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Friday, December 19, 2014

Are Disney Princesses Finally Becoming Real Women?

In a stroke of marketing genius, Andy Mooney, Disney's chairman of Consumer Products, created the Disney Princess line in 2000 after observing several young girls dressed in generic princess attire while attending a Disney on Ice production. Mooney pulled together the female leads of several of the animated movie franchises, including the classics created under Walt Disney's supervision, the revival under Michael Eisner's leadership of the corporation, and CGI creations under John Lassiter as the former head of Pixar and the new head of Disney's animated division.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, each man brought his conceptions of womanhood to the drawing board. Walt Disney took classic fairy tales that were often brutal and bloody and toned them down for family consumption. He also reflected American cultural beliefs that "good" women should seek out marriage and children. The movies involving Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora (aka "Sleeping Beauty") all end with the title character's marriage to a prince.

Because of the poor reception and low box office take of Sleeping Beauty, Walt didn't tackle another fairy tale. While there's no proof of any connection, one has to wonder if the infancy of 60's counter-culture movements didn't have some effect on Sleeping Beauty's box office. It was released in January of 1959, the same month Castro and his forces took over Cuba. Sixteen months later, the first contraceptive pill was approved by the FDA. The HEA endings didn't make sense to a generation of women taking control of their lives.

It wasn't until Michael Eisner became the head of the Disney corporation in 1984 that the company tackled another animated fairy tale. To his credit, Eisner tried to return to the artforms the company was best remembered for as well as expand the corporation's holdings. The result was an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid.

Disney's Princess Ariel was far more feisty than her predecessors. However, she still need to be rescued from the villain by her love interest, Prince Eric. The studio finally broke the "heroine only looking for love" mold with Belle in Beauty and the Beast, but the movie still ended with her falling in love with a prince.

The successive princesses (Mulan is included by the company even though she's of common birth, as is her love interest Li Shang) showed more spunk, more independence, but at the conclusion of each story, the princess in question finds romantic love. Even in Tangled, Rapunzel ends up married to Eugene, a pardoned thief, even though she showed more realistic traits of an emotional abused teenager. In addition, she's the first to take the initiative to escape her psychological imprisonment.

The first time a princess walks into the proverbial sunset without a man on her arm was Merida of the Disney/Pixar film Brave. In fact, she rejects all of her suitors, much to their relief. The three princes didn't want to be forced into a loveless marriage any more than she did.

Merida also broke the Disney mold of one or more dead parents. While her dad loses a leg in a bear attack in the first few minutes of the movie and her mom is turned into a bear later, both of Merida's parents remain alive through the movie.

The primary issue in the story was the normal tension between a teen and her biological mother, an issue neither Disney nor Pixar have dealt with in their animated movies. For once this wasn't about a guardian or parental figure abusing the heroine or out-and-out plotting her murder. Queen Elinor sincerely wants what's best for Merida, but fails to see the person her daughter has become. Merida feels stifled by her mother's constant demands of royal propriety.

I think breaking the normal plot molds of Disney is the one of the real reasons Brave received so many negative reviews when the film was first released. However, thoughts concerning the movie shifted when Disney announced they were adding Merida to the Princess line. The artwork for packaging and the new doll changed Merida from a small-breasted, adolescent tomboy with frizzy hair to a voluptuous woman with well-tamed and styled hair. The new princess aroused the ire of many feminists, and worse, mothers. A petition was started on Change.org, and Disney returned Merida to the original Pixar version. [Disclosure: As one of the pissed-off mothers, I signed the petition.]

The backlash of the petition and the support from subsequent reviewers seemed to sink through the brains of the Disney executives. Maleficent, the live-action retelling of Sleeping Beauty, takes elements of the mother/daughter relationship and uses that love to save the princess rather than romantic love as in the original animated version. It also takes the unusual step of displaying a metaphorical drugged date rape and subsequently punishing the rapist. Further, the hero refused to take advantage of Aurora when she was unconscious. Finally, Maleficent and Aurora work together to save themselves.

Frozen, Disney's latest animated film, also manages to avoid the romance-as-female-safety trap. The princesses Elsa and Anna save each other through the power of their sisterly love. In fact, one romantic interest derides Anna for her desperate wish for any kind of love and how easily she was manipulated because of it.

So has Disney caught up with the 21st century? Three movies does not a pattern make. But I believe the Disney execs will listen to the people who generally buy gifts for the children in the family. And frankly, we buyers are tired of the helpless female meme. I was tired of it when I was growing up in the '70's. And it's definitely a meme I don't want my son indoctrinated in.

What happens next?

That's really up to Disney if they want my money. I still have a couple of underage nieces and my future granddaughters to buy for. If Disney can't keep it's act together, then I'll be buying a lot of Wonder Woman merchandise as gifts.

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