Monday, 23 September 2013

The Bystanders

All three of these characters passively dream about a prince finding and saving them from their current deplorable situation. They are able to recognize exactly what is wrong with their lives, and yet they do nothing to change it themselves. Instead they are entirely dependant on their respective Prince Charming characters to rescue them. The theme of dreaming or wishing rather than actively doing is prevalent in all three princesses’ objective-songs. For Snow White it occurs twice in two separate songs in the film. It occurs first in the film’s opening song, a song sung by Snow White called “I’m Wishing”. The title alone illustrates the theme’s significance within the song. This is farther exemplified in the lyrics of the song. Particularly in the opening lines which state,
“I’m wishing 
For the one I love 
To find me 
Today” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves).
 Here she is not wishing for the knowledge or power to get herself out of her problems but rather for someone else to find her and do the fighting for her. This concept is farther developed during a second song she sings later in the film entitled “Someday My Prince will Come”.
 “Someday my prince will come. 
Some day we’ll meet again 
And away to his castle we’ll go 
And be happy forever I know” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves).
Once again Snow White is passively dreaming about the prince she has fallen in love with finding her and taking her off to a place far far away from her troubles. She never once considers going out on her own to find him herself. Instead she holds onto a blind conviction that he will eventually find her and while she waits for this day to come Snow White is content to stay at home and care for the seven men who have taken her in.

Cinderella and Aurora continue this theme of passivity through their own songs that focus on the idea of dreaming as a form of escapism. Cinderella is perhaps best known for the oppression force upon her by her stepmother and stepsisters. However, instead of standing up to them she is satisfied to simply dream about a better life while continuing to do the work forced upon her. In her song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, she exemplifies this passive attitude by singing,
“No matter how your heart is grieving 
If you keep on believing 
The dreams that you wish will come true” (Cinderella). 
This song creates the impression that by simply sitting back and dreaming, one’s wishes will come to fruition, regardless of the amount of actual hard work one puts towards it. It is exceedingly clear in her story exactly what Cinderella’s biggest obstacle is, her imprisonment by her stepfamily. Yet, like Snow White, she shows no signs of taking the initiative and solving her problems for herself.

While Aurora’s situation is not nearly as desperate as either Snow White’s or Cinderella’s, she still requires the assistance of a prince to return her to her rightful place as princess. Yet in the mean time, she too is content to rely on her dreams and imagination to help her escape from her mundane life. While singing her objective song, “Once Upon A Dream”, she sings of how she has dreamed of the perfect prince she’s been waiting for. And while she clearly desires this dream to come to fruition she appears to be content by simply fantasizing about him.

Over the near seventy years that have passed since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 there were a number of incredibly significant developments in women rights and feminism in general. The princess characters outlined above reflect this development and embody many traits of what a women of the 1930s-1950s were expected to strive towards. Some of these traits may be difficult for modern women to appreciate since modern expectations of women have changed so dramatically over time. But it is important to remember, “A film reflects the society which produces it” (Davis 116). Even though women today may take a critical view of these early films in the Princess Franchise, it is important to remember that at the time they would not have felt nearly as oppressive. They may have event appeared to be liberating in some ways. As the role of the middle-class woman changed over the twentieth century they found themselves with more time they could devote to their own personal development. This encouraged attention to be paid to a woman’s accomplishments such as singing, dancing, and appearance, in short “their acceptable goals became those which reinforced their status as ornaments” (Davis 116-117). Today we may look at a situation such as this and feel pity for the women who were made to be ornamental first and foremost. Yet at the time it was likely a sign of power and skill to be able to show off the accomplishments one had worked so hard at. It is important to keep this in mind when considering all the various princesses outlined in this paper, since they were each created during a different point in North American history and therefore promote different outlooks on what it means to be feminine.

I think Snow White here pretty much sums it up.

Check out all the Disney Princess Songs mentioned here on this page.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Let's Break This Thing Down

We've come a long way baby. Things certainly have changed for women since Disney released their first full length animated feature in 1937, and ever since their films have acted as punctuation marks encapsulating the historical moment in which they were created. This is particularly true of their princess movies. In their depiction of their central princess character these films have managed to personify what the 'ideal woman' of the time was meant to be. Putting the visual depiction of the characters aside (that's a whole other kettle of fish... what an odd saying) the choices they make and the hardships they encounter illustrate a clear progression over time in how we as a societal whole have adapted our interpretation of a woman's role.

Since most of these stories occur in a variety of settings and time periods, it is only fair that I use one common element present in each of the eleven princesses and use that as a point of comparison. For this I've chosen to use something befitting the fairy tale nature of these films, that is I will be compairing each princess though their heart's true desire. (In the real world we would call this their meta objective.) Each princess sings a song expressing the objective or goal that drives her forward throughout the story. More often than not this is the most famous and iconic song of the film, and for good reason. These songs distill the overall message of the film into a few lines of lyric and melody. Think "Part of Your World", "Colors of the Wind", or "Reflection". That's pretty powerful stuff.

When looking at the princesses in chronological order of their film's release date (see timeline below) there are five categories that begin to emerge based on the character's objective. I've given each category a name to help distinguish them.
  1. The Bystanders
    he traditional princess who relies on her prince to come and save her, but is content to spend her time caring for others until that time arrives. 
  2. The OutcastsThese characters feel out of place in the society they are born into and take steps to better their situation but ultimately rely on their prince to remove them from it. 
  3. The Warriors
    These women are similar to the Outcasts in that they do not feel they fit into the roles their society expects of them, but rather than depending on a prince to save them they take matters into their own hands and save themselves.
  4. The Partners
    These characters focus on finding a balance between female empowerment and independence while still recognizing the significance of working with the prince in a true partnership
  5. The SistersThis is the newest and perhaps the most interesting category as it is the only one in which the focus is not on the relationship between the princess and her prince, but rather on her relationship to a significant female in her life.
It occurs to me that it would be useful to also define what I mean by 'prince'. Essentially I use this term to encompass the major male lead who acts as the romantic interest for our princess. This character does not have to actually be a prince in the narrative of the story, nor does he have to 'get the girl' in the end. He simple needs to be the male romantic counterpart of our heroine. 

To be specific I am referring to Prince Florian (aka The Prince) of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Prince Henry (aka Prince Charming) of Cinderella, Prince Phillip of Sleeping Beauty, Prince Eric of The Little Mermaid, Prince Adam (aka The Beast) of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin (aka Prince Ali Ababwa) of Aladdin, John Smith of Pocahontas, Captain Li Shang of Mulan, Prince Naveen of The Princess and the Frog, Flynn Rider of Tangled, and Merida's three would-be suitors in Brave.

Wow. Who knew so many of these guys had aliases. For more info on the princes of Disney, check out this page, it's where I got the info on all their names.

Over the next few posts I will dig deeper into each of these categories explaining how each one of the princesses fit in, starting tomorrow with The Bystanders.

Note that this timeline is missing Brave from 2012.
(Sorry bout that. It was still the best one I could find.)

Saturday, 21 September 2013

What's Wrong with Being a Princess?

I am a defender of the Disney princess. People are often so quick to denounce them as unrealistic and regressive examples for young girls to idolize. And it's true that they are by no means progressive feminist role models. No one would ever accuse a Disney princess of innovating what it means to be a woman in the twenty-first century. But, in fairness, they never claim to. You cannot reasonably expect a character that was created in the 1950s to embody a set of values that did not exist at the time. It is essential when looking critically at the Disney princess to look at them within the context they were created in and for.

I guess it might be worth defining exactly what I mean when I say "Disney princess". Some use the term to describe any and all female characters from the many Disney movies out there. By this logic we would see Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Wendy from Peter Pan included in the mix. But frankly
that makes for way too many characters to look at. (Sorry Alice.) We could narrow it down and say that the term only refers to female characters that are actually princesses in their stories, but then we are forced leave out Mulan, who is widely accepted as a princess
despite her lack of any actual royal connection. Instead I choose to follow Disney's own definition of princess by referring to their website.

Here on their official Disney Princess page there are eleven characters; Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Cinderella from Cinderella (1950), Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959), Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989), Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991), Jasmine from Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas from Pocahontas (1995), Mulan from Mulan (1998), Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009), Rapunzel from Tangled (2010), and the newest princess, Merida from Brave (2012).

These characters are not idealistic versions of what tomorrow's woman should look like, but rather the embodiment of what being a woman meant at their particular moment in American history. Perhaps this is still reason enough for parents to be shielding their impressionable
young daughters from their influence, but in my view the only way of moving forward is to have an understanding of where we have been. If we want the next generation to continue the reinvention of what it means to be a woman then they should understand the worlds that their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers grew up in.

When I was in university I wrote an essay about all this (Yes, I know. I actually got to watch Disney movies as homework!) and ever since I find myself more and more fascinated by the way women are presented in, not only Disney movies, but film in general. What's really interesting, to me anyway, is how the Walt Disney princesses are a near perfect microcosm of what has been going on with female characters in film over the more than seventy years that Disney has been making films. And while they may never fully subvert the hetero-normative perspectives (whoa there big words) of their time, the princesses do illustrate the progression of female independence and the way we define the societal roles of men and woman in North America.

I 'll use the next few posts to show you exactly what I mean.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman

Do you call yourself a woman? For some this is an easy question to answer. If you're male a simple "No" is all you need. If you're a child you might answer, "Not yet". But if you answered "Yes" then take a moment to think back and find the moment when you, in your own mind, stopped being a girl and began to see yourself as a woman. I ask because I feel as though I'm still waiting for that moment to arrive and flick the switch that will send me off to womanhood.

There are a million and one moments in a girls life that people cite as the moment when she becomes a woman. Her first period, her bat mitzvah or quinceanera, her eighteenth birthday, her twenty-first birthday, her first time. But if all of these were true I should have become a woman ten times over by now. Instead I pass each landmark waiting to feel different on the other side only to find myself just as lost and bewildered as when I started.

One thing I am beginning to accept is that there is no "other side" for me to reach, no switch that will turn me from girl to woman. Bewilderment, it seems, is only a natural reaction to the chaos that life throws your way.

So perhaps one day I will own the word "woman" but till then I find myself at a loss for something to use in its place. Just as I can't call myself a woman yet, I also know I've out grown the word "girl". Instead I am lost somewhere in the no-man's-land between. If I were male I might call myself a "guy" in place of "boy" or "man". But no such word exists for me to use. I never thought I would say this, in fact I use to make fun of this song, but Britney had it right. I'm not a girl, not yet a woman.

I am lots of things. I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, a student, a teacher, a lover, a heart breaker. But a woman? That's one I'm not so sure about.