses derive from European-style fairytales so the generic settings that evoke European castles and the like do make sense.  He also pointed out that Princess Jasmine in Aladdin clearly appears in an appropriate context as well and is an appropriate race for that context.

My question is:  Does anyone know the true derivation of the story on which the Princess and the Frog movie is based and whether, in fact, New Orleans is an appropriate setting for the tale.  A Wikipedia entry suggests that the movie is based on an E.D. Baker novel which, in turn, is based on a Grimm Brothers fairy tale.  So I suppose the question is whether the novel is set in New Orleans, or at least in the American South.  The Grimm Brothers fairy tale apparently is set in Europe.

2 thoughts on “The Provenance of a Princess

  1. Most Disney princesses are first found in European fairy tales, and the setting of their Disney movies seems clearly but generically European.

    Beauty and the Beast (Belle) derives from a French tale, and the movie seems set somewhere in Europe.

    Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (Aurora) all come from Grimm’s fairy tales, which reportedly have German and Italian origins, and the movies seem set somewhere in Europe.

    Little Mermaid (Ariel) is set somewhere in the sea, which makes sense, inasmuch as Ariel is a mermaid.

    Pocahontas is a native American. The setting of the movie is not generically American, though: the movie seems set in the Eastern woods, not in any particular city at all.

    Mulan is an Asian princess; the movie is set somewhere in China.

    Princess Jasmine (Aladdin) appears to be of Middle Eastern descent, and the movie seems set somewhere in the Middle East.

    Some of these movies are quite old, and all were written for an audience of American children. It must have seemed perfectly fine to set these movies somewhere non-specific in Europe as opposed to, say, Florence or Rotterdam. To an American child, additional information about geography is meaningless.

    Writing a movie today, one that is set in America, I don’t think that Disney could have plausibly set The Princess and the Frog in a generic locale. New Orleans seems like a good, and non-controversial, choice. Most people, even children, are familiar with New Orleans, at least in a cartoonish sort of way, and the city has a recognizable musical and cultural identity that makes it easy for writers to set a story there.

    The story from which the movie was based, E.D. Baker’s The Frog Prince, makes clear that the princess first met the frog in a swamp. I can’t think of a better swampy locale than New Orleans.

    Finally, to the suggestion that the movie was set in a place where a black princess would not be out of place, I would say that if Disney in fact did that, then they were wise to do so. Because the movie is set in New Orleans, the audience has more freedom to suspend disbelief (“OMG, no way there’s a black princess in Boston!”) and enjoy the movie as a piece of entertainment rather than a morality play about race.

  2. My vague recollection of the Grimms’ tales (I got an unedited version when I was 9 or 10, and boy are they gory!) is that actually they generally don’t specify a geographic location, although I suppose it’s natural to assume they’re all set in Germany. Someone subversive should make a faithful cartoon adaptation of Cinderella someday.

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