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.

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