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Disney Unveils Its First Black Princess
Posted By Marcia A. Wade On February 17, 2009 @ 12:05 pm In Arts & Culture 7 Comments
Tony award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose will give voice to Princess Tiana in Disney's The Princess and the Frog. (Source: Disney)
Playing princess is something shared by little girls around the world. But until recently, the most recognizable princesses worldwide featured in the Disney Co. franchise did not include one that modeled the skin, hair, and facial features associated with women of African descent.
Princess Tiana, the heroine of Disney’s new movie The Princess and the Frog , changed that when she made her debut Monday at this year’s American International Toy Fair  in New York. Starting in Fall 2009, the company will sell dolls, t-shirts, backpacks, and other products that feature the likeness of Princess Tiana, Disney’s first American princess who also happens to be its first black princess. The movie will air in theaters nationwide during this year’s holiday season.
“We did a lot of work internally to make sure that the product that we were developing would speak to a really broad range of moms,” says Kathy Franklin, the vice president of global studio franchise animation and Disney consumer products. “We don’t see Princess Tiana product as being just for African American girls at all. But we want little girls who have not seen Disney Princesses who look like them to see Princess Tiana and be thrilled that they have a character in our franchise who speaks to them and how they see themselves as a princess.”
Tony award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose will give voice to Princess Tiana. Talk show host and business mogul Oprah Winfrey will play the voice of Eudora, and Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard also voices a character in the movie.
Noni Rose says she was “thrilled” to give life to the first black Disney princess. “It has been a lifelong dream of mine to voice a Disney character and to have it be this one could not be more exciting,” she added.
The story is set in 1920s New Orleans. To prepare for the role, Noni Rose says she “listened to a lot of music of the era, watched documentaries, and read up on New Orleans at that time.”
Franklin describes Tiana as a smart, aspiring entrepreneur. “Her dream is not to marry a prince. Her dream is to open a restaurant. It is a dream that she has had from the beginning,” Franklin says.
Princess Tiana dolls will be introduced in several sizes and at several price points, which will be determined by the retailers. The dolls will include a standard collector fashion doll equivalent in scale to a Barbie doll, a Tiana toddler doll, a doll that holds a talking frog, and a doll set with Tiana and Prince Naveen, her tadpole-hopping love interest post-transformation.
This year the Disney princess franchise , which accrues $4 billion in yearly retail sales worldwide, will celebrate its 10-year anniversary. Tiana will be the ninth character, the fourth princess of color, and the first African American princess in the franchise. She also marks Disney’s first return to hand drawn animation since the 1998 cartoon Mulan, titled after the Chinese warrior princess.
Princess Tiana will initially stand alone and not be included with Disney products that group the princesses together until the summer of 2010 and after audiences have been fully introduced to her and her story, Franklin says.
“Collectors of first-of-a kind items and black doll collectors, in particular, will readily buy the Princess Tiana doll,” says Debbie Behan Garrett, author of Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting and Experiencing the Passion . Garrett believes that although most mothers buy dolls that represent their child’s ethnicity, the fact that the doll is the first African American Princess created by a company with Disney’s stature will help it transcend race and doll-buying trends.
In addition to toys, Disney will also introduce an extensive line of apparel, accessories, home décor, consumer electronics, school supplies, and personal care products inspired by the characters.
Princess Tiana’s preliminary debut in 2007 did not go over smoothly. An earlier draft of the story entitled The Frog Princess allegedly described Tiana as a chambermaid named Maddy.
This characterization was upsetting to some in the black community, who were indignant to learn that the first black princess started out as a servant with a name that, when enunciated closely, resembled the name Mammy, which was used to degrade black women.