Redeeming Disney Princesses

About 3 years ago there was a line in an episode of 30 Rock where Jenna expressed her concern about a generation of little blonde white girls who had no idea they were attractive because it had been so long since there had been a Caucasian Disney princess.

Earlier this month The Big Bang Theory celebrated International Women’s Day with an episode about encouraging girls to get into science. In the episode, the 2 supporting female characters, one with a doctorate in microbiology and the other in neuroscience, play hooky from their jobs to go to Disneyland. They spend their day having the “Princess Makeover”, getting transformed into Cinderella and Snow White respectively, then take part in a conference call to a middle school class of girls telling them why they should pursue scientific careers. The scene works wonderfully as a critique of the notion that an empowered woman must choose between femininity and intellectualism, and in no way makes it seem like ladies can be as high-minded and ambitious as they want, but deep down they all want to be dressed up pretty and get swept off their feet by Prince Charming. Probably.

(As an aside, Mayim Bialik who plays Amy on the show wrote this post about her take on the episode which is worth a read in itself.)

Then a few days ago someone posted this AMAZING video on Facebook, of a bloke doing a 4 part acappella rendition of politically charged epilogues to certain Disney films.

It turns out I’m really easily influenced! All it has taken is a sprinkling of pop culture references to get me hankering after the entire Disney Classic back catalogue. And so I decided to watch the lot.

I remember watching a few of them as a kid, but I think they were pretty much all at friends’ houses. I don’t know if my parents ever made a conscious social decision not to fill my head with utter claptrap, or if they figured that spending hundreds of pounds on a complete VHS collection of films that their only daughter would probably just watch once was not a prudent investment. Either way, I was certainly not brought up on animated fairytale mythology. When I was about 14 I was in a school play of 6 of the Grimm stories. They were presented as closely to the original, dark morality tales as we could get. I seem to recall the director actually saying “We’re doing these stories without all that Disney crap.”

I’ve spent the best part of 30 years thinking that hating the Disney Princess trope is Lesson One in Being a Feminist. But if I turn my movie marathon into a critical exercise in examining my own prejudices and seeking to find redemption for the damsels-in-distress, that makes it ok right?

So one snowed-in weekend later – does the canon of Disney Princess films have anything to say to a modern-day feminist?

In short – not so much in the early days, so no surprises there.
I decided to start with Cinderella, made in 1950. It really is pretty dreadful. The irritating household vermin take up half the film with their antics, and the songs are nothing special. It seems redundant to state that Cindy is a doormat as that’s the whole point of the story, but it’s worth pointing out the rather offensive idea that despite years of abuse and degradation a person must retain a meek disposition or otherwise your Dreams Won’t Come True.

I expected Sleeping Beauty to be more of the same, and was rather pleasantly surprised. The animation is pretty stylish compared to Cinderella, and at times is looks a lot like a computer game. Brier Rose/Aurora doesn’t get much more to do than her blonde cousin 9 years earlier, but the 3 witches manage to show a bit of mettle, as does Prince Philip who has been upgraded from barely more than an idea in Cinderella to an all action hero.

The next Princess film is the Little Mermaid, 30 years later. At last we have a female protagonist who has a mind of her own, although she is a bit irritating. Weirdly the animation looks really poor compared to the earlier films, but the songs have got a lot catchier. Also it’s rather refreshing that Ariel is in part to blame for her own situation, and not just entirely at the mercy of the baddie.

I was starting to get a little disheartened at this point. We’ve reached the late 80s, feminism is definitely in the cultural eye, and the Disney Princesses are still getting into peril and waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince. Thank goodness for Beauty and the Beast a mere 2 years later. Belle is smart & principled, rejecting the advances of boorish local eligible bachelor Gaston. Instead, to save her father, Belle opts to get herself locked up with the violent, possessive beast. With whom she then falls in love, in what can only really be adequately described as a rapid-onset Stockholm Syndrome. Ok, that’s a bit weird. But compared to earlier films this is a huge leap forward. Sure the film ends with Belle dancing about in a gorgeous dress with a handsome prince. But to get there, she’s basically doing the rescuing. Nowadays it seems like a huge cliché to say that looks don’t matter, but in terms of the typical Disney Princess values, B&B is the first time this moral has been properly communicated.

Just one year later Aladdin came out. Jasmin is a spoiled brat, but to her credit she knows she’s a spoiled brat. She’s very much a bit character though as this is mostly a buddy film between the titular hero and the irrepressible Genie, exuberantly bought to life by Robin Williams in a master stroke of casting. Jasmin has a perfectly reasonable beef with the requirement that she marries a prince, although set against the backdrop of true poverty outside the castle walls it comes across a bit as the complaints of a poor little rich girl. Even still, it’s nice to see that in the closing decade of the 20th century Disney are finally starting to produce films which speak to feminist concerns.

And then it all goes wrong. Pocahontas is dreadful. It’s patronizing, dull and makes a mockery of the historical events. Our heroine can’t really be said to know her own mind since she does whatever a talking willow tree tells her to. Ok, she gets to scamper about in the trees a bit, and she’s a fair white-water rafter, but the diving-in-front-of-a-fatal-blow-to-the-cranium-to-save-the-man-she-loves thing just seems like another case of a woman subverting her own life for a man. Bah!

Continuing with the globe trotting theme Disney next takes us to China where an intelligent, awkward daughter is engaging in an act of self-sacrifice to save her father. So similar to Beauty and the Beast in that respect. But rather than sacrificing her liberty as Belle did, Mulan sacrifices her femininity. As Shakespeare will attest, nothing garners a giggle like cross-dressing, and bits of Mulan are laugh-out-loud funny. This is helped in no small measure by Eddie Murphy’s ineffectual dragon, taking a leaf out of Robin William’s book. Mulan gets to do some pretty cool stuff, even after she is unmasked as a girl, and gets a romance sub plot into the bargain. We’re now in 1998, and I’m hoping that the days of princesses getting rescued by princes are behind us.

I agonized over whether to include 2002’s Lilo and Stitch. I’d never seen it before, although I was aware that it doesn’t really fit into the Disney Princess category. But after watching I decided this was one of the better feminist offerings. I love that the 2 (human) main characters are female and yet that doesn’t actually seem to be relevant to the plot. The story would really be no different if it were about 2 grief stricken brothers struggling to get on with their lives, and then having them turned upside down by a vicious exiled alien genetic experiment. And for me that is a huge part of feminism in fiction – that characters are not male by default. Writers interested in equality should not only create female characters when they need a love interest, a victim, a seductress, or are self consciously writing a ‘female’ story. At its heart, Lilo & Stitch is just a film about 2 people with all their good qualities and their bad. Of all the Disney films I’ve seen this one actually made me tear up a bit, as Stitch pleads to be allowed to stay on earth. “This is my family. Is small and broken, but still good.”

The film which prompted the 30 Rock scene at the top of this post (I know – this is going on a bit) is 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. Tiana is hard-working, self-reliant, realistic but ambitious. She’s a little highly strung, but spending some quality time as a frog in the company of giddy wronged Prince Naveen mellows her right out. Which is where I have a bit of a problem. Having grafted for years to make her dream come true she seems awfully ready to toss it all in and hang out at the bayou waiting to get eaten by extras from True Blood. Plus she’s meant to be this amazing cook, but all she seems to do is put more tobasco in stuff! But it’s still nice to see a solid work ethic at play, and come the end she seems to have mastered that elusive work-life balance, which makes her one of the better role-models Disney have ever served up.

Jenna needn’t have worried. Just one year after Disney’s first animated African American leading lady, Tangled returned us to the blonde. The story of Rapunzel is for my money one of the nastiest fairytales going. Sure it doesn’t have the out-and-out gore of Cinderella’s step-sisters slicing their toes off to fit into the glass slippers, or Malficient’s attempted infanticide out of spite in Sleeping Beauty. But Gothel’s abuse of Rapunzel is the most insidious, in that Rapunzel truly loves her for it. Cinderella may be a drip but at least she is aware that her life sucks. Rapuzel is not just trapped inside the tower, she’s trapped inside her own false perception of her life. In the past 7 decades Disney has been moving away from the overt damsel in distress scenario where princesses need to be physically rescued. Had they made the story of Rapunzel in the 50s it would probably have been virtually indistinguishable from Sleeping Beauty. So how do they do in the light of 21st Century sensibilities? Pretty damm well I reckon. Rapunzel is realistically conflicted as her prison shatters around her. She’s got some gumption, but isn’t impossibly sassy. And the film climaxes in a rather sweet moment of mutual self sacrifice.

Visually, much has been made of the journey from 2D to 3D pictures, which is reflected in the characters as much as the style of animation. 5 minutes of dialogue between characters in later films gives you a better impression of a relationship than in the whole of Cinderella.

I decided to leave Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs until last. I thought it would make the most interesting contrast to work through to the most recent, then go back to 1937, to the first full-length cel animated feature film ever made. Also, I’d never seen this one all the way through either.

What hit me first was has cool it looked. Earlier I was struck by the difference between the clean, round shapes of Cinderella and the more angular, stylised effect in Sleeping Beauty. Snow White is definitely more like the latter. It’s dark and creepy and interesting. Snow White is animated like a silent movie actress, tiptoeing through the dwarves house with elbows up. Much like Cinderella, her brutal treatment at the hands of the wicked queen hasn’t impaired her ability to interact with others, and more of the film than I’d like is about housework. But the most anti-feminist aspect of this is something that has been going strong in Disney fairy tales for its whole 75 year history, namely the vanity of the female antagonist. The Wicked Queen is obsessed with her own youth and beauty, much like Gothel in Tangled, and she will do whatever it takes to hang onto it.

The Disney Princesses perhaps can be reclaimed for the feminist cause. However the wicked witches I fear are doomed to languish under the dark mantle of the jealous older woman for all time.

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