A little while ago, I was discussing Moana, the latest “Disney Princess Movie”, with someone when they commented that it was so great that Disney was finally changing its ways and creating good female role models.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment expressed but the topic had been at the forefront of my mind for a while and this incident, combined with this tweet from Caroline Siede really made me want to speak – and write – my mind about the power of the much maligned Disney Princess.
The Disney Princess is a character who has been reduced to sparkly dresses, man-obsessing and merchandise, but I believe this isn’t actually the films’ message, or at least hasn’t been for many, many decades. We do a disservice, not only to the people who have laboured over these films, but also to the little girls who enjoy them, when we assume that these stories are nothing more than “Get the guy and live happily ever after”.
What these films really have in common, their one defining core, is that they all feature a strong, if imperfect, female protagonist who is fighting to be free of the stifling environment she finds herself in. And Disney has been sticking to this same formula for many decades by now, it’s not a new thing.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, the heyday of Disney’s revival period, it was the Disney Princess Movie I could turn to when I couldn’t find any other films that featured a female protagonist. In fact, I ask of you which other studio you can think of that has so consistently focused on a female point of view in their movies? Pixar, which when it arrived was hailed as a breath of fresh air in the animation world, took practically forever to have a movie with a female lead.
Meanwhile, Disney Princess Movies were showering us with female leads – and diverse ones at that. Disney movies, as most Hollywood productions, are overwhelmingly white in look and perspective, but which other major studios in the 90s were taking big risks by focusing entire projects around Native American, Arab or Chinese leads? Even now, in 2017, Disney Princess Movies’ diversity is surely unmatched by other major studios.
But, you may say, the problem is that all these movies tell girls that all they should care about is a prince and a castle. If that’s what you see, you haven’t been paying attention.
With the latest few instalments of the Disney Princess Movie, the studio has gone out of their way to show that this isn’t the case (Frozen, Moana) but I would argue that even the classic Disney revival era Princess Movies (Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast) are more complex than that.
Every Disney Princess Movie has its own “I want” song; it’s usually the one that gets stuck in your head and your 5 year old forces you to listen to on repeat. This song is the heart of every movie, the one that sets the tone and lets you understand the motivation and inner landscape of the girl in question. And, usually though not always, this song comes before the introduction of a romantic interest and is therefore not focused on getting a man.
Instead, it’s about rebelling against the demands of the often patriarchal society she finds herself in. It’s about resisting getting married for the sake of getting married, about breaking free of the rules that restrict her movement and curiosity, about the tedium of living a society that expects so little intellectually of its girl children. Think of Part of Your World: “Bet’cha on land, they understand, Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters, Bright young women, sick of swimming, Ready to stand” A feminist anthem if ever I heard one – even if Ariel presumably was pretty disappointed when she learned the reality on land.
And little girls eat.this.up. Why else are these songs normally what they remember best of all from the movie? What they remember, word for word, even into adulthood? By the time there’s a kiss and a wedding (if there is one) these girls’ imagination is already somewhere else; paddling down waterfalls, fighting off Mongolians or devouring books in a super-sized library of their own.
Ask any woman of my age what the highlight of Beauty & the Beast was and, apart from that library scene, I bet that most will mention the moment Belle runs into the field behind her house, having rejected the revolting, macho Gaston, and sings her little lungs out about the adventures she yearns for. Yes, sure, the ballroom scene was technically beautiful and we all love Angela Lansbury singing, but I don’t think Belle swirling in a gold dress was really what made her a hero for so many young girls.
So, apart from those very early Disney movies (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), Disney Princess Movies haven’t featured girls harping on about how much they want a man. But it is true that many of the movies of the 80s and 90s featured a love interest and a traditional happy ending, Pocahontas being a notable exception. However, I fail to see how this should be a problem seeing that about 90% of all movies (and music!) is about love – the having of, the wanting of and the losing of.
On the contrary, it’s a complete joy to see the roles reversed and the man relegated to the role of pointless, inactive object of affection and desire that is so often given to a woman. I mean, look at Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid. Ah, beautiful, dumb Eric. He doesn’t get to do an awful lot, which means that the movie still focuses entirely on Ariel and what she does, the choices she makes, in order to get what she wants. In this case, a pair of feet and the pretty boy she’s fallen for. Granted, some of her choices are rash and dumb, but why does a 16 year old girl need to be held to a higher standard than a 16 year old boy?
The pursuit of a love interest is a classic movie storyline, but in Disney princess movies the girl is the one pushing the story forward. And she normally gains what she declared she wanted in her “I want” song, while also getting a nice piece of eye candy on the side. Win-win.
Plus, the Disney princesses are literally fighting patriarchy, as they are usually saddled with a crotchety old dad who is very concerned that they behave in a certain way. The girls rebel, kick some villain butt, get the guy and at the end of the movies these fathers find themselves changed and softened, thanks to their daughters’ refusal to submit to their will. I don’t really know how much more Captain Obvious these movies need to be.
I realise that Disney Princess Movies are not perfect, but I believe that Disney doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the diversity and pushing of boundaries they have been doing for decades when so many other studios were still dragging their heels. And I know, from a personal level, that when I doubted whether it was “cool” to read so much, go against the tide or speak my mind, I only had to turn to these characters that I so admired to be re-assured that I was on the right track.