And then they turned her into a frog
December 13, 2020 2:12 PM   Subscribe

That’s quite a list of POC-but-not-onscreen runtimes.

About Tiana, I remember being properly horrified by the hounds-in-the-swamp chase scene and pretty surprised Disney put anything that realistic in, and wondering if the frogs made it saleably unrealistic.
posted by clew at 4:43 PM on December 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I hadn't noticed this in feature animation (I beg the excuse that, other than Pixar movies of animated objects and supernatural monsters, I haven't seen many), but I've noticed it in the big-ticket sci-fi movies, where the masses of humanity tend to be overwhelmingly white and the nonwhite performers pick up the roles of the extraterrestrials in body paint and facial prosthetics.
posted by ardgedee at 5:43 PM on December 13, 2020 [10 favorites]

Thanks! That helps me understand why I was so disappointed she was a frog most of the time.
posted by aniola at 7:18 PM on December 13, 2020

I have wondered about this myself.

Also, I wanted to like The Princess and the Frog, but man, it was dull. I can't figure out why a movie about voodoo was dull, but it was. I had forgotten most of the plot by the end of the movie.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:37 PM on December 13, 2020

I've noticed it in the big-ticket sci-fi movies, where the masses of humanity tend to be overwhelmingly white and the nonwhite performers pick up the roles of the extraterrestrials in body paint and facial prosthetics.

That's largely because sci-fi/fantasy movies have basically replaced the kinds of stories movies used to use for westerns and tales of "exotic" lands, where white men would confront the "other" and their ways. It's the modern revamping of "orientalism", where they try to escape all the problematic and racist elements by using aliens or other fantastic creatures.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:39 PM on December 13, 2020 [19 favorites]

This was a great article- thank you for posting.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:01 AM on December 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

Excellent article. It has me wondering about how choices are made of which stories to tell and how to populate them - there are stories where white characters are transformed into animals/objects/whatever, but there are plenty of stories where they're not. So how much of this is that the industry wants to tell more stories involving characters of color (if nothing else, because it's a relatively untapped market) but doesn't want to tell *their* stories, so it's simpler/safer/etc to use a "and then she's a frog!" type of transformation story.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:37 AM on December 14, 2020

If you read interviews with virtually any Black director or stars you'll find Hollywood hasn't been at all interested in telling their stories, unless they fit certain stereotypes and have some appeal for white audiences. They don't believe, with some good reason, reason that they helped create, that white audiences, and more recently, international audiences won't go see "Black" movies. There are, in other words, movies, the kind that generally star white people with some occasional Black actors, and "ethnic" movies that are a different thing entirely.

White audiences don't go to "ethnic" movies because they aren't made comfortable by seeing experiences other than their own. It's expected that everyone else will be able to enjoy movies about the dominant culture because it is dominant and thus familiar, but movies outside that standard don't get mainstream notice. Hollywood sells/exports the familiarity of whiteness as one of its primary selling points as a stand-in for American dominance, risking that to show other stories makes Hollywood very nervous. They believe that white audiences can better relate to a talking animal than a real person not like them.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:36 AM on December 14, 2020 [7 favorites]

This is just to say that I absolutely love Brother Bear and I'm bummed that no one ever talks about it.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 6:37 AM on December 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

gusottertrout: Yeah. I did see somewhere that some of the "let's tell 'universal' stories" (which is to say white and predominantly male stories) wall is cracking a little bit with some of the recent success of Black-focused stories among 'general' (again, predominantly white) audiences, but it's still a mostly impenetrable wall. (It's possible this may be mostly in horror and other speculative genres, with "Get Out" and "Black Panther", among others. I'm hoping the Amazon series based on the (criminally under-watched) movie "Fast Color" will live up to the movie's excellence and quality)

One can only hope.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:09 AM on December 14, 2020

This is a really interesting thing I had never noticed or considered, and I appreciate the link here on MetaFilter and the original post.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:14 AM on December 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

It hit me forcefully when I was watching The Princess and the Frog: that Disney'd made a big deal about having a black lead character (and such an appealing character design) but here she was being turned into a frog really early on into the movie and remaining that way throughout much of the movie's runtime. Like, what was the point? Quite depressing. The other incidences in the article didn't hit me at the time - but when you see them listed like that, yeah. Wow! And what the hell, Disney.

Also, I wanted to like The Princess and the Frog, but man, it was dull.

I thought it was fun but only for the part of the movie where Tiana was human. Once she and Naveen become frogs in a swamp, it became boring to me. I do think Naveen is one of the handsomest Disney princes, though. Sigh.
posted by unicorn chaser at 7:55 AM on December 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

This one makes me feel a bit off-balance; I agree with the general point, but keep wanting to go "yeah, but" about (some) of the specific examples.

For example, it feels like "The Princess and the Frog" was probably a story about turning into a frog before it was a story about a POC (I don't actually have evidence to this effect, but it fits my mental picture of how Disney develops their stories). Brother Bear is about the becoming a bear thing--you can tell this story with a white character becoming a bear, but any movie that doesn't have the transformation is some other movie entirely.

Similarly, Soul is, again, fundamentally a story about death and being a ghost/disembodied soul. This one I have an easier time believing it was intended to be a POC main character from the beginning, but still, there was probably never a version of the story that didn't involve the transformation. On the other hand, there might have been some art decisions that would leave the disembodied souls looking a bit more similar to the living forms so that the main character is still obviously black.

Related to that point is something from the current World of Warcraft expansion, Shadowlands. Like Soul, it's about death and dealing with a lot of disembodied souls and the first area you go to has everyone becoming these blue beings. I saw someone referring to it as everyone becoming white and was at first confused (they're blue, not white!) but quickly realized that the art style does in fact read very easily as white features colored blue. This might work a *little* better because part of the storyline there is about a lot of people being upset that their previous lives and identities are being wiped away, though the story is about losing memories and not racial identity.

While I might quibble about the fact that *these* stories can't be done without the transformation, it doesn't change the bigger issue that *these* stories don't have to be the ones with POCs they make into movies, or at least not the *only* stories with POCs to be made into movies, it's just that it feels less like "how can we do a POC story without really being a POC story--transformation!" and more like "what can we do with this transformation story that we're working on--POCs!"
posted by Four Ds at 8:03 AM on December 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

To me this happening reads as treating BIPOC characters as unpalatable and giving them a costume so that white people will accept them. BIPOC characters deserve every inch of the breadth and depth of stories that films about white people are permitted. Whether the transformation story is originally used to permit BIPOCs, or BIPOC stories are forced to be transformations isn't as important as the structural racism inherent in the process of choosing which films get made.

To Andrew Tejada, the fact that this keeps happening, these characters keep getting transformed, seems to cuts deeply.

As he says, "It was incredibly disheartening to see their faces obscured, every time, and realize that they weren’t truly being given their time to be seen... Once the characters assume their new forms, the film no longer has to deal with the individual issues and challenges tied to their identities."
posted by Chrysopoeia at 9:19 AM on December 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

I liked that this article also discusses "Into the Spiderverse," and why Miles Morales' character shines through the mask, unlike the examples in the title. it makes the article a lot richer.

it's not just about avoiding physical appearance, it's about avoiding the writing challenges of representation.

also subtextually the spiderverse reference is there to hit writers and producers over the head with how much money they are leaving on the table by avoiding characters of color
posted by eustatic at 9:35 AM on December 14, 2020 [14 favorites]

I think actually this is a problem where they're trying to be more representative in terms of who they're showing, without being representative in terms of who they're hiring.

Think about how this story would have been radically altered if Tiana remained human the entire time. What if, instead of "No, you're not a real princess so the kiss doesn't work" (which TALK ABOUT PROBLEMATIC), they had done 'You don't truly love me and are just doing it out of duty so the kiss doesn't work' after which Tiana and the frog go through adventures together until they actually fall in love despite the fact that they are from very different worlds. What if Tiana still continued experiencing the problems and challenges of her life while also having to deal with the fantasy elements? Oh, but then they'd have to actually show a diverse life on screen instead of just one or two characters of it.
posted by corb at 11:43 AM on December 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

I love that he called out Moana and Into the Spider-Verse as counter examples — because while it may be necessary to say “you shouldn’t” it’s much more compelling to say “it could be so great if you don’t.”
posted by bjrubble at 5:29 AM on December 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

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