Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Fairytale or feminism?

Love them or loathe them, Disney Princesses have defined generations

Written by Olga White

When I was a very young child and watching the Disney Classics for the first time, I had a deep hatred of Snow White for a number of reasons, not least my irrational fear of people with dark hair (which I had to get over before attending infant school). I can also remember disliking her high pitched and simpering voice, but by far my least favourite thing about Snow White was her lack of character.

It irritated me how she never seemed to make decisions for herself. Come to think of it, she never really made any decisions, except the woefully bad one to take food from a stranger. She also seemed to reinforce the idea that beauty meant perfection, and anyone who was not flawlessly beautiful was automatically evil.

The next Disney princess, Cinderella, was a slight variation on the Snow White theme. Thankfully for my three-year-old self, she was strawberry blonde, and the high voice had lowered slightly, but they shared a talent for cleaning and a liking for being told what to do, as well as a close friendship with animals and near identical taste in men. Her main philosophy was that if she remained hopeful, she would be able to leave her current life behind, but she never tried to change things for herself. She instead waited for someone else to come along and change them for her, shadowing Snow White’s mantra: ‘Some day my Prince will come’.

Sleeping Beauty had a surprisingly small amount of screen time for a title character, and when she was on screen, she barely did anything but sing and frolic in the woods. Even the Disney Company was stuck for adjectives to describe her, settling for ‘responsible’, ‘obedient’ and ‘beautiful’. Is this really a character? Being responsible is something you have to be when taking care of a younger sibling, not a character attribute, ‘beautiful’ refers simply to her looks, and ‘obedient’ indicates a lack of character rather than creating one.

I’m not necessarily saying that the Classic Disney Princesses are bad role models. On the contrary, they are all kind, selfless and morally good people. They’re indicative of the times: Snow White and Cinderella epitomised the time when women were supposed to be meek and mild, and more independent and outspoken princesses like Mulan and Pocahontas appeared in the mid to late 1990s, when Girl Power was at its peak. Pocahontas sacrifices the love of her life because her people need her more than he does; understanding like no Disney princess before her that finding a husband (preferably royal) is not the goal women should be reaching for. Mulan defies a country that compartmentalises women as wives and mothers to become their greatest war hero. The Disney Princesses don’t oppress women, forcing them to become a warped ideal with a terrifyingly small waist: they mirror the women of the time, what they want to be and the characteristics they aspire to.

So what do our current Disney Princesses say about young women of our time? What are girls now aspiring to be? The most recent addition to the Disney Princess franchise is Rapunzel, an adventurous yet innocent princess who takes her future into her own hands, in marked contrast to her predecessors. And 2009’s ‘The Princess and the Frog’ stars the career-minded, hardworking Tiana, the first African-American Disney Princess, who dreams of becoming a chef.

According to Disney, this is the type of character that young women nowadays can be defined: someone smart, determined and courageous, but kind and compassionate, who is the heroine of her own story.

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