I’ve been perusing a number of movie blogs lately that have been tracking trends in recent Disney and Pixar movies. It’s the usual really: condemnation for choosing marketability over substance, why can’t you make a good movie for boys?, why are your movies for girls so anti-feminist?, etc. It seems the studios can’t win for loosing these days. I never thought I’d say this, but I think I might just have to go to bat for Disney here.
If someone said “Disney” to you, chances are the first character to pop into your head wouldn’t be that studio-launching mouse. More likely it would be a young royal girl in a dress some tooth-curling shade of insipid pink or purple. Let’s face it, it’s good to be the princess. Sales of princess and girl-oriented paraphernalia grossed over five billion dollars last year. Is it because girls like pretty outfits or are we really relating to these twirly, helpless females?
I suppose the best place to look at what went wrong with the children is to go back to the beginning. Which means Snow White. Despite being the highest-grossing animated film of all time (adjusting for inflation), this is the Disney film that seems to be met with anything from groans and eye-rolls from feminists. And perhaps rightly so: the protagonist is a shrill ninny who gets lost in the woods, loves nothing better than to cook and clean for seven random men, and is wont to take food from obviously evil strangers. But look at the time period in which it was made. In 1937, Europe was on the brink of war. Women really were still expected to stay home and cook and clean and sing a merry song while they did it. The economy was in the gutter, the Hindenburg crashed in a fiery inferno, and America was looking for all the stupid wholesomeness it could desperately cling to while rocking back and forth singing to itself. It doesn’t matter if the characters are believable or not. They are distracting, by which I mean entertaining. The perverse beauty of it all, in my opinion, is that the flaws of this story are painfully obvious to even a child! I remember watching this as a five year old thinking, “She shouldn’t take food from strangers. She must not be very smart.” I don’t think that allowing your child to see this movie will result in her running off into the woods to join a hippie commune that talks to animals. Let’s just sit back and enjoy the silly antics of the vertically-challenged woodsmen and the beautiful color washes of the hand painted backgrounds.
I think it is also a good idea to point out is that a common influential factor in having a woodland twirling, creature serenading heroine is not writing her any other friends into the story! I’d probably be a socially mal-adjusted recluse if the only other people in the story were either trying to kill me for no real reason or rescue and marry me without so much as a how-do-you-do. Which brings me to my next movie; you guessed it, Sleeping Beauty.
It seems almost unfair that the princess Briar Rose, aka the Sleeping Beauty, gets the film named after her when she’s really only featured in about 30% of it. The real focus of the story is the efforts of the Three Good Fairies and the dashing Prince Phillip to save and preserve this porcelain princess from the evil clutches of Maleficent. And honestly, it’s because of this that I think it’s a pretty darn good movie. By ignoring the boring princess, we get to see some daring sword play from a legitimately handsome prince who actually has some lines, and ostensibly, something to say. We see the chemistry of conflict and comedy among three enchanted women who all have their own way of doing things, and we get to here these near-Shakespearean monologues from one of the most theatrically diabolical, bad-ass villainesses to ever wield a scepter! The movie works, Tchaikovsky’s score is sweeping and will make you waltz in your living room in spite of yourself, and the medieval-inspired animation is completely mesmerizing. Oh yeah, and there’s a princess too. Shame she wasn’t really the star.
I think there is definitely a lesson for girls here about what it takes to be the star of your own story: resourcefulness, courage, perhaps a willingness to not blindly follow your parents wishes. These are the traits exhibited by the prince. And as such, is there any reason why a male can’t be a role model for women? Even from a young age, I remember being far more interested in the Prince role than his female counterpart. Let’s face it, roles for men, were and to a large extent still are just better written. Girls get to wear pretty dresses but boys get to do stuff. To that end, I remember playing pirates with my sisters just as often as I played princess. Plus merging the two was pure gold: I dressed for several years as a pirate princess because the outfit was as sexy as it was simple: black leotard + black pants + boots/old jazz shoes + cape and/or whatever pointy object that could be concealed in ones boot/jazz shoe = instant badass. We were heroes and brigands, we were chicks with stories. And no amount of tea and crumpets could substitute for that. It taught me the character traits that I would come to find attractive and winsome not only in the men I allowed into my life, but what I expected of myself if I were to be the mistress of my own destiny.
Long about the 1990’s Disney began to rethink a number of approaches to the game of animation, not the least of which was rethinking the idea of the princess. And it only took half a century for them to do it. Yay. But worth the wait I’d say. That decade produced some of our more proactive princesses. For brevity’s sake I’m going to focus on Mulan and Jasmin, mostly because I find it ironic that these women seem the most modern and feminist of all the princesses in their attitudes towards their role in society, yet in both cases they come from stories set in male dominant eastern and mid-eastern cultures. Both of them go so far as to articulate their dissatisfaction with their situation: Jasmine overhears Aladin and the Sultan discussing Aladin’s potential as marriageable material for her, at which she indignantly shouts “How dare you! Standing around deciding my future! I am not a prize to be won!” Though in fact, in many cultures even today, that’s exactly what a woman is. But it sounds great to us lucky gals in the good old modern USA! YAY! Similarly, Mulan expresses her motivation for forsaking her spot on the match makers list and joining the army. Even in the face of court marshal and abandonment, she muses “Maybe I didn’t do it for my father. Maybe I did it so when I looked in the mirror, I’d see someone worthwhile.” Even in her moment of defeat, I can’t think of a better role model for girls. Not to mention, Mulan actually got to do some kung fu and blow stuff up.
Honestly, I’m not sure why these didn’t do better at the box office. I would have thought Mulan would appeal to boys as well as girls with both an interesting main character and plenty of action. Aladin did well in the box office, but strangely enough according to polls Jasmine still never ranks among the favorite or well known princesses. Mulan I guess looses points for not being a real princess, as much as a female protagonist. But Jasmine seriously has it all! She’s beautiful, has cool outfits, is the closest thing Disney has to sexy with a PG rating, she’s smart and resourceful and regal. And she has a freakin’ tiger for a pet! Not to mention, she happens to have landed a pretty decent prince. Aladin is probably one of the most three dimensional characters ever created by Disney. He has humor, brains, flaws, a character arc, all them fancy words that make a character likable and interesting. And even better, Jasmine herself is balanced fairly evenly against him. They actually have chemistry. They are the first Disney couple that actually bothers to go on a date before they get hitched. (In fact, they managed to cram a whole Saturday morning series out of that relationship before tying the knot. I guess you’ve got time to kill if you’re waiting for a street rat to afford an engagement ring.) It is for these reasons that Aladin the movie will always remain one of my favorites and Mulan and Jasmine mah 2-D sistas.
This last one’s a bit of a stretch, but only because it’s technically Pixar, though released by Disney: The Incredibles. Worth every bit of it’s Academy Award for Best Animated feature, this movie does the best job of any I have ever seen at addressing and balancing gender roles. The stretchy, sassy Elastigirl marries the stoic and somewhat traditional Mr. Incredible, and the two of them attempt to raise a trio of super children in a world that is no longer Super-friendly. This movie does a brilliantly subtle job of exploring the roles of both the main characters and thereby explores what it means to be a man and a woman, a husband and a wife, a super and vulnerable human being. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the best stories come from being human. By exploring how Helen and Robert Parr cope with their super powers balanced against their secret identities when their family is threatened cuts at everything that makes us people. The fact that children are a part of the family and the story make it accessible to audience members of any age, and also increase that vulnerability. If super hero stories have taught us anything, it’s that having someone close to you gives your enemies leverage against you. “With great power comes great responsibility” in my opinion should read “With your first kid comes great responsibility.” But I guess that doesn’t sound as nifty. These characters go above and beyond the stand-by princess protagonist and the “I’ll save you” prince. This sentiment is solidified in the heat of the final battle when husband and wife have their own private battle (SO TRUE!). Robert tries to insist that Helen and the children flee to safety and Helen refuses, thinking Robert is motivated by selfish macho reasons. When he burst out “I can’t lose you again! I’m not strong enough!” We see every bit of fear and inadequacy revealed, at which time his beloved raises his face to hers and replies, “If we work together, you don’t have to be.” That is the essence of gender equality, and indeed true selfless heroism.
And yet this filmed was out-grossed by CARS!!!! WHY! Yes five year olds like tow trucks, but parents, you’re the ones buying this crap for them! This is what the real princess dilemma comes down to. It’s the same reason our country is facing an obesity epidemic. GIVE YOUR KIDS WHAT THEY NEED, NOT JUST WHAT THEY WANT! The same as a diet of fast food and high-fructose will result in fat children, the constant consumption of frilly dresses and tiaras will result in, well….a Kardashian. I’m not saying swear off all things Disney or even girly. I’m just saying everything in moderation. Let there be pirates as well as princesses no matter what your child’s gender. Let them have classical literature and art supplies as well as soccer balls and ballet shoes. Most importantly, talk to your kids about the things they watch and see if they’re getting the stuff out of it that you think they’re getting. Snow White may not have made me a simpering princess wannabe, but it may have made me more than reasonably frightened of snaggle-toothed old women. It’s not their fault that Medicaid doesn’t offer full dental coverage, but I’m still pretty sure they’re out to poison me with food.