Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Disney Princesses: Heroes or Villains?

I grew up in the 1990s, which meant that something I looked forward to every summer was the new Disney movie. The Little Mermaid was my first "favorite" movie, and I still have the often-watched VHS tape my parents bought for me as a tyke. As I grew older I started looking at different perspectives on the "Disney Princess" brand, and how they are supposedly ruining today's generation of girls.

I will say right off the bat that today's toys are being marketed in a manner that is far too gender-specific. Also, the "Disney Princess" brand takes a lot of liberties with the characters. There was a lot of noise back when Merida joined the official lineup and was made to look more "cute and feisty" than, well, brave. Oh, and apparently Disney princesses are contractually obligated to wear clothing that is 50% glitter by volume.

But what about the actual movies? What kind of messages are they sending to girls? As it turns out, there are two sides to every princess. I'll give my quick summary of each movie, from a positive and negative perspective.

Positive: This movie has more female characters than male; the plot is driven by a memorable villainess and the heroine has a literal fairy godmother looking out for her. It easily passes the Bechdel Test (Cinderella talks to her stepmother and fairy godmother about going to the ball).
Negative: The heroine and title character does NOTHING to save herself from her situation. Literally nothing. The birds and mice make her first dress (without her knowledge); fairy godmother makes the second. Even at the end, when she's locked in her room, she doesn't try to escape. The mice have to save her again.

Sleeping Beauty
Positive: Like Cinderella, this movie has a mostly female cast. Maleficent stands out as one of the most memorable villains, male or female, from the Disney animated canon. Can any of the other villains turn into a FREAKIN' DRAGON? I didn't think so. Also, in the final battle, the fairies are the ones leading the charge. Prince Philip would not have gotten nearly as far as he did without their help. This movie passes the Bechdel Test, as the fairies talk about Aurora often. As does Maleficent.
Negative: Once again, our heroine is completely passive. The only thing she does on her own is sneak out into the woods, where she winds up in Love At First Sight (R) with her prince.

The Little Mermaid
Positive: Ariel is the first princess who decides to go after what she wants--and originally, it's not "a man." Even before she lays eyes on Eric, she expresses a desire to be human and be free of her father's rule. Also, we have another strong female villain.
Negative: This movie fails the Bechdel Test; Ariel and Ursula have a long conversation, but it revolves around becoming human so she can be with her prince. She also needs to undergo a dramatic physical transformation so she can be with him.

Beauty and the Beast
Positive: Belle is smart, brave, and caring. She is a favorite among nerd girls for preferring books and the eccentric company of her mad scientist father over the all-looks-no-personality Gaston. She is not afraid to stand up for herself, first to the beast, and then to Gaston.
Negative: Belle stays with a man whose behavior borders on abusive, at least in the beginning. She believes that she can change him, and it works. Girls, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

Positive: Jasmine knows what she wants, and is not afraid to tell anyone. She is determined to marry someone she chooses, rather than let her father force her into an arranged marriage. She escapes from the palace to experience life as a commoner--without magical intervention.
Negative: Name one other female character in the movie. There isn't one...unless you count the genie in drag. Jasmine has to stand up for women's rights, because she could very well be the only female in all of Agrabah.

Positive: Mulan is driven by a desire to save her father and prove her own worth. She goes undercover as a soldier and ends up saving the whole country. She is a definite action hero. Also, she is the first Disney Princess to have a mother and grandmother who are still alive and present at the beginning and end.
Negative: They just had to throw a romance in, didn't they?

Positive: Merida does not wait around for anyone to solve her problems. She is not afraid to try different solutions when she dislikes her options. The central plot of the movie revolves not around Merida and a love interest, but her changing relationship with her mother. Both Merida and Elinor come out of the movie as stronger, and their relationship has reached a new level of understanding. She is also determined, like Jasmine, to avoid arranged marriage...and unlike every other princess on this list, is happily single at the end of it all.
Negative: They just had to make her a princess, didn't they? Also, Pixar has been making movies for almost 20 years now (yup, Toy Story came out in '94) and it took them until 2012 to make a movie with a female protagonist.

I skipped over some of the movies because I'm not really familiar with them (Tangled, Princess and the Frog, Hercules). I also excluded Pocahontas, because even though she's included in the "princess" canon, I'm not sure if she qualifies (her father is a chieftain, not a king). Mulan is technically not a princess either, but she appears more often than Pocahontas in official Disney Princess merchandise. If anyone wants to offer their analysis of the movies I missed, or a new perspective on one I've covered already, please do!

In conclusion: Watch the movies with your kids. Ask them what they thought the moral of the story was. Talk about the messages they picked up on, and how those lessons apply (or don't apply) to the real world. Media literacy is an important skill for kids to learn, and how they watch is arguably more important than what they watch.

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