My View on Disney Princesses and Feminism

This post is another little interruption from my reviews to answer a question I’ve gotten from friends and on social media.  I clearly have issues with female Disney characters who only exist to make bug eyes at boys and have them fall instantly in love with them- or instant love as I have coined it.  The end of the Jungle Book makes me nuts.  The girl fox, Vixey in Fox and the Hound I hated especially because Tod was acting like a real idiot and she hears a song and goes right back to the old batting the eyes…

vixey

These characters annoy me because they are only there as a love object and that is it. It’s like the Disney equivalent of porn.  Just look at me and you are hooked, hypnotized by my feminine wiles…

jungle book
She sings about cooking and cleaning, bats her eyes and…
mowgli
and Mowgli is hooked, hypnotized by her. Why? This scene bothers me much more than any princess scene.

Evidently that view makes me a raging feminist.  I’m actually a Conservative Mormon pro-lifer, so politically I do not share much in common with current feminist public policy or organizations like the National Organization of Women.  Do I want women to be treated fairly?  Of course but in most of my life people would probably not think of me as a feminist.

But I do think societal trends in language, media and storytelling can influence the self esteem and behaviors of both men and women and are worth analyzing.  As they are more likely to be objectified this is especially true for women.

Probably the most famous lyric when I was in high school warned against our ages willingness to be entertained and not think about what messages we were receiving:

Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

So, I like being entertained but I don’t think it is bad to take a step back and wonder- what are they saying with these characters?  What does this tell young girls or boys?  The answers can be different and debated but simply noticing the way women are portrayed or men are portrayed does not make me feminist.  It just makes me someone who noticed a trend and is concerned.

For years Disney executives were fearful of making ‘girl movies’ and so  how can that not have an affect on girls!  It certainly seems like a natural question to ask when a massive demographic is specifically discouraged in films, especially for children who are so impressionable.

It all comes from an old idea that it is easier to get girls to like boy things than boys to like girl things.  If Frozen did anything let’s hope the 1 billion dollars in sales puts that to a rest!  (And Hunger Games.  Not all girls in the seats).

Disney-Princess-Kida-disney-princess-30168400-2560-1117
I realize this has more than the official princesses

So does this mean I hate princess movies?  Some feminists I’m told do but even my sister who is pretty hard core doesn’t hate princess movies and loved Frozen and Tangled.  So, I think that’s a bit of a stereotype on feminists.  In fact, Slate.com, a very liberal site, had a great article recently called “The Problem with your Problem with Pink”.  It is a brilliant article and I highly recommend reading it.  One of its points is that by demonizing princesses and pink we are actually reinforcing gender stereotypes rather than eliminating them:

““Chill out” is very good advice. The pink phase will pass like anything else, and if it doesn’t, well, then, you have raised a human being who really likes pink. Which is the same as raising a human being who really likes green. The meaning of the color is what we make it mean. By steering our daughters away from the pink aisle to subvert dangerous gender norms, we’re reinforcing them”

Disneyland_2012-02-14_Princess_and_Princesses_a

I think you can say the same thing about Princesses.  A Princess is not inherently bad for a child just like a wizard, warrior, knight, king, queen, human, alien, are inherently bad or good.  It’s what the character does which makes them either a good example or not.  Most of the time I think the Princesses are great in Disney movies.  They are confident, happy, elegant, loving people. Some I like better than others such as Belle because she is a reader, or Ariel because she is a fighter (same with Mulan).  Rapunzel is great because she is so optimistic, Cinderella works hard.  All of them have positive attributes which I am more than happy to see reflected in my nieces or daughters if I have them.

I would certainly rather have a princess, Cinderella, who is dreaming of greater things than a common girl getting water who has resigned to cooking and cleaning for her life.  That to me is a much greater hurdle in a Disney film to leap than explaining a princess to a little girl.

In some ways I feel grateful to Disney because in much of other storytelling women are few and far between.  We have what is called by some ‘The Smurfette Principle’.   In the world of Smurfs there is one female character who is there typically to gasp and sigh over any event which is happening.  smurfetteBut the Smurfette can be the smart girl too, but she is always the girl surrounded by male characters.  And to be clear these can be great characters but it is a definite storytelling trope, which is worth noting and discussing.

harry potter

fantastic-four big-bang-theory-cast-290x160You could argue that such trends in storytelling doesn’t matter and it is certainly true that all-girl movies can be atrocious.  I hated Austenland last year and that not only had mostly female cast but a female director, writer and producers.

What we have to be concerned with is overall trends in storytelling. and the way I see it the trends of Princess stories have been consistently positive and progressing in the last 2 decades.  It has certainly been many years since we had a Disney princess who was a complete nothing- Black Cauldron maybe or Sleeping Beauty?  For the most part they are independent, free-thinking, ambitious, positive women.  What’s wrong with that?

So I think we are perhaps a bit tough on our Disney Princesses.  They are usually pretty good examples and can be used as tools to help girls feel confident and beautiful.  Where we get into trouble is when we don’t take a second to talk with our girls about the positive traits of the princess they admire and allow them to only focus on the beauty.  Sometimes that is the fault of the Disney Princess branding of merchandise and products which tend to focus on Belle’s ample bosom and less on her love of libraries. princessesAs adults we can also sexualize things we loved as children and then can carry those grown up perceptions over to our children, forgetting they are seeing them with innocent eyes.  When we think of Tinker Bell we may see a sexy girl in a green dress.  Where our daughters see a simple green fairy.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage modesty but we can be over-cautious and throw out stories and characters who have many good things to teach our children, out of a fear we picked up later in life.

sexy princesses

So, no.  I have no problem with girls wanting to be a princess or loving princesses.  In fact, when the royal wedding came along I threw a party and celebrated a girl becoming a princess.  I don’t see anything wrong with that.  From all evidences she’s a good person who was elevated to a princess, which had never happened before.  For a woman who loves fairytales it was like one had come to life!

This is me with my hat at the Royal Wedding party
This is me with my hat at the Royal Wedding party

I guess with most things in life it is all about balance and how it is approached.  But in my experience kids find their own form of balance.  We played house and pirate ship and boxcar children (always some kind of orphan…) as much  if not more than we played Princess.  And like I said it has been some time since there has been a princess which wasn’t a pretty tough cookie.

frying panI actually think live action films could take a lesson from animation and have more strong female characters.  Look at the superhero genre which has failed miserably to provide a single watchable female superhero movie.  The Xmen and Black Widow are as close as we’ve gotten but eventually I hope we can get good writers who can translate some of the great female comic book characters onto the screen in leading roles.  I don’t know why it is so hard (and I am very skeptical of the new Wonder Woman but we will see…)

Because just like people thought ‘girl movies’ wouldn’t sell at Disney, they have thought ‘girl movies’ in dramas, comedies and anything non-romantic wouldn’t make money.  I hope films like The Heat, Bridesmaids, The Blindside (and Frozen) have shown women can carry a picture and people will go if the writing is good. That’s always the key in any genre.

disney_women_by_nuts4books9-d3j5stn

So what does my rambling mean?  Well, basically that I hate it when women are objectified in film and only present to be beautiful love objects that transfix men.  However, that does not mean I hate Princesses or Princess stories.  I like girlie things.  There is perhaps no more girly person than myself.  I have a chandelier for goodness sakes in my bedroom.  Princess movies can in fact be a tool to help encourage the right kinds of lessons in our girls and boys, so by discounting and discouraging them we miss out on stories which have lasted for generations partly because of their teaching ability.

Regardless girls deserve characters like Anna and Elsa in Frozen who have personalities, make mistakes, feel uncomfortable and insecure, have happy moments, fall in love and a range of other traits.  And all girls do not have to be strong.  They can be shy or withdrawn (the warrior woman can be an equal cliche) but give her something to say or do but to be oogled at by men.  Boys deserve fleshed out characters too but they get it far more frequently in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, all the Pixar movies but Brave, Star Wars, All Superheroes shows and movies, I could go on…

anna and elsaIt’s a sad thing when something as simple as the Bechdel test is failed by many movies or passed by technicalities.  The Bechdel Test asks the question does a movie have 1. 2 named female characters who 2.  have a conversation about something other than a man.  It is shocking how many movies fail the test and to be fair many terrible, demeaning movies pass the test.  It is merely a way to look at trends not individual pictures.  In life females talk to females about things other than men and movies should show that.  I guess if that makes me a raging crazy feminist than so be it…

So I say embrace pink.  Embrace your Disney Princess and strong women in film.  Not because you are or are not a feminist but because you are human and want to tell and see stories about half of the human race.

The Nostalgic Critic had an interesting editorial on this topic and he did bring up a good point about why are girls never queens, but princesses?   I had never thought about it and it is a valid thought.