No, I’m not going to address the fact that I haven’t updated since September.
So, I am a big fan of the new Disney animated movie Frozen. I don’t think it’s perfect, and there are several obvious flaws, but the movie still made me fall in love. Now, I am going to be totally honest, I had no intention of going to see this movie. I hadn’t read any pre-movie buzz, so all I had to go on was the movie’s marketing.
And that marketing, frankly, made the movie look annoying as hell.
I remember seeing that preview and thinking it seemed like the most pandering, insulting preview they could have done. I mean, this is (well, was at the time) 2013, and we’re supposed to be surprised that the person who might save the day could be “No Man”? Really?
Of course, upon seeing the movie, you’ll find that (spoilers) very little is actually made of Anna’s sex when she goes on her quest to rescue/stop her sister. There’s no “You can’t do this because you’re a girl” moment. Yes, the men get a little…mansplain-y at times, but I’m not sure if that’s really because Anna’s a girl or because she’s a bit naive, impulsive, and young.
This trailer also fails to include any decent preview of Elsa, the older sister, who is (spoilers again) not the villain this trailer would have you believe she is. This is significant to me because the heart of Frozen is the relationship between the two sisters, and it’s surprisingly rare to find a quality relationship between two women in mainstream animated films (or any mainstream films, really).
And so we come, once again, to talking about the depictions of gender in Disney. However, why should Disney get all the fun? I think DreamWorks has gone long enough without the serious critiques their rival has earned. DreamWorks may not be Disney, but they’ve been establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with, so I think it’s time we gave them a look to see what sort of patterns they’re falling into. That will come in the next post.
For now, let’s get started with the cultural behemoth that is Disney and its Princesses.
Now, I’ve discussed the whole “Princess” thing a few times before. Most notably, I have railed against the transformation of Mulan, my armor-wearing, sword-wielding, killer-of-thousands (seriously, thousands) childhood hero, into a pink-clad, benignly smiling Disney Princess. However, back then I focused more on marketing and merchandising and less on the actual content of Disney movies.
As I said in an earlier post, Disney Princesses are, I think, often much better written than we (or the Shrek movies) give them credit for. Yes, Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora can be largely passive in their films, but all three of those princesses are from the fifties or earlier. Plus, I think they are, in several ways, misunderstood. While it’s true that all three of these ladies had little to do with saving themselves, it doesn’t mean that they had no personality or didn’t try. They were just trapped in the confines of their time and source material. It should also be noted that many consider the Fairies to be the main characters of Sleeping Beauty–not Aurora. Take that as you will, but a movie centered on three older ladies (with one of the most badass
female villains ever) would still be considered a risk today.
The next official Disney Princess didn’t come around until 1989 when The Little Mermaid launched the so-called “Disney Renaissance.” This is not to say there weren’t animated heroines between Sleeping Beauty and Little Mermaid, (Alice from Alice in Wonderland comes to mind), but none of those characters are currently marketed as members of the official lineup (as dictated by the Disney Princess website.) Ariel…troubles people. Not everyone, but many have commented on the fact that her narrative seems to be “I want to change myself entirely for a guy I don’t know, and, in the process, doom my father–and in extension the entire kingdom.” Now, many will argue, and have argued, that Eric was just the excuse Ariel was looking for to do something she was probably going to do eventually. Ariel was clearly obsessed with the surface world, and would likely have tried to flee there sooner or later without love-at-first sight type nonsense (another nuance that Once Upon a Time managed to plow right over).
Then came Belle in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Belle is more popular than Ariel, as she appeals to bookish intellectuals, many of whom can relate to her situation at the beginning of the movie when nobody understands her. However, Belle can also be problematic, as her story can easily be interpreted as celebrating Stockholm syndrome and advocating for women in abusive relationships to stick it out because they can “change him.” I don’t think that’s what happened, but, as my mom would say, being driven to such a conclusion isn’t exactly a “trip down the turnpike.” I’m also a little disappointed that Belle never really uses her intelligence in her story. There’s no moment where she goes “Hey! I read about this. I know exactly what to do!” She’s brave and takes action, but I kind of wish her reading did more than make her an outcast and foreshadow the plot.
After Belle, Disney decided to explore other cultures beyond white European, and the next four princesses are all Women of Color. The first three of these were the last princesses to come out of the Disney Renaissance: Jasmine (Aladdin 1992), Pocahontas (Pocahontas 1995), and Mulan (Mulan 1998). In my occasional (frequent) detours through toy aisles and the Disney Store, I’ve noticed these three princesses seem to be particularly downplayed in Disney’s marketing. I’d assume this is because they are less popular, and there are several reasons why that might be. Jasmine is a decent character, in my opinion, but she’s not the star of her movie, and she is pushed into the background by the charismatic Aladdin (whom many of the little girls were too busy crushing on to notice Jasmine) and insane (funny?) Genie. Pocahontas suffers from being in a…less than top quality movie, and her personality is not exactly the most compelling. (Now, full disclosure, I loved this movie when I was 6. I though John Smith was awesome for some reason. What can I say? I was young.) I can also understand why Mulan might not be so popular. Her story is full of all kinds of awkward, and she’s a challenging character to fit into the “Disney Princess” role. (Probably because SHE’S NOT A PRINCESS.) Beyond being less promoted, all three of these characters also share the distinction of coming from movies wherein Disney tried to depict other cultures and failed in multiple, sometimes insulting, ways. Still, all three of these women are honorable, brave, and smart. They don’t just sit back when they see injustices about to occur (though some might need a magical compass and a talking tree to get their butts in gear). There are many worse female role models out there.
And Mulan is awesome.
After Mulan, Disney went on a bit of a hiatus from the formula that had brought them success in the beginning of the Disney Renaissance, but was providing diminished returns by the time the new millennium came around. Tarzan, which has been identified as one of the last movies of the Renaissance, followed only by Fantasia 2000, (according to Wikipedia), demonstrates the changing Disney formula. Unlike the movies before it, Tarzan, though it heavily features original songs by Phil Collins, is not a musical, and, Disney wouldn’t make a traditional musical again until Princess and the Frog. In this period, Disney made several movies that are still well-liked today, but that don’t have quite the cultural force of their Golden Age or Renaissance. They continued to make movies that featured POC protagonists such as The Emperor’s New Groove, Brother Bear, and Lilo and Stitch. These three movies also distinguish themselves by having either down-played or nonexistent romance, focusing instead on friendship, brotherhood, and sisterhood as the primary relationships in the films. Still, though Disney tried a new approach, they found themselves fading into the background of the animation world as Pixar (at the time not officially part of Disney, which they used for distribution) and DreamWorks became the leading powerhouses of feature animation.
It is unsurprising, then, that, after a decade of falling behind, Disney decided to go back to what it does best. So, in 2009, over ten years after Mulan, we got The Princess and the Frog, a movie that would not only return to the fairy-tale princess musical Disney is known for, but would also return to traditional animation. I remember when this movie came out, and the amount of coverage that was given to Tiana for being the first black Disney princess. There was a lot of excitement, but also a lot of apprehension. How would Disney manage to insult a whole race this time?
Disney’s answer to these questions? Make the main characters frogs for the majority of the film. Princess and the Frog isn’t the worst Disney movie, and in some ways is quite enjoyable, but it couldn’t help but feel underwhelming. Tiana was great in the beginning, and “Almost There” is one of the best “I want” princess songs (probably because, instead of singing wistfully and passively about what she wants, Tiana’s celebrating how close she is to making her own dream come true), but the film (especially when they’re frogs) can’t help but feel a little flat.
What is perhaps most significant about the Princess and the Frog is that it’s the first of the Princess movies to be made with a full consciousness of the marketing side of the Disney Princess brand. While the Disney Princess brand got its start in the 90s, it gained further prominence in the post-Disney Renaissance period, when Disney chose to market its familiar, popular products to fill the gap left by underperforming new features. In their toys and marketing, female characters were less important for who they were than for their roles as Disney Princesses. Tiana is perhaps the first Disney Princess created specifically to fit into the lineup (down to her dress color). Her story was told so Disney could have a black princess, and I think the movie suffers for that.
Princess and the Frog didn’t fail, and the marketing side of Disney still likes to push Tiana, but it wasn’t as successful as Disney wanted it to be. So, they took several actions for their upcoming princess movie: they went back to CG (which, based on how long it takes to make an animated movie, had to have happened before Princess and the Frog came out), they decided to give the movie a nondescript name that wouldn’t turn away boys, and they marketed it like a DreamWorks film.
Upbeat music and zany shenanigans? Oh boy!
And, it seemed to work. I know I was tricked by the marketing. Of course, there was more to the success of Tangled (2010) than a manipulative marketing campaign. The story was sweet; the songs were solid; and it was fun. Tangled was successful critically and people loved it. Rapunzel is a popular princess who drove a great deal of her story and saved the guy more than once. She’s likable and awkward (gold for Disney), naive and cute.
Personally, though I like Tangled, I’m disappointed by it. Most of my issues are with the ending. While it’s true that Rapunzel was completely noble, brave, and heroic at the end, the big, climactic moment was given to the guy. That bothers me. The other issue I have with it is the Mother Gothel character. Beyond being another female villain whose motivation is based on her looks, her relationship with Rapunzel disturbs me. Disney loves these stories of stepmothers/mother figures being at war with their daughters, and, while I acknowledge that this happens with many people in real life, it gets old. I think Tangled would have been much better if there had been more remorse on Rapunzel’s part at the end. I mean, as far as she knew Mother Gothel was her mom, but you wouldn’t know that based on the ending. They play it up well at the beginning, but the need for a big Disney happy ending meant that sort of exploration and trauma had to be swept under the rug so Rapunzel could get back to her “real parents.” (This “real parents” trope is so overdone it was parodied by Rugrats in the episode “Princess Angelica”).
The next Disney Princess, Merida, came in 2012 and is distinguished by not coming from Disney Studios. Instead, we got our first Pixar Princess. Brave is a troubled movie. It did win Best Animated Feature, but the general reception of it seems to be along the lines of “meh.” People were much more passionate about Wreck it Ralph. The ending credits of Brave really help tell the story of its trouble production. First come the two directors of the film, who are not credited together. Rather, the first credit is for Mark Andrews then the credits fade out and then the credit for the original director who was replaced mid production, Brenda Chapman comes on. That fades and a new credit for “co-director” comes up for Steve Purcell. Then, after the producer credits, Brenda Chapman gets a credit for the story and then there’s the screenplay credit. It reads thus: “screenplay by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi.” It’s rarely a good sign to see so many contributors to a screenplay, and I’m sure it didn’t help this film. They also seem to be clearly making the division between Brenda Chapman’s original version and the people who took over, which doesn’t exactly demonstrate a collaborative effort. Now, I don’t know why Pixar felt they had to replace Brenda Chapman. All I could get from Wikipedia was “creative disagreements,” but I feel many of the weaknesses of the film could probably be credited to the change, as the main issue I have with it is tonal. There are times when the movie is really spiritual and serious, and then the comedy (which isn’t very good) butts in and kills the mood. I feel like there’s a great movie in Brave that’s desperate to get out but can’t.
So, what about Merida? I really wanted to like her, and I do a little, but I just couldn’t get into her. With her bow and arrow wielding, tomboyish ways, you’d think the character she’d most remind me of would be Mulan, but it’s not. Merida reminds me most of Ariel (and it’s not just the red hair). Both of these characters nearly doom their parents (and their parents’ kingdoms) out of selfish, poorly thought-out actions. Now, I’m not saying Merida should be damned because she was a self-centered sixteen year old (otherwise we’d all be roasting), and I do think her motivation is stronger than Ariel’s. I’m actually mostly okay with Merida up until she decides to curse her mother with a spell she doesn’t bother to know anything about. All she asks is that the witch “change my mom.” She doesn’t say “in a way that won’t hurt her” nor does she ask what the spell does other than whether it will change both Merida’s mom and Merida’s fate. Now, I admit to being spoiled. My mom is awesome, and I would never wish harm on her, so I have trouble relating. But Merida’s mom isn’t evil or a bad mother. She’s strict, proper, and worries about her daughter’s future. Merida even acknowledges that turning down the proposals would likely lead to war, so it’s not like her mother (who went through the same thing) is being completely unreasonable. And Merida is willing to just curse her? I know some people really love Merida, and that’s okay, I guess. But, for me, I just can’t really love a character who would do something like that. I mean, Disney characters’ actions lead to their loved ones getting hurt all the time, but this time was just so reckless and stupid that I have trouble accepting it.
Still, Merida was popular enough to be officially inducted into the Princess lineup…which didn’t go quite as smoothly as Disney hoped. If you follow animation or representation blogs/websites/whatever, you’ve likely heard about Merida’s makeover for her induction into Disney Princessdom.
Now, to be honest, one of the things that irks me about Merida is that people who discuss her “feminist” characterization act like she’s the first Disney heroine to ever kick ass. Not to beat a dead horse, but am I the only person who actually remembers Mulan? Yes, Merida distinguishes herself by not having a love interest, but the romance in Mulan is more awkward than anything else (remember, he thinks she’s a man for most of it), and she and Shang don’t even kiss during the film. She kisses Mushu, but not Shang.
However, no matter what problems I have with Merida, she still didn’t deserve to have her personality sucked out of her. (I assume her personality is kept in the waist-region, and thus its removal explains how Merida went from reasonable body proportions to the typical waist-smaller-than-head Disney Princess physique.) Of course, this is more of a marketing issue, which I’m not going to go deeply into now. I will just say that, even though her makeover sucks, there are still plenty of Merida toys/dresses out there that depict her pre-makeover model…unlike Mulan. (Okay, I’m going to stop now).
Merida is the last officially crowned Disney Princess (though I hear the two from Frozen [one of whom is actually a queen] are destined to join the party). So, what can we take from over 70 years of Disney Princesses and around 20 years of the Disney Princess Brand?
As I’ve demonstrated, Disney princesses are all problematic in some way, but I can’t help but like most of these ladies on some level. They’re all brave, kind, and honorable (even if it takes them some time to get there). They’re smart, stand up for their beliefs, and work hard. Those are a lot of good qualities. They are also, in most cases, the leading characters in their movies. Out of the Disney Princess lineup, almost all of the princesses are the main protagonists of their films (exceptions being Jasmine and, arguably, Aurora). We should also note that these films, though they have female main characters, largely appeal to boys as well as girls. This is significant considering the status-quo attitude that boys will only watch movies/tv shows about boys while girls will watch movies/tv shows about boys and/or girls. Disney has been proving this wrong in their movies (not so much their marketing) for a while now, and the rest of Hollywood is catching up.
The real problem with the Disney Princess genre is, I think, in the marketing, which sucks all of the personality and nuance away from characters that are often more progressive than many women featured in media made for adults. Remember how everyone love Belle because she’s an outcast who prefers reading over socializing? Well, you don’t exactly get that from Disney’s marketing which almost exclusively keeps her in that yellow dress from the ballroom scene. Yes, it was the most iconic moment in the movie, but that’s not why people love Belle. Disney Princesses in the Disney Store are pretty. And like sparkles. Dinsey Princesses in the movies are interesting, nuanced, and (usually) good people with open hearts.
And really, I can think of much, much worse role models for young girls.
Tune in next time for my analysis of DreamWorks SKG’s SFCs (Strong Female Characters).