Disney’s Princesses Have Grown Up…A Little

February 3, 2014 · Print This Article

Warning: In this piece I talk about movies. I’m not sure what it has to do with art. Also, if you haven’t seen the Disney films Brave and Frozen, and you care about knowing what happens in them, you might go watch them before reading this.

Taking a look at American popular culture, originality looks to be on the decline. We live in the age of the remake, the cover, the mashup. Doesn’t a lot of new music sound like shitty covers of old music? (Or perhaps we’re just getting old; does every generation live its whole life thinking music hit its zenith when they themselves were teenagers, a cycle of criticism that repeats itself with each new generation?)

The problem appears most acute in cinema, and I’m not talking here about independent or foreign film, but in mainstream Hollywood. Not film, but movies. “Reboot” has become a household word in an entirely different context than restarting a computer; a series of movies is now a “franchise.” Star Trek and Spiderman have run through enough sequels that they just started over again at the beginning. Total Recall, Judge Dredd, and now Robocop have been subjected to entirely unnecessary (though in the case of Judge Dredd, interesting; Total Recall not so much) remakes. And even the “new” movies are just combinations of the old: Vampire Academy might as well be titled Twilight Goes To Hogwarts. The Legend of Hercules looks like 300 meets Gladiator, and while that sounds awesome, it’s not. Not at all.

I have been pleasantly surprised, then, to find some original storytelling in an unexpected place: Disney princess movies. I know, I know. I’m as skeptical of Der Maus as the rest of you, and deeply appreciated the humor (with a rich undercurrent of biting satire) in the Charnel House’s recent in-house production of…take a minute to appreciate this title…They Saved Hitler’s Brain…And Put It In Walt Disney. Hilarious play, so perfect. Performance was excellent. And when a company has such a stranglehold on a genre, when fairy tales have become synonymous with the company’s animated version and the originals, compiled from folk legends (mostly German) by the brothers Grimm, almost totally forgotten…Disney is an easy company to hate.

In its princesses, particularly, Disney has a long history of perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and standards of beauty, in this movies (and tie-in merchandise) marketed to young girls. Ariel looks like you could snap her in half at the waist. Jasmine…I’ve never asked a Middle Eastern woman what they think of her, but I can imagine it’s similar to how some ethnic Persians responded to seeing their race depicted in 300. Overall, the characters have been overly frail, meek, and utterly dependent on the male characters with whom they were besotted. Romantic love, we are told, is the woman’s…well, then adolescent girl’s, sole reason for existence. (The depictions have generally given us the idea that anyone who isn’t married by seventeen is an old maid.)

I’m making broad generalizations here, and to be sure, there are exceptions. In fact, I make these generalizations specifically to call attention to a couple of these exceptions. While still perhaps imperfect, the last two Disney princesses (that I’ve seen) have been markedly better role models.

The first was Merida, from 2012’s Brave. A female co-director (Brenda Chapman) may have played some role in the film’s treatment of its heroine, whose development included a lot of work on her relationship with her mother. The usual plot, of beautiful (basically skinny) princess meets handsome (muscular with a jaw like the 1998 version of Godzilla: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120685/) prince, is totally absent. In fact, while the common trope of an undesired-by-the-princess arranged betrothal is, as is often the case, the starting point of the film, Merida rejects the idea not in favor of a preferable relationship (usually based on superficial attractiveness) but rather to live her own independent life. Of all the Disney princesses, Merida was the first with whom I could really identify: strong, independent, a believable young woman, and with a more realistic body type than the usual sequined Barbie doll…at least until Disney fucked it up by tarting her up like JonBenét Ramsey (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/08/merida-brave-makeover_n_3238223.html).

More recently, Frozen (still in theaters as of this writing) took an even more subversive twist on the usual princess-meets-prince story. I’ll warn you again, this plot has some twists and turns, and I’m about to discuss them, so if you haven’t seen it, and would rather not hear what happens, turn back now. While Brave was essentially a mother-daughter story, about a girl who wasn’t ready to settle down yet, Frozen was more of a sister story. And, while the protagonist of Brave wasn’t ready for a relationship, the princess in Frozen (like many young women) was all too eager to settle down.

There are actually two princesses in Frozen: the older, Elsa, who has crazy ice-magic, and the younger, Anna. The movie is essentially a story of the two sisters growing apart, and then the younger sister falling in love, and then everything going to shit. But a few interesting things happen along the way. The first is, when Anna announces that she’s in love, Elsa says what is perhaps the smartest thing any Disney princess has ever said: “You can’t marry someone you just met.” Fucking A. And what’s more, and here’s the spoiler, Elsa’s not just being an unromantic bitch here. She’s absolutely right. The dude, Hans, while apparently quite handsome and charming (the picture of a Disney prince), he turns out to be a scheming, murderous prick. Along the way, Anna meets a rough-around-the-edges type, Kristoff, who seems perfectly placed to take Hans’ place as Anna’s beloved. But that’s not quite how it plays out. It’s complicated, but basically the endgame is that the two sisters’ love for each other wins out, and romantic love takes a back seat. I was disappointed, of course, that the movie didn’t end with Hans killing Anna and then Elsa flipping her shit in a Carrie-like rage, impaling everyone present on giant stabby icicles of blood, but then…there’s a reason I don’t write for Disney.

Like Brave, Frozen is ultimately a feel-good kids movie, the kind of nepenthe parents administer to shut the kids up for an hour and a half, but that’s inherent to the medium. As kid-fodder go, Brave and Frozen are better than most of their predecessors. Is there a greater lesson here, for those of us outside the field of making animated films for children? Hell, I don’t know. But I’ll say this: Frozen gets a hell of a lot better once it’s been run through the creative filter of the Internet, which has already yielded two excellent spinoffs: the movie’s “hit single,” Let It Go, being performed in a plethora of languages (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALUVJ_tyQ-E), beating Coke’s Superbowl commercial to the punch, and clips from the film rendered hilarious through the unnecessary censorship of innocuous lines of dialog (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0v7rFSUrGE).

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