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Does The Little Mermaid Pass the Black Princess Test?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: Disney

When the trailer for The Little Mermaid live-action remake came out last year, reaction videos of Black little girls watching Halle Bailey as Ariel went viral. Bailey recently talked about the importance of her casting to Good Morning America: “I mean, we deserve to have representation where we can look and say, ‘Wow, I’m worthy too. She looks like me.’”

Disney hasn’t cast many Black princesses before, but there are two movies that stand out: Brandy’s made-for-TV Cinderella (1997), and The Princess and the Frog (2009). Do either of them pass the Black princess test? Will the new version of The Little Mermaid? This made-up test was created to measure how successfully Disney is representing Blackness in its films featuring a Black princess. Aria Halliday studies cultural constructions of Black girlhood and womanhood at the University of Kentucky and helped us establish this very academic criteria: (1) there has to be a Black princess; (2) Black cultural traditions should be represented; and (3) the rewards for the Black princess should be just as good as they typically are for white princesses. Read on to find out which of these movies pass the test, and listen to the full episode of Into It wherever you get your podcasts.

Probably the best example of the Disney colorblind-princess thing was the television live-action musical Cinderella, with Whitney Houston and Brandy. Everybody was a different color. It worked because it’s Whitney and Brandy, but usually I don’t like that.
Brandy, Whitney, Whoopi Goldberg are in it, and Natalie Desselle Reid, from B.A.P.S. It’s a really Black film in a lot of ways. But there are these other parts — like Paolo Montalban, who is Filipino American, is the prince, although his mother is Black and his father is white.

But they never talk about race.
No. Right at the end of the film when the prince is going to find Cinderella, why does he try the slipper on everybody in the kingdom? He knows she’s Black.

It’s wild! When you look at this film critically and what it’s doing, toeing this weird line of being Black and being colorblind, is it good? Is it bad? Do you like it?
My job is to help us see what the narrative is telling us to believe in. What is the fantasy that we should want to be a part of in this story, beyond the fabulousness that is Whitney Houston and Brandy Norwood? The film is saying some interesting things about how girls should feel wanted and loved and desired. At the end of the film, the prince finds her as she’s about to hit the road because her stepmother is treating her poorly, her sisters are treating her poorly, and she’s going to find another situation for herself. It’s a slightly different narrative than we get from other Cinderellas or even other princesses.

The other narrative is “You better be attractive enough for a man to want you and save you.”
Exactly. Because you’re going to get saved. So it’s different when she’s like, I’m hitting the road on my own to find something better. I deserve to be loved. 

Is that a Black thing?
I think it is. They’d already done Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella a couple of times; it was on TV in the ’50s. I think something that’s slightly different is Debra Martin Chase is a Black producer who had been working with Whitney Houston. She did The Preacher’s Wife with Houston and Denzel Washington. I think Houston and Chase wanted to create this narrative around girls deserving to be loved regardless of whatever promises are being made. Regardless of race. We should want to be loved and be treated well regardless of our circumstances. I think that that is an underlying narrative throughout the film that slightly changes how we see Cinderella show up. And it’s tied to the fact that she’s Black and that her fairy godmother is Black.

A strong Black woman.
Exactly. It’s gonna feel familiar to us because it’s a story that we already know. If love is not being served there, you leave. That’s what we know.

Does it pass the Black princess test?
I think it passes the Black princess test. We get this narrative of her going from nobody to somebody. It’s the quintessential princess story. You’re not really a princess, you become a princess, and you’re beautiful. She’s Black and she’s a princess, so it passes the Black princess test.

And they’re singing! They are singing in this movie. 
Listen. “Impossible” is really the only thing that puts that film together. You’re getting Whitney Houston singing, and in 1997, that’s all you need.

Let’s talk about The Princess and the Frog, which also has a Black princess. I already know this might not pass the Black princess test for you.
Oh my.

What is this movie?
It’s based on the traditional “Frog Prince,” story where you have to kiss a frog and it becomes a prince. But the Disneyfied version is that there’s a little Black girl who kisses a frog, and the frog is under a voodoo spell, and it also makes her a frog. So now they’re both frogs.

So the first time there’s a Disney animated Black princess, she turns into a frog.

What do you think was up with that? Because I’m assuming the folks who wrote that movie thought they were doing the lord’s work.
They probably did. I think they wanted it to be modernized. It’s giving you a little bit of folklore around New Orleans, and this is after Hurricane Katrina. They’re really trying to craft this narrative around a jazz age steeped in Black cultural tradition, which includes voodoo, the bayou, all while trying to tell a Black-girl uplift story.

Do you think that Disney would ever make a white-princess film that subjects a white princess to frogdom?
I don’t know if they will ever do it, but they have not. It hasn’t happened. And there aren’t other princess films where somebody else is kissing the prince.

What happened? Who is it?
So her best friend is this little white girl (side note: Her mom works for their family). So it’s really interesting: Are they friends or are they not? Anyway, her friend Charlotte is technically princess of Mardi Gras because her dad is king of Mardi Gras. They need a princess to break the spell, so she picks up the frog prince and kisses him a bunch of times. It doesn’t work. And then that’s when Tiana as a frog and the prince as a frog kiss, and then they become people.

So she had to watch her white girlfriend kiss …
Kiss her boo for her.

What happens at the end when they become human again and get together? 
She works at a restaurant. Her whole dream this entire film is to own her own restaurant because it’s what her dad wanted. So her whole life was dedicated to developing this restaurant called Tiana’s Place. She’s not interested in dating, she doesn’t hang out with her friends, she barely sees her mama. She’s working two, three jobs to get enough money to start this restaurant. Marrying the prince, she gets some money for the restaurant, and they work in the restaurant together happily ever after.

You make me a princess, I’m not doing food service, baby. That ain’t happening. 
What’s interesting about our first animated Black princess is that even in the fantastical ways that we can think about her, she’s still working.

Does The Princess and the Frog pass the Black princess test?
Barely. I’m very critical of this film, but some of my Black sorority sisters and friends love this film. This is the first animated Black princess, right? It’s a big deal. When it came out, Carol’s Daughter was merchandising around hair-care products so you could look like a princess. There’s all these ways that Black women were supporting this film in the same way that The Little Mermaid is happening right now. Oprah Winfrey was in it, Jenifer Lewis. All of these really key markers, actresses, location, all that kind of stuff made this a really Black film.

Do you think The Little Mermaid will pass the Black princess test?
I think it already has. I was watching some of the interviews with Halle, and there are already little girls who are completely attached to her being a princess. They want to hug her, they want to know her, they want to be attached to that. They want to be a part of that world with her. So whether or not the film is successful, it’s going to be tied to whether or not they make us believe that she’s the Little Mermaid. I think they’ve already done that.

Into It with Sam Sanders

Does The Little Mermaid Pass the Black Princess Test?