In Defense of the Disney Princess Movie

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

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90s Movies I’m Not Even Ashamed of Loving

The 90s, what a decade! Having been born in the 80s, most of my memories of the 90s consist of the myriad of bad fashion choices I made as an akward adolescent, namely: pink velvet tops, yellow copycat Dr Marten boots, upper arm cuffs, nighties worn under a top and over your pants (why???), chokers, glittery frost blue coloured lipstick, brown lipstick (versatility!), multicoloured rubberbands on my braces and an extremely ill-conceived attempt to copy Gwen Stefani by painting a bindi on my forehead.

As with the fashion, I also watched and adored a lot of movies that, with the benefit of hindsight and a more developed brain, I have come to understand might not be as genius as I believed them to be at the time. However, movies from that time have left a mark on me, and however mediocre or bad they may be, they were also part of what set me down this path of loving all things cinematic.

I spent hours in the local video (yes, video!) store and discovered many strange and wonderful things on those shelves. I watched plenty of movies that are still considered great and timeless movies, and I’m grateful to my parents for exposing me to and allowing me to choose movies that were a bit above my pay grade, so to speak. But today I want to focus on the cinematic equivalent of that frost blue coloured lipstick, the films that are sneered at now – and probably even then – but that made this a little cinephile-to-be’s heart beat fast and infused my already overactive imagination.

It’s difficult to discard the things I have learnt since about good and bad taste and to fully embrace these movies as enthusiastically as I did once, but I’ve decided to trust my memories of the first viewings, leave my dignity at the door and just jump head first into a 90s extravaganza.

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991)

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In case you don’t know the (ludicrous) plot for this movie, it goes like this: five kids are left with an ageing babysitter when their mom heads off to Australia for a few months with her new boyfriend. The babysitter turns out to be a real pain for the free-spirited kids and when she suddenly dies, as old people are want to do, they decide not to tell anyone and just enjoy their freedom, Home-Alone-style. However, growing kids can’t survive on freedom alone, and the eldest of the kids, Sue Ellen (Christina Applegate), has to pretend to be a college grad in order to bag a job to earn some money for them.

Why do I love this movie so much? Let me count the ways! A movie like this could never be made today. Like Home Alone and a lot of other 90s movies featuring kids, the children lead such free range lives and the parents are often harmlessly hapless and self-involved. Leaving your kids for a hot and heavy holiday with your boyfriend? Listen, the idea was a bit silly then, but it’s completely outrageous now. Yet, the kids love it and just want their lame mom out of their lives for a bit. It really makes me long for a time when there wasn’t such a heavy burden of perfection and constant surveillance on parents’ shoulders and kids were encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them.

Plus, as a child I loved the storyline of Sue Ellen going out in the big world, dressed as an adult and trying to figure things out in the work place. My friends and I would emulate the movie by sitting in my dad’s office, typing gobbledegook on his typewriter (yes, typewriter!) and, uhm, filing stuff. Don’t ask me why but, at that age, working in an office seemed the height of excitement. How things have changed!

The characters are fantastic and memorable and, in the midst of a fairly mediocre script, there are one-liners you’ll never forget, such as “I’m right on top of that, Rose!”. Also, as an impressionable young girl, I definitely noticed that the nice male characters were sensitive and kind, and the not-so-nice ones were slimeballs. I’m sure my highly tuned abilities to spot a douchebag from miles away are partly down to this movie.

Legends of the Fall (1994)

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Counterpoint to the above argument, you may be tempted to say that my love of Legends of the Fall proves I cannot spot a douchebag as long as he comes riding into my life on horseback with long, golden hair flowing under his cowboy hat. Man, Tristan really was kind of a douche, amirite?

If you don’t know the story, Legends of the Fall spans several decades in the lives of an American family in the early 1900s. We follow Colonel Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) as he struggles to raise his three sons; the dutiful and somber Alfred (Aidan Quinn), the wild and irresponsible Tristan (Brad Pitt) and the young, naive Samuel (Henry Thomas).

I think this must have been one of my earliest memories of a true epic, and I was completely smitten by the Montana setting, the clothes, the music, the love stories, the characters and the blatant emotional manipulation. I could fill the North Sea with all the salty tears I have cried watching this movie. It starts with that scene (SPOILERS) with Samuel and the teargas and then I pretty much keep going until, eventually, the floodgates completely break and I crumble onto the floor during the final scene when the aged Colonel finally acknowledges Alfred and gives him the fatherly love he has been craving all his life. That scene always, without fail, gets me.

It’s completely melodramatic, and that doesn’t bother me one bit. This is one of the movies from that time period I can watch again and again and it still resonates with me the way it did then.

Now and Then (1995)

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Another movie that was a real crowd pleaser amongst my friends and I as we were growing up. It’s a movie that follows a group of four friends, with two timelines running simultaneously, one from their adolescence in the 70s and then as adults when they get together again in their hometown. It had everything that little girls could ask for: friendship, drama and, most importantly, Devon Sawa. It is a universally known fact that Sawa, who also starred in Casper and Little Giants, is solely responsible for a huge portion of the female population in the 90s prematurely hitting puberty, such was the power of those piercing blue eyes and floppy blonde hair.

I’ll be honest here; a few years ago a good friend and I wanted to see if we could relive our childhood and attempted to re-watch Now and Then. About 2 minutes in we decided it was best to leave it as a cherished memory. So, while it doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny, it had real value to girls of a certain age who longed for a coming-of-age story like the many that have been made for boys in the same age bracket. For that, it gets to stay.

Independence Day (1996)

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Independence Day, does it really need an introduction? Aliens come to Earth, there’s a lot of BOOM’ing and CRASH’ing, the White House gets blown up, Bill Pullman is the coolest president ever, Will Smith kicks alien butt and Jeff Goldblum is Jeff Goldblum. It’s a ridiculous movie but that didn’t stop it from being my favourite for a couple of years.

I really can’t explain exactly why I loved this movie so much, other than at the time the effects were truly awe-inspiring, it was funny and the whole alien-theme found fertile ground in a mind that had been heavily influenced by X-files and the like in the 90s. Now, there’s a new Independence Day movie in the works, and I can’t say I see a reason for it. But, Jeff Goldblum is in it and that’s as good a reason as any to make a movie I guess.

The Rock (1996)

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Clearly, 1996 was the year I came to embrace movies with a lot of BOOM’ing and CRASH’ing. The Rock is maybe the most difficult for me to add to this list, because I am not at all a Michael Bay fan. There isn’t anything that I can say about Bay’s appalling film-making that film critic Mark Kermode hasn’t already said much better. Take, for example, his takedown of Pain & Gain:

In my defence, at 12 years old, I was probably at the exact intellectual level that Michael Bay’s movies are aimed towards. I was swept up in the action and, of course, there was Nicholas Cage who, at the time, was still a cool dude with a lot of box office pull. In fact, the movie is mostly held together by a great cast and some exciting action sequences. It definitely isn’t the plot doing it, as it’s utterly preposterous.

Titanic (1997)

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Yes, I do understand that Titanic is at times saccharine and indulgent, that Jack should easily have survived if Rose would just scooch up a bit, and that listening to My Heart Will Go On has become akin to hearing nails on a chalkboard. But I really feel this is a movie that, in the years since its release, has received a far more negative reputation than it deserves. In fact, when looking up the movie on Rotten Tomatoes, I was surprised to see the great reviews it has, as it seems to always be talked about in a condescending tone.

I think we are quick to forget just what an impact – no pun intended – the film had at the time of its release. It was truly a phenomenon, and the kind of endeavour that seemed to deserve the hype it was getting. As opposed to now, where every run-of-the-mill blockbuster’s production gets hyped for months, if not years.

Just a few weeks ago, my kids asked me about the Titanic, which then made us talk about the movie, and I showed them a trailer. Watching the trailer, my heart actually started racing when re-watching the clips of Rose and Jack fighting their way through the icy water rushing in, as well as when they hold on to the ship as it starts going down and people are falling all around them. And it wasn’t just the action scenes that stuck. Titanic had highly memorable characters and touching, human moments. And, yes, I was 13 and absolutely the target market.

I watched  Titanic 4 times in the cinema, and I made sure I was ready and waiting to buy the DVD on the day it was released. In many ways, it was around this time that my obsession with movies bloomed into being about more than just entertaining myself for a few hours and I came to love the craft and everything that surrounds it. Thanks, James Cameron!

So there you have it; 6 movies that may not be the classiest but that hold a special place in my heart. I’m a firm believer in not letting ideas of high-brow and low-brow get in the way of you enjoyment of films or literature. Sometimes, the blandest of artistic endeavours becomes a gateway drug to bigger and grander things. And, sometimes, they just let you pass a few hours with a warm and fuzzy feeling at your centre, and that’s okay too.

 

Planning my Best Movie Year Ever

Okay, so maybe 2016 isn’t going to be my best ever movie year. I can’t be in full control of that. I am, like all of us, largely at the mercy of the film makers creating the movies I go to see, and no one can predict the amount of drivel we have to wade through in the year to come. But I am always hopelessly optimistic at the start of the year, when my mind is abuzz with all the award contenders from last year, conveniently forgetting the movies I couldn’t even finish.

What I am not always, however, is organised. I really don’t have much time to go to the cinema, and with movies going out of circulation quicker and quicker, I often miss out on great films and then have to wait many months before I am able to view them on my own small screen at home. I am also a tad lazy when it comes to leaving the comforts of my home in the evenings, and the fluorescent lights, mopey staff, depressing concession stand offerings and all around plasticky, germ-ridden feel of the nearest multiplex really doesn’t help my determination to watch more movies on the big screen.

However, this year is the year when that will change! My resolutions for 2016 are almost exclusively to do with film, and they can be divided into 3 steps.

See More Movies in the Cinema

I do love a neatly organised plan, so I have made a note of the release dates of the movies I am most looking forward to in the next few months. It’s a bit tricky, as the release dates for my part of the world aren’t always readily available and many movies are released in cinemas even months after they are released on iTunes, DVD, etc elsewhere. Yes, I know, I feel sorry for me too!

Originally, I had wanted to do this plan/calendar for the whole year, but it’s simply too difficult as some of them don’t even have release dates yet, and certainly no local release date or distributor. But I will keep revising and updating as the months go by.

There are also many movies I have not scheduled in, as I am not yet sure they are MUST SEE in the cinema, but that may change as more is revealed about them. I have to be realistic, I am not going to be able to go to the cinema every week, so priorities have to be made. But at least, this way, I should avoid missing out on the ones that really matter to me.

For planning purposes, I made use of these lists in particular:

http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-100-most-anticipated-films-of-2016-20160104?page=1

The 12 Movies We’re Most Excited to See in 2016

So, with a bit of help from my fairy babysitters (in-laws), in the next few weeks alone I should be able to catch both The Big Short, The Revenant, Spotlight, Deadpool and Zoolander 2. Later on, I particularly hope to see Midnight Special. Other than that, March and April look like pretty quiet months on the movie front, but let me know if I’ve missed something unmissable.

Eliminate Blind Spots

If you follow film aficionados on Twitter you may have come across #blindspots (careful, it’s also an unrelated TV series). Basically, it refers to those movies that are supposed to be masterpieces that you have somehow managed to miss yourself. They can be old classics or newer films, it doesn’t matter.

I only came across this recently, as I saw others set out a plan for a set amount of blindspot movies they were going to try to watch over the next year. Living in what sometimes feel like a cinematic wasteland, I was envious of other people’s access to this kind of variety. But then I remembered the TCM channel and that we had a magazine lying around with the TV programmes for the whole of Jan. So, after just a quick flick through that magazine I realised I can catch up on the following classics, in just one month:

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  • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Silent Running
  • Carlito’s Way
  • Singin’ In the Rain
  • Casablanca (yes, yes, I know, calm yourselves)
  • The Big Sleep
  • Rebel Without a Cause
  • Meet Me in St. Louis
  • East of Eden
  • The Philadelphia Story

I’m so excited by this step in particular. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the newest releases, and they often seem more accessible on many levels. But it’s hugely beneficial, if not essential, for any fan of cinema to go back in time and explore the rich history of film and discover how those films influence what we watch today.

I think I was about 14 or 15 when I started educating myself in earnest, watching stuff like Psycho, Apocalypse Now, Some Like it Hot, Citizen Kane, The Shining, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Birds…for a timid teenage girl I really did watch some rather violent stuff…and those movies had a huge impact in helping me understand different ways of seeing as well as broadening my taste in film. Like a kid who learns to enjoy strong, complex flavours.

Take Notes

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This is in extension of this blog that I have started, but I want to start taking notes either during or shortly after movies I watch. I may not write and publish a full review of every movie I watch, but I would love to look back on each year and see exactly what movies I have watched and how they made me feel. I so often end up not being able to remember what I watched during the year, each year seeming to blend with the previous ones. Ah, old age! “Notes, or it didn’t happen” is going to be my 2016 motto.

So there you have it, folks, my steps to approaching movie watching in a more purposeful manner, while still retaining all the enjoyment and fun. I think this is going to be a good year. How about you, what are you looking forward to watching in the coming year? Are there any golden oldies you’re planning on finally catching up on?