What sets Tiana apart from the Princesses who came before? The obvious answer was all over the media. Tiana is African American. There was a great deal of debate about that fact. She wasn’t ‘black enough’. She was too ‘stereotypically black’. She was too ‘politically correct’. She was definitely controversial. But all of that is not what makes her so different from her predecessors.
First, Tiana had a job. Welcome to the world of the first employed princess. The first things we learn about Tiana are about her skills and goals, not her beauty. In fact, her defining characteristic is her devotion to her goals which is shown in both a positive and negative light. She is held up as a steady counter-example to Prince Naveen who needs to be grounded. She is also reprimanded for focusing exclusively on her goals and not focusing on her personal life which is a very female targeted criticism. Men are rarely judged in this way. Were their two character traits reversed, no one would have attempted to shift Naveen’s focus to the intangibles of love and family.
Secondly, Tiana has a best friend who (shock and awe) is another woman and human to boot. Disney finally gives us a real female friendship where the women love and respect each other in spite of their differences. This kind of example has been woefully lacking until this point. Princesses had a multitude of relationships with other women, but they could be broken down into two simple categories: confrontational or maternal. For the first time, there is a real peer relationship between two women that influences story telling in a positive way.
Thirdly, Tiana’s Prince is not the goal of her story, but an obstacle to be overcome. It is his fault she turns into a frog. It is his fault they are lost and in danger. It is his irresponsibility that gets in the way of her fulfilling her goals. She doesn’t need to make herself worthy of him, he needs to make himself worthy of being included in her life. Which he does because she is worth the effort. It’s a far cry from dancing with a pretty girl and deciding, ‘She’ll do.’
As wonderful as all these changes are, Tiana still occupies a world of men. The villains are men. The quirky animal sidekicks are men. It is the actions of men and their plans that drive the plot. Dr. Facilier is the villian and Prince Naveen is the target, Tiana simply gets caught in the crossfire. She bears up well, but one could make a case that she is simply supporting cast in the story. The addition of Mama Odie is wonderful, but she is only one voice in a male dominated script.
Again the data is mixed.
Bechdel test*: Tiana, Charlotte, Eudora, and Mama Odie are all named. Tiana talks to each of these women, not exculsively about Naveen, but about her dreams and goals. Result: PASS
Percent of words spoken by women**: 24%. In spite of these strong female characters, they still take a back seat to the men in percentage of lines spoken.
*The Bechdel Test evaluates film based on whether there are at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
** The data comes from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyze all the dialogue from the Disney princess movies. The project was reported in The Washington Post by Jeff Guo.