For those of you that don’t know, Tiana is the main character of Disney’s 2009 film, The Princess and the Frog. Loosely based on the original fairy tale, the plot follows the adventures of Tiana, a hard-working waitress in 1920s New Orleans who kisses a prince who’s been turned into a frog – only to catch amphibian-itis and turn into a frog herself. While not the smash hit that Disney was hoping for, the film was still well-received by critics and did very well at the box office – and most importantly of all, introduced Disney’s first African-American princess. Tiana herself was certainly the main draw of the film, and has been hailed by critics and audiences alike as a role model for young girls everywhere.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Instead of waiting around for something to happen to her, it’s made very clear that she’s been trying to change her circumstances from the second we meet her. When she’s turned into a frog, she immediately sets about trying to turn herself human again, but even before that she’s working two jobs to save up the money for her restaurant. There’s a lot stacked against her – not least of which is the racism that Disney only vaguely alludes to – but she doesn’t let that stop her from living the life she wants to lead.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Tiana’s goals are very clear and consistent: she wants to be a world-class chef and open up her own restaurant (and to also not be a frog any more, ta very much). Her beliefs and hobbies all revolve around this goal: she believes in the value of hard work and is sceptical that ‘wishing’ will get her what she wants, and she loves to cook. They all inform each other as well: her goal to open a restaurant came from her love of cooking, her belief in hard work came from her desire to open a restaurant, and her love of cooking is what gives her the motivation to keep working towards her goal. The three are all very closely interlinked, but I’m not going to let that stop me from giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Tiana is a very consistent character. As well as the fairly stereotypical Disney Princess traits of being good, kind and sweet, she’s also hard-working, realistic, ambitious and incredibly focused, with a very strong sense of right and wrong. As far as skills go, she’s a great cook, a very good waitress, and seems to have the capacity to make the best of every situation and get something out of nothing.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A hard-working young waitress wants to open up a restaurant, but gets turned into a frog in the process.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Tiana’s love life is a pretty big part of her story, but it isn’t the only part. At the beginning of the film all her decisions are influenced by her desire to get her restaurant and get turned back into a human – it’s only as the film progresses and she falls in love with Prince Naveen that it actually starts to influence her.
But even then, it isn’t the only factor in her decision-making. When she’s convinced that Naveen doesn’t love her and has chosen to marry Charlotte, it’s not just her love life that motivates her to run away but the realisation that she’ll be stuck as a frog forever. When she defeats Dr Facilier, the top-hat-wearing voodoo villain, it isn’t just thoughts of Naveen that motivate her but also respect for her father and a realisation about what she really values in life. When she stops Naveen from kissing Charlotte, it’s not just because she loves him, but because she knows he won’t be happy if he marries her.
Tiana’s love life is simply one motivation out of many when it comes to her decision-making. Yes, a love story is central to her development, but it’s not the only thing. Crucially, Tiana’s love life doesn’t make her forget everything she wanted before she met Naveen – the only difference is that now, she wants to share those things with him. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Tiana does develop over the course of the story, largely thanks to the influence of Naveen. She learns to loosen up and enjoy herself, and that there are more important things in life than just work. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Tiana’s biggest weakness is the fact that she’s a terrible workaholic and can be pretty uptight. While this does affect her during the course of the film – she’s always tired, she turns down invitations from friends, she doesn’t know how to relax and she is so tightly focused on her goals that she can’t see what else is important – it isn’t really portrayed as a bad part of her personality.
Tiana is a workaholic, but by and large the film shows this as a positive thing. We never see Tiana regret the fact that she doesn’t have as much free time as others, because the film makes it clear that she’s very happy to pursue her goal at every opportunity. Her ability to work hard is shown as a good thing, especially when compared to Naveen, who starts the film as a reckless and irresponsible prince. Tiana’s workaholic nature is, more often than not, used as evidence of how much she values her dream rather than evidence of the fact that she’s probably crazy stressed 24/7.
Long story short, the film is kind of on the fence about whether Tiana’s hard-working nature is a weakness or a strength, and does its best to show both sides of the argument. I’ll do the same and give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Tiana is a real influence on the plot. Her plans and decisions propel the story forward at every turn, whether she’s finding her way through the bayou or taking down an evil voodoo witch doctor with an excellent song.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Tiana is a very interesting character when it comes to gender stereotypes. When discussing how gender stereotypes affect her character, you also have to look into how racial stereotypes affect her character too, as the two are often quite closely linked. The film is unusual in that these stereotypes are directly referenced in the plot, albeit in a pretty oblique way.
On the whole, I think Tiana is a pretty progressive character. She’s a hard-working young woman whose lifelong dream is to start and manage her own business. She works multiple jobs to achieve her goal, and even when she gets knocked back she doesn’t let that stop her. This goes against the commonly held belief that women in general aren’t motivated by their careers, but also goes against a lot of racial stereotypes about black people having a poor work ethic. Portraying Tiana as a hard-working, intelligent young black woman who wants to break into a male-dominated profession (because almost all professional chefs were dudes in the 1920s) is a double whammy, hitting back against gender and racial stereotypes. Ten points for Disney.
However, Tiana isn’t completely off the hook. The film’s central message is about getting what you want vs. getting what you need, and in Tiana’s case, what she wants is her restaurant, but what she really needs is shown to be settling down with a man. The film goes a long way to portraying their relationship as one between equals – they both help each other change as people and are prepared to make sacrifices for each other before they fall in love – but this central theme kind of undermines this. Tiana’s big character growth is deciding to give up on her dream and live as a frog in a swamp with her boyfriend – turning back into a human and getting her restaurant is treated like an optional extra. This actually plays into a really common gender stereotype that a woman’s ultimate goal is to settle down and start having babies. It isn’t really a huge setback for her character, as once she marries her prince and turns back into a human she goes after her restaurant again, but the change in her priorities has important implications that shouldn’t be ignored.
This sums up a lot of the problems with The Princess and the Frog – a lot of effort has been put into updating the story, but it’s still squashed into some fairly conventional Disney Princess boxes. Tiana is a hard-working young black woman motivated by her career, but ultimately she still settles down with a handsome prince. She gets the restaurant she’s always wanted, but she’s made it clear she’d put her relationship before that if push came to shove. Tiana and Naveen change each other into better people through their love, but ultimately it’s still his money and status that ends up giving her what she wants. The film is trying to tell two stories at once – one very traditional, one much more modern – and smushing them together throws up some really unfortunate implications (and that’s saying nothing of the fact that Disney’s first black princess spends most of the film as a frog).
I’ll give her half a point. I get where the film is coming from, and it has a lot of really positive things going for it, but trying to squeeze it into the traditional Disney Princess formula really takes the shine off.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Tiana has a few interesting relationships with other female characters. She’s very close to her mother, but they have their differences: Tiana wants to build her restaurant, but her mother thinks she works too hard and would rather she met a nice boy and started producing grandkids. She’s best friends with the spoiled society darling Charlotte, but despite their different personalities the two get along well and Charlotte gives up on her plan to marry Naveen for Tiana. She’s respectfully wary of Mama Odie, and takes a little while to understand her advice, but gets there in the end. I’m not counting Evangeline, because she’s, you know, a star.
She doesn’t have many other relationships with other female characters that are explored in much detail, and personally, I think that’s a real shame. All the relationships we see her engage in are overwhelmingly positive, and I would’ve liked to have seen how she dealt with a little more conflict and tension with another female character. I’ll give her half a point.
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Tiana is a well-rounded and consistent character with a range of goals, beliefs and hobbies. She takes control of her own destiny, doesn’t let her love life rule every decision she makes and grows throughout the story. Her weaknesses are a little patchy, her relationships all run along fairly similar lines and she throws up both positive and negative gender stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped her from passing my test.
Next week, I’ll be looking at a new favourite of mine. Kimmy Schmidt, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.