Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Disney Princesses: Not Actually Out to Brainwash Your Daughters into Becoming Stepford Wives

Apologies for my absence, I'm still settling in at my new job.

With the release of Pixar's Brave, Internet communities are abuzz with discussions about Disney princesses and the ideals they reflect to their young audience.  Some of these discussions are thought-provoking and engaging.  Some of them...well...

There must be something in my eye...all I can see is red.
I'll admit my own bias: I grew up on Disney movies.  They were a major aspect of my childhood, and it isn't always easy to separate my nostalgia from my present day observations on the movies.  But with that said, there's criticizing legitimate issues in a film, and then there's forcing an interpretation just to make princesses look as bad as possible.  And lately, I've seen far too much of the latter.  So I'm taking a moment to counter the more irritating aspects of the Disney Princess hatedom.

Note:  I am not claiming that these movies are shining beacons of perfection and feminism.  They are not.  Many of them have massive flaws.  But Disney Princesses, much like Barbie, have a reputation as pure evil tools of patriarchal oppression, and frankly, I find that ridiculous.  If that means I have to turn in my feminism card, well, so be it.

I don't have much to counter about views on Aurora and Snow White as princesses with near to no agency of their own.  Still, the Sleeping Beauty haters forget that Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather, as well as Maleficent, are the ones who move all aspects of the plot, and all of whom are pretty bad ass ladies.  Not that it makes the film immune from criticism, but it is one of the positive aspects I feel gets brushed aside in these debates.

Cinderella:  All I ever hear about Cinderella is that she's subservient and rescued from her misery by a man.  No one seems to keep in mind that her goal was never to meet a prince: she wanted time away from her step-mother's oppression, not true love.  She didn't go to the ball thinking, "Oh, if only a man will love me and rescue me from this life!"  Also, her fairy godmother, much like the fairies from Sleeping Beauty, rocked.

Ariel:  "I gave up my voice and culture so that I could have sex with a boy I saw for five seconds!!!!"

No.  Bad.  Go watch the movie again and come back when you have an argument that wasn't low-reaching enough to provide a Youtube comedy sketch.  I am genuinely baffled by the people who make this point.  Were they not paying attention during the movie, or are they being painfully disingenuous on purpose?  Ariel wanted to be human long before she saw a prince.  The first thing she is shown doing in the film is studying humans' belongings.  "Part of Your World" is sung before Erik's ship catches her eye.  Erik is the tipping point into her quest to join the society she's always longed for.

(God, I'm surprised there aren't Social Justices Sallies screaming about Ariel's cultural appropriation.)

Ariel is rebelling against a patriarch - and a racist - trying to force her into expected roles.  Her decision to leave her culture was sixteen years in the making and initiated by an impulsive choice made after her father terrorized her and destroyed her prized possessions.  Yes, she gave up her voice, but the movie itself criticizes that choice in "Poor Unfortunate Souls," with Ursula's stanza about "it's she who holds her tongue that gets a man."  Ariel's choices are rash, but in the end, they enable her to change her father's mind, both about humanity and her place in society.  And don't start about the seashell bra.  Baring your midriff does not disqualify you as a strong female.

Tangentially, am I the only one who views Ariel as a transgender metaphor?

Belle: "Stay with your abusive lover!  You can change him!  Stockholm Syndrome rocks!"

Again, have the people saying this ever seen the movie?  Seriously.

Belle was hardly the Beast's lover when she made the choice to take her father's place as his prisoner.  She was doing what she thought was best to save her elderly, sickly father's life (And if you want to argue that taking a role you don't want for your father is anti-feminist, someone better go tell Mulan).  She never bowed to his abusive treatment, and in fact left, "promise or not," when his behavior became more than she could bear.  Yes, she returned to the castle after he saved her life, but it wasn't a decision along the lines of "He punched me repeatedly in the stomach so he won't leave marks on my face; maybe he's not so bad after all!" as some detractors seem to think.  He rescued her from the wolves (a situation that she rightly tells him was his own fault) and is bleeding and unconscious as a direct result.  She returns him to the castle so he won't die from the elements, not because she's suddenly in love.  In fact, she's even telling him off for being horrible while cleaning his wounds.  Belle only starts to feel for the Beast after he sincerely changes his behavior, rather than making token efforts at politeness as he did before.

People also give Belle flack for being viewed as a feminist character because "all she does is read and not want to marry a jerk," forgetting that, while such things may not be odd in the present day, they really were shocking choices in her time.  And then there's the argument that she was reading books about a Prince Charming - dude, seriously?  We have no idea what course the story took.  Talk about reaching.

Jasmine:  She stopped Jafar by kissing him!  And she barely has a shirt!

So, being pragmatic and using your brain to distract a villain who can overpower you with magic if you use a physical attack, while having only a split second to come up with that plan, makes you a bad woman if your distraction involves kissing.  Um, okay.

This is Jasmine we're talking about.  Jasmine, who gave us the line "I am not a prize to be won."  Jasmine rocks.


Pocahontas:  Why yes, her movie is historically inaccurate and arguably racist.  No, that does not make her bad from a feminist standpoint.

Mulan:  Let's get this out of the way right now.  Yes, I know she isn't a princess.  No, people are not including her on their Disney princess lists to make the company appear more feminist than it actually is.  They're including her because in terms of merchandizing, she is classified by Disney itself as a princess.

Some have argued that Mulan only had power by disguising herself as a man, completely ignoring the ending in which she saves the emperor as a woman, and the entire country, emperor included, bows to her.  Yes, the movie's depiction of the Huns as monsters and the stereotypically Chinese scribe as an unpleasant jerk is problematic, but Mulan as a role model will never not kick ass.

Tiana:  That the black princess has to work herself to exhaustion to achieve her goals while the white princesses all get what they want easily in comparison is something to think about, as are the movie's portrayals of voodoo and Cajun people.  But looking at Tiana alone as a character, without intersecting her with other Disney heroines, gives us an awesome girl who achieves her goals through sheer force of will and rescues the prince multiple times.  You go, Tiana.

Rapunzel:  I have actually not heard of any complaints about Rapunzel being anti-feminist.  I'm sure they're out there, but I haven't heard them.

Weird how Giselle and Eilonwy never come up in discussions of Disney princesses.  Or Esmeralda and Megara, for that matter, if we're talking in terms of marketing.

The bottom line is, Disney movies, princesses included, are far from perfect.  If you don't like them or choose not to expose children to them, fine.  There are many flaws in the portrayal of their heroines, and many legitimate points of contention with their stories and marketing.  So why don't we focus on those instead of stretching the facts to the point of absurdity?

(While we're talking about Disney princesses, why does it seem like the Internet has decided that Merida's a lesbian?  Because she doesn't want to get married?  That could easily make her asexual, or heterosexual, for that matter.  Since when does not wanting to be forced into an arranged marriage make someone gay?)

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