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Posts Tagged ‘disney princesses’

Princess. What comes to mind when you hear or read the word? For me, two things instantly pop into my head; as a child, like many little girls, I liked princesses. I kid you not when I say that I liked their frilly dresses, but more than that I liked stories about girls. While in many stories princesses are not the main character, sometimes they are the main female character or one of few. Yet once I became old enough to pay attention to what happened in the story I remember feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. How excited could I get if the good princesses don’t do anything besides wait for someone else to do something? That leads me to my second thought; princess characters have become one of the most old and tired stereotypes for girls.

But despite princesses typically being horribly stereotypical, that’s not always the case. It’s become my mission/hobby to seek out princess characters that defy the limited and lame definition of what princesses have come to stand for in fiction. I’m going to introduce you to some of those that I’ve found and explain how they break that mold in a new series of posts. However, before I go showing off characters who break that mold, what is it that’s so bad about the usual princess character? Because Disney’s princesses demonstrate my point so well, I’ll use them as my princess archetypes.

 Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Snow White–the 1st batch.

These three are “perfect” in the traditional sense, and when I say “traditional” I mean ye ol’ times traditional; they are all kind, beautiful, and subservient. On the topic of subservience, notice that none of these princesses have a strong will. Snow White and Aurora didn’t do any kind of rebelling and the extent of Cinderella’s defiance was sneaking out to go to a ball. On that last note, notice that, despite the abusive behavior of her step-sisters and step-mother, Cinderella never confronts them. All three princesses have the emotional range of happy and sad because a good girl should never get angry.

As for their few skills, they are skills that are considered feminine such as cleaning and singing. They’re not shown to be particularly intelligent, but in previous centuries intelligence in a woman was not seen as a virtue. (Frankly, it hasn’t been too long since the U.S. as a society began valuing smarts in women instead of teaching them to dumb themselves down.)

Finally, the princesses’ problems are not due to any fault of their own. Both Snow White and Cinderella suffer because of the jealousy of other women and Aurora is cursed by a witch out of spite for her family. These three princesses’ problems only emphasize their own virtue and the vice of others. The most these girls could be accused of is naivety. In addition, none of them solve their own problems; a prince appears and does that for them. So, to sum it up, the earliest Disney princesses symbolize the female who is pure and good yet frail and entirely dependent on men. These princesses are unrealistic, outdated ideals of what a good girl should be so, there’s really not a lot of good I can say about them. Honestly, they’re just plain boring.

Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Jasmine (Aladdin), and Belle (Beauty & the Beast)–the 2nd batch.

These princesses are definitely improved from their predecessors. They actually seem to have souls and take action throughout the course of their stories rather than just being pretty dolls collecting dust on a shelf. Yes, they are pretty and kind, but there’s more to them; Ariel is adventurous, Jasmine is rebellious about her fate as a princess, and Belle has a thriving brain behind her pretty face that she wants to use. Each of them also confronts at least one person at some point, meaning they’re not punching bags.  However, there are issues that set them up as typical princesses.

Ariel gives up things she loves (i.e. her voice and family) to be with a guy. There are two ways to look at her giving up her world to be with her love: 1) Ariel was dissatisfied with her world and wanted something new thus it wasn’t just about the guy, or 2) this course of action has an underlying message that a girl should give up anything for a guy she loves. The thing that makes me lean toward the latter is Ariel’s deal with the sea witch. With this deal, she not only gives up her world but also her voice and it’s not like she’d been dreaming of getting rid of that. The other point to note is she makes that deal not with adventure of the new world in mind, but of meeting a man she’s never met. Not having a voice also means that Prince Eric, her love, judges her only on her looks and general nature, but not on what she thinks.

Jasmine becomes the damsel in distress of Aladdin’s story. She tries to run away, she gets in trouble, Aladdin saves her. Jafar, the villain, tries to get the royal family’s power and Aladdin saves her and her family. And of course, like those classic stories mentioned above, Aladdin also saves Jasmine from her biggest problem–marrying someone she doesn’t love. Granted, Jasmine at least isn’t such a boring damsel in distress like the previous three, but that element is still present in her story. Obviously, her story also revolves around love.

Finally, I have the least problems with Belle, but she is also the good, pretty girl whose story is singularly about love (note that the problem is not that there is a romance but that it is only about romance). Also notice that once again, Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine have no real noticeable flaws and represent ideas of what a girl should be; kind and pretty with a life that revolves around a guy.

So, in this series I will write about princesses (by blood or marriage) who have flaws, stories with more to them than just a romance, take action, and are more than just pretty and kind (if pretty and/or kind at all)   

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In Tangled, Disney takes a crack at yet another classic fairy tale, Rapunzel. Now I think most of us are familiar with the story of Rapunzel; innocent girl with freakishly long hair held captive in a tower by yet another evil older woman until prince charming comes along. If Disney had kept very close to the original story line, I would have ignored it (which honestly wouldn’t have been too hard seeing as it’s not a very action-packed plot), but luckily, they didn’t. Instead Disney did some major tweaking (as usual).

Rapunzel is still the girl (actually a princess in this version) whisked away by an evil older woman, waiting to go outside, but she’s got a lot more spunk than the original Rapunzel. Swinging frying pan-kind of spunk. Because of a healing flower the pregnant queen consumed to save herself from sickness, Rapunzel was born with magical hair granted with the same power as the flower. Well, the crazy old lady of the story (no fairy tale is complete without one) wants that power to keep her young forever and kidnaps the princess, raising her in a tower for almost 18 years secluded from the world. Prince Charming eventually shows up except he’s not a prince like the original; he’s a criminal finding refuge in the secluded tower. (That’s when Rapunzel brings out that frying pan.) Flynn reluctantly helps Rapunzel escape, but Rapunzel’s captor isn’t going to let her go so easily. Thus begins the adventure.

Rapunzel from Disney's Tangled

After seeing the commercials way back when Tangled was being released to theaters, I was intrigued by Disney’s more adventurous take on Rapunzel. It didn’t let me down on that. Tangled’s Rapunzel has a lot of giddy energy which is not as annoying as it sounds; compared to stiff renditions of young princesses in past Disney princess movies like Aurora, Cinderella, and Snow White, this energy breathes life into a previously dull girl whose only memorable characteristic was her flowing locks. This doesn’t give her an air of great maturity, but this goes along with the goofiness of the other characters. And while this new Rapunzel is captive, she doesn’t give off the feeling of a helpless damsel-in-distress (for example, she’s not rescued from the tower; she actually strikes a deal with the criminal Flynn to get him to escort her out of the tower). She may not be wielding the frying pan the whole movie, but Rapunzel is pretty resourceful and isn’t just along for the ride. This is a Disney princess movie so, the focus is on romance, but Rapunzel is one of the more modern princesses I’ve seen from Disney. She’s no Mulan (who, strangely, is considered a princess), but Rapunzel is a notch above most of the princesses.

Flynn Rider from Disney's Tangled

The love interest of Tangled is a mixed bag. Flynn Rider replaces the prince from the original tale as a criminal which is good and bad. In some big ways, Flynn is similar in personality to Prince Naveen from Disney’s other most recent princess movie; he thinks he’s hot stuff just as Naveen did and both men have an unhealthy obsession with money. Flynn also starts off as a bit of a jerk at the beginning. His character has a bit of a twist though; he’s really not the tough guy that he acts like, but puts up an act to emulate a “cool” guy. This makes things tricky. He’s not your average trope, but this still presents the message that if you just dig deep enough, a guy who seems jerky will turn out to be nice. If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you’ll know how I don’t like this idealistic notion of a jerky guy *changing purely due to love. (*After something a reader pointed out, I’d like to correct this; often the jerk-who’s-not-really-a-jerk changes due to love, but this is not entirely the case in Tangled.)  I know these characters are supposed to be good guys that just aren’t in tune with their hearts or whatever, but unfortunately, it’s not such a pretty scenario in reality; in reality, rarely does a jerky guy change like Disney and other fiction suggests. However, with so many stories spinning this tale, some people pick this idea up and expect similar results in real life. I do see why Disney did this though; by making Flynn a criminal/guy-trying-to-act-cool instead of a prince, he’s someone who has just as many problems and issues to work out as the female lead. So, not my favorite stereotype at all, but I’ll acknowledge the effort.

That brings me to my next comment; I did like the equal standards in Tangled. Not only did the two leads both have issues to work out, but they helped each other through the journey and both did some saving. Looking back at the original where Rapunzel just sits in a tower until a prince comes around and helps her escape, it was much more interesting seeing Flynn steal into the tower to hide out only to be hit by Rapunzel with frying pan (the natural reaction to an intruder) and forced into helping her then watch as the two evade not only Mother Gothel but also the authorities after Flynn. As I said, equal opportunity.

Mother Gothel from Disney's Tangled

On the other hand, the antagonist in the movie, the evil old woman called Mother Gothel, is not so refreshing. As I said earlier, we are presented with the evil older woman trope once again. Her entire motive for kidnapping Rapunzel is to retain her youth. Of course, this power apparently extends beyond granting youth but also allows Gothel to live well beyond her years, perhaps forever if she continued to use the power as needed. However, the story is more focused on Gothel forever scrambling after her lost youth rather than any greater ambition like immortality. Also, while the movie makes a point to show viewers that looks don’t necessarily reflect what’s inside, Rapunzel’s real mother (who is, of course, a kind and good person) remains youthful despite the 18 years that have passed during the movie (maybe because she ate that flower?). It gets back to the old idea of beauty=good and old=bad, an idea that seems very limited in its usage to female characters.

In the end, Tangled is still a princess movie which, with more traditional/stereotypical aspects, will not break many boundaries of the genre, but it meets modern times halfway by introducing adventure and more equal standards between the male and female lead. For those of us looking for something more radically different, maybe our wish will be granted in the upcoming Pixar movie, Brave (keep hoping!), but all in all, Tangled is one of the better Disney Princess movies.

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A conversation between two Disney employees ensues.

Employee 1: “Hey.”

Employee 2: “Yeah?”

Employee 1: “I want some more money. We should make a new movie. …What’s with that look? Don’t you want money?”

Employee 2: “Well, yeah. I want money, but doesn’t making a movie require…you know, a lot of effort? Besides, what if we create a whole story, all-new characters, spend all that time on it, and nobody buys it?”

Employee 1: “Relax! I’ve got it all figured out. We’ll create an unneeded sequel to one of our classics. It’ll save us a lot of effort and make a lot of money; people always buy those things.”

Employee 2: “Hey, that’s brilliant! And here’s an idea! What if we create a sequel to that Mulan movie?”

Employee 1: “Mulan, mulan…is that one of those movies about talking horses?”

Employee 2: “No, it’s about a girl in ancient China who disguises herself as a man and goes into the army.”

Employee 1: “Oh.”

Employee 2: “Anyway, it’s never sat right with me. It just doesn’t go with any of our other movies with female leads. I mean, the girl doesn’t even get married at the end, for Pete’s sake! How do we even categorize a movie like that? So, how about we fix that in a sequel?”

Employee 1: “And marry off one of the only independent female leads Disney has ever had? …Sounds great!”

This is the conversation I imagine took place just before the making of Mulan II. Ever since it was released in 2004 this movie has been a large thorn in my side, lodged deep in my skin. I can almost forget it’s there until Mulan-anything is mentioned. Then, there it is again, annoying as ever. Let me start from the beginning.

I adored Mulan as a child; I sill do, in fact. In a world filled to the brim with pathetic role models for girls (and women), Mulan was the shining ray of hope amongst the darkness that is Barbie, Bratz, and any Disney princess movies. I could watch Mulan over and over, relishing Mulan’s strength (physically and mentally), courage, and above all else, independence. Mulan’s story is all about self-discovery and accepting one’s self and for Mulan, that meant being independent. She took control of her own life while showing women could do anything men could do, that one’s gender shouldn’t be a restriction. Furthermore, while the story is chalk-full of male characters, there is only a hint of romance, no wedding bells (the signal of conformation as a “true,” full-filled woman in Disney), and there is truly a partnership between Mulan and her fellow male cast, including the guy she likes. How’s that for a role model?

Disney, however, seemed confounded on that particular issue. Even before the never-should-have-even-been-thought-of Mulan II, Mulan was almost consistently represented as the pretty young woman going to see the match-maker. Mulan merchandise consisted mostly of beautiful Mulan dolls with painted faces and extravagant robes and while searching “mulan costume” does yield some soldier-Mulan costumes, I don’t believe any of them are made or sold by Disney. Yeah, Mulan looks very pretty in that dress, but wasn’t one of the big points of the movie that Mulan was more than a pretty face? It reminds me of video game companies trying to appeal to girls/women; if it’s got to do with girls make it pink, frilly, and pretty.

Mulan is also presented as a Disney princess. F.Y.I. Disney, last time I checked Mulan wasn’t a princess so, here’s my question: why must every (human) female lead be grouped with the princesses? Because of our culture’s stereotypical view of princesses, by placing her with the princesses, it’s like screaming “THIS IS A GIRL’S MOVIE! ONLY GIRLS WOULD BE INTERESTED!” Of course! The movie is all about a girl so, obviously it’s a chick-flick! Not. Girls watch/read movies/books about male protagonists all the time so why is it that so often when movies/books feature a female lead, it’s automatically a girl’s movie? Boys could like Mulan just as much as girls. Disney just can’t seem to let it go.

Now you know what to avoid.

The other thing Disney just can’t seem to let go of is the opportunity to make sequels-sequels that should never have existed. In the case of making sequels, Disney is like that dog that, no matter how many times you tell it “no” or “leave it,” feels a certain compulsion to go after that dead squirrel in the backyard. It’s a gross fixation that usually ends up just as stinky (with some exceptions). They go back to dig up classics and give beloved protagonists kids (The Little Mermaid II, Lady and the Tramp II, The Lion King II, Return to Neverland), generally add stories that never need to be told (Tarzan II, Bambi II, The Lion King 1 1/2),  and, of course, marry off previously independent leads. Enter the hated Mulan II.

Frankly, I don’t like even thinking about the content of Mulan II; I like to pretend it doesn’t even exist. (So far, my denial of reality doesn’t appear to be working so, I’m hoping this rant will be like some kind of therapy. Some day, I hope to move past this trauma.) So, Mulan II goes like this: Mulan and Shang have been abducted and replaced by shallow shadows of themselves (ok, I made that up). They want to tie the knot, but they’re dealing with the usual relationship issues. (“I told you we should have stopped for directions, Shang! Jeez, Mulan! I know what I’m doing! Just because you saved all of China doesn’t make you smarter than me!”) Mushu, for his own reasons, wants to break the couple up. Let’s pause here for a moment. Did Disney really make Mulan, a story that went beyond the normal blah of stereotypical romances, into a superficial romance? Now the uniqueness of the original has been replaced by outsiders trying to break up the couple that’s “meant to be” for their one selfish reasons. What’s next? Mulan and Shang will be breaking up and getting back together in some strange accordion fashion? Not far from it.

The new Mulan.

Then there’s a sorry story about Mulan’s friends Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po finding their ideal women in three princesses (Disney can’t resist). Oh yeah, and then there was some stuff about playing bodyguard and political alliances (oooh, so that’s why those princesses were there!). Mostly, Mulan II is a romance with a side dish of action, the polar opposite of the original. The sophistication of Mulan was also replaced by a certain shallowness, a mere trifle. In The Art of Mulan, the animator of the character Mulan, Mark Henn, is quoted as saying the original movie was “‘really a story about a father and daughter and honor–not girl meets boy and they live happily ever after.'” Oh, what must he have thought at seeing Mulan II? Bottom line: Disney should leave dead squirrels where they lie and let the world enjoy a truly independent female lead.

The real Mulan.

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Damsels-in-distress, evil stepmothers, wicked queens, and valiant, nameless princes. If you ever meet someone who has never seen these and other stereotypes, it would be appropriate to ask them (politely) whether they’ve lived under a rock for very long. Most of us are subjected to these at very early ages. We’ve seen them in Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, all of which are more commonly known by their Disney versions, the king of reproducing classic fairy tales to be fed to a modern audience and by fault the king of regurgitating old, undying stereotypes at a new, young audience. Let’s break it down.

The Damsel-in-distress

The damsel needs no introduction. Most of us have been well acquainted with her since childhood when our eyes beheld Disney’s Cinderella (who fell so low she had to be helped by a few incoherent mice). However, broken down to the basics, the damsel is beautiful, innocent, hapless, and most often young and at the mercy of another person, be it a step-mother or someone else. In some stories we really have no other characteristics to go by but that and a good amount of those are the female character’s physical appearance.

The Evil Older Woman

Also, in classic fairy tales such as Cinderella or Snow White the young, innocent creatures play opposite to less attractive-to-haggard, older women who are vain and greedy, but often in a more powerful position and more cunning. Whether they are witches, queens, or step-mothers, they are free of male dominance (although some of them are supposed to be married) and have control over their own lives and choices.

So, what does that say to children? Powerful women are undesirable and wicked? Think about it: how many little girls do you meet who play queen? Girls like to play princesses who are subjugated, but they never play powerful queens. Personally speaking, as children, never did any of my girl friends nor I pretend to be a queen because we thought of them as mean old women, an idea that was certainly strengthened in our minds by Disney, if they did not completely give us the idea. These portrayals also fuel incorrect messages of “good” and “evil” by the way that it is related to physical appearance; the beautiful are good, the ugly are bad.Also, these fairy tales like to pit women against women (or more correctly, girls against women). This supports a societal concept that the U.S. has fueled of women putting each other down, ideas that run strong today in stories recreating (or attempting to recreate) high school mean girls scenarios. Instead of being taught to help and support each other, girls are taught from a very early age to be wary of possible threats from their fellow females.

Cat fights of a previous century.

Prince Charming

Needless to say, the rescuer is always some prince on a white horse (in some cases, literally). Here’s a question: can you remember the names of those Disney princes? Some of them didn’t actually have names such as the prince from Snow White and Cinderella. Both are forever destined to be “Prince Charming,” the nameless and soulless guys with a kingdom and an apparent need to rescue girls they have artificial crushes on. Let’s face it; the so-called “romance” in these fairy tales must be physical attraction. The only other explanation would be that the two lovers knew each other in past lives thus they already have gotten to know each other, but I don’t think that kind of romance scenario was so popular back when these stories were made. Anyway, in the end, the two beautiful young people end up in a bland, unrealistic love.

Disney: Teaching girls to look for the man on the white horse since 1937.

However, it is also important to point out that while the princesses give priority to beauty, the princes impress the idea of masculinity for boys. This deepens harmful traditional stereotypes that restrict people in real life. In Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts Through Disney Princess Play by Karen E. Wohlwend, a study done on young boy and girls is noted, to have found that “girls as well as boys positioned male characters as powerful and female characters as weak, even suicidal, victims.” So, while Disney’s fairy tales are just tales, sweet and innocent, the ideas within them hold more weight in a child’s mind than one might think.

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