Thursday, October 06, 2011

Disney Princesses

Last week I watched two video sequels to Disney’s classic CINDERELLA movie. Some random thoughts about Disney cartoon heroines, to which I get a lot of exposure with a five-year-old granddaughter in the family:

In the sequels, Cinderella exercises a lot more agency than in the original movie. She isn’t so passive. (Although, admittedly, she isn’t totally passive in the film; she does try to make a ball dress for herself, with the help of cute animals, until the stepsisters destroy it.) As the prince’s new bride, she asserts herself to be true to her own character rather than getting pressured into dressing and behaving like a “proper” princess. She also helps her stepsister Anastasia find love with a commoner (a baker) against Stepmother’s explicit prohibition.

The more recent Disney heroines, in general, have more assertive personalities—and, often, wider interests—than their predecessors such as Snow White and Cinderella. Ariel’s original motive in THE LITTLE MERMAID is to see the world above, before she gets sidetracked by falling in love with the prince. Belle resists her niche in “this provincial life” and loves books. She’s my favorite Disney heroine because the Beast woos her with access to his library. Also, unlike Beauty in the best-known version of the fairy tale, she doesn’t get trapped into substituting for her father at the Beast’s demand. She proactively invades his castle and offers herself to save her dad.

In the latest animated film, TANGLED, Rapunzel doesn’t marry the hero right away. The epilogue implies that she makes him prove his worth first. My second-favorite heroine is Tiana, in THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. She doesn’t dream of marrying a prince. (That’s the fantasy of her rich, white friend.) Her ambition is to own a restaurant, which she achieves at the end of the movie. Falling in love with the prince-turned-frog doesn’t distract her from her goal.

The current line of Disney princess dolls and figurines includes ethnic variations such as Tiana, Jasmine, Pocahantas, and Mulan (not actually a princess, but still a nice inclusion), as well as the older, Grimm-inspired Caucasian princesses. Progress.

Critics can always find justifications for dissing Disney characters. For instance, a typical criticism of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is that the script encourages girls to accept abusive mates on the pretext of “love conquers all.” Not! Belle doesn’t begin to fall in love with the Beast until he first proves he has started to change, by saving her from the wolves. Sure, the Mouse’s animated fairy tales don’t exactly skate on the cutting edge of social progress. What do the critics want, a bona fide miracle? It’s DISNEY.

Still, they’ve come a long way from Snow White, who fantasizes about her prince coming someday (instead of plotting to reclaim her rightful throne), happily accepts a position as housekeeper to a bunch of dwarf miners, and doesn’t look nearly old enough to get married. I viewed the movie again recently and still think she looks about twelve—considerably less “developed” than I was at twelve, too. At least more recent films demonstrate the Mouse is TRYING.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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