R. Kamille Williams, D’09
Co-Founder and Project Director
El Salvador Palliative Care
I went to see Disney’s The Princess and the Frog opening weekend and started crying as soon as I stepped into the cinema lobby--a reaction that caught me off-guard. My heart was filled with joy when I saw so many beautiful black princesses proudly wearing their tiaras in anticipation of seeing Disney’s first portrayal of a black princess. A new day had come, and this was certainly good news!
Given my own childhood, when the only black characters in Disney films, noted by unique accents and cultural assumptions, were portrayed as animals--Simba, Nala, Mufasa and Rafiki in TheLion King, the crows in Dumbo, or the crab Sebastian in The Little Mermaid--The Princess and the Frog is truly a remarkable moment. My own emotional response to the movie is traced by the historical reality of negative depictions of black women. From the exotic beastly savage, mammy or simpleton, to the one who is inherently angry, lascivious, a dominatrix, seductress or bad mother, just to name a few. But if these continue to be the predominant images of black women that are being displayed, what does this do to the self-esteem of little black girls?
With Princess Tiana, we see a different depiction of Black women. She is from a loving, two-parent, working-class home, is ambitious, independent and characterized as strong and resilient, even when she too has to combat issues of class and social standing. She has brown skin, and she is beautiful. Acknowledging her presence on-screen acknowledges her presence in little girls, and in the lives of women in real world. Acknowledging her presses us into something bigger than ourselves.
In The Princess and the Frog Disney went back to the old fairytale formula of wishing upon stars, magical spells, killing off a parent, good overcoming evil, and dreams coming true in the end. However, I want to invite us to look at Princess Tiana’s story through a different lens. During this advent season, I am reminded of how Jesus’ own humble beginnings enabled him to sympathize with the marginalized of the world, thus enabling us to see those that are most often ignored or stepped over. Jesus acknowledged these people. Jesus saw them.
In the beginning of the movie, Tiana wishes upon a star for her dream of opening a restaurant to come true. This was her prayer. After finally saving enough money for the down payment on the space where she desired to start her business, she lifts up a song with the lyrics “I’m almost there.” Sadly, she is outbid and ends up losing all of the money she has worked for years to save, dismissed by the realtors because of her social class. A serious of events follows wherein she is turned into a frog, and forced to face great peril to fight for her dream.
Tiana’s singing these words reminded me of the woman with the issue of blood in Luke 8. For twelve years she had been ignored and disregarded due to her medical condition. She spent all of her money on physicians who did not help her. Yet, when she heard that Jesus was coming through she came out of her isolation and pressed her way through the throngs knowing that he would be the source of her healing. Because of her status as being unclean, it took incredible courage to enter the crowd gathered around Jesus. By touching other people, alone, she was violating the laws of purity (Leviticus 15: 25-28). And to make matters worse, she had the audacity to touch a holy man! I imagine while pressing her way to Jesus, she must have been stepped on and shoved around. But I believe she told herself, “I’ve got to keep going! I’m almost there!”
When she finally reaches her goal, Jesus asks who touched him. She had to have been terrified and was probably wondering how in the world this man had felt her touch out of all of these people. But there was something different in her touch. It was a touch of faith. That is why Jesus acknowledged her! This woman had nothing to lose but everything to gain. The scripture does not tell us this woman’s name, however when Jesus acknowledges her he refers to her as “daughter,” recognizing her as the child of God and rightful heiress of Abraham that she is. Jesus saw her and acknowledged her humanity! She pressed her way to Jesus and got that which she had come for and so much more. Just as Tiana, after having lost everything, pressed her way through the Louisiana swamps as a frog and ended up gaining more than she bargained for. She regained her humanity and became royalty!
Jesus makes the invisible visible. Jesus was the one that acknowledged all people as the children of God that they are. Though fictional characters, we must acknowledge the Precious’ and Tiana’s of the world as daughters of Abraham that have been created in the image of God. This Advent season, let us not forget about the marginalized of society. Let us not forget about the 17 million women ages 15-49 that are living with HIV/AIDS, those who are suffering from domestic violence, the 500,000 – 2 million women and children that are being sexually trafficked, and the people that have been non-combatant casualties of war. Let us not forget about all people in the margins of the world. Let us take time to not only see them, but acknowledge and embrace them so that we may truly be participants in Jesus’ ministry.