Monday, October 7, 2013

How Feminist Are the Disney Princesses? (Not Much)

Like pretty much everyone of the home-video generation, I grew up on repeated viewings of Disney films. While I'm convinced that many of those films are masterpieces, as a woman and a feminist it can be really hard to swallow the female characters and particularly the princesses, especially when the Disney company seems to think the definition of feminist is "woman who sometimes speaks or does things" - a definition which actually asserts that she is alive, not feminist. It doesn't help that the princesses barely qualify as women - Cinderella is 19 or 20, Pocahontas is 18, Belle is 17, Aurora, Ariel, and Mulan are 16, Jasmine is 15, and Snow White is only 14. And nearly all of them get married at the end of the movie because child brides always live happily ever after. The princesses are all idealized personalities - modest, innocent, unselfish, sweet-tempered, virginal, and most of all, beautiful. Simply being those things doesn't automatically make them un-feminist, but do these characters have any feminist qualities? (Since I haven't seen more recent films like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, I haven't included their heroines.) 

Snow White
Snow White's primary talents are domestic - she excels at cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry and she playacts a maternal role with the dwarfs. Her sole ambition and dream is to be carried off to Prince Charming's castle where they will live happily ever after. However, she also has an unexpected strength - an ability to recover her equilibrium and positivity after traumatic events. After she runs into the woods to escape her stepmother's assassination plot, she does get hysterical, but after she's expressed her fear, she begins to think practically and figure out where she's going to sleep that night. Snow White's hopes may be entirely tied up in Prince Charming, but she shows surprising self-sufficiency in the meantime.

3 out of 10.

The most mature and even-tempered of the princesses, Cinderella is also the most confined by circumstance. While all the other princesses seem to live in relatively comfortable if not downright luxurious households, Cinderella's family fortune has been squandered and her stepmother has complete financial authority. While it may be easy to question Cinderella's submission to doing the work of a household of servants, she has no means of supporting herself outside of her stepmother's control. She is undeniably oppressed, but she is also acting responsibly within the confines of a situation dictated by the patriarchal society in which she lives. She's far from a revolutionary, but she retains a strong sense of self and finds ways of lightening her burdens through friendship. It's also interesting that Cinderella never explicitly states what her dreams are, beyond "a dream is a wish your heart makes." 

4 out of 10.

Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
Though there is a fatalistic quality to Philip and Aurora's meeting and falling in love, Aurora chooses Philip as much he chooses her, without caring about social station (fate takes a hand there) or familial obligation. Unlike in the traditional fairy tale, Aurora sees a familiar face when she wakes up, rather than being kissed (or in some versions raped) awake by a total stranger. While it is true that her dreams and ambitions are bound by romance and marriage, Philip's dreams are equally romantically and maritally focused. Ultimately Aurora is the victim and Philip the rescuer, but the dynamics of their relationship, far more egalitarian, have already been established. Aurora is almost entirely passive, following more powerful personalities, but it is worth noting that Philip is rather passive as well. He shows determination to defeat Maleficent, but he's pretty helpless without the (female) good fairies.

2 out of 10.

Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
Ariel is willing to give up everything - her family and friends, her ability to return to the only world she's ever known, her ability to speak - for the sake of a man who doesn't know she exists. The loss of her voice is crucial because it deprives her of any means of communicating complex thoughts or feelings. She is reduced to expressing only the most basic of emotions with simple gestures and facial expressions. Because of this, she is unable to form an actual relationship with Eric, continuing to hero-worship him, even as he treats her like a meaningless distraction. Although her infatuation with Eric is the catalyst for her decision to barter her voice for human legs, she had an underlying interest in exploring the human world long before she saw him and her enthusiasm for new experiences, like riding in a carriage or seeing a puppet show, stems from that enthusiasm. Her ambitions are primarily romantic, but she also has a strong desire for greater knowledge and understanding.

4 out of 10.

Belle is frequently cited as a feminist Disney heroine, due to the fact that she reads books - mountains of books. But what is she reading? Apparently, in her favorite book, "she meets Prince Charming, but she won't discover that it's him til chapter three." Reading is far from an inherently feminist pastime - novels and fairy tales are traditionally women's literature. The reading argument would only sort of make sense if she were reading philosophy or natural science or some sort of book traditionally considered suitable only for men. Belle's actions are usually reactions to her feelings for the men around her, and though she, like Ariel, is sometimes rebellious, ultimately she is a dutiful daughter and girlfriend with no ambitions of her own, despite her avowed desire for "adventure in the great wide somewhere" - that only works if by adventure she means being held prisoner in place of her beloved father by a really angry guy that she eventually marries.

3 out of 10.

The main problem with Jasmine is her stupidity. She is one dumb broad. She spends significant time crying over a boy she is told was beheaded and then, when she realizes that the prince she's dating is the same guy, she never stops to wonder, who got beheaded? How the heck did he get out of that mess? Aladdin of course describes her as smart because that would be the politically correct thing to do, but doesn't change the fact that she's stupid. Jasmine makes a lot of noise about not being "a prize to be won," which is all very nice except that that is exactly what she is. While she does choose the guy who loves her rather than the power of the sultanate, she remains the path to the throne - and the option of not getting married is never considered because the kingdom needs an heir. And by choosing Aladdin as her husband, she's also choosing him - a completely uneducated boy without any training in statesmanship - to take control of an absolutist government. Her personal choice might be smart for her, but for the sultan's subjects.... I'd be a bit concerned.

4 out of 10.

First of all, let me relieve my feelings by saying that Pocahontas is maddening - it takes a fascinating historical occurrence and comes up with a version in which Native Americans speak English and wear mini-dresses and those Europeans wouldn't have been such meanies if it weren't for Governor Ratcliffe. Now that I've got that off my chest, back to business. Pocahontas relishes her freedom and her solitude, but sees marriage as a duty to her father - "Should I marry Kocoum? Is all my dreaming at an end? Or do you still wait for me dream-giver?" The unfortunate implication is that her dreams are wrapped up in some shadowy male figure, which she eventually identifies as John Smith, who provides her with her dreams. This highly adolescent attitude posits her decision as a choice between reality and adulthood with an actual husband or an airy fairy dream-fueled mirage with an imagined ideal. In the end however, Pocahontas chooses to remain with her own people rather than leaving for England with John Smith and leaving behind everyone and everything she's ever known or loved. Her own life and happiness is tied up in her identity, rather than the man she loves.

6 out of 10.

Mulan spends most of the movie disguised as a man, strengthening her body and developing fighting skills, and taking the substantial risk of losing her life if she is discovered. In the early scenes, her tomboyishness and inability to fit in are demonstrated by her total incapacity in such traditional feminine skills as serving tea and putting on make-up. Mulan is undoubtedly the most physically formidable princess and the one most capable of taking care of herself. She doesn't abandon her familial obligations; rather, she reinterprets them to fit her own personality. Her relationship with Shang is also the most complex of the Disney repertoire of romantic couples - she and Shang develop a friendship and a brotherly bond, which only develops into romantic interest at the very end of the film. Shang does rescue Mulan at some points, but Mulan also rescues him, creating a positive reciprocal bond, with less clearly defined gender divisions. Mulan is also the only one of the princesses that's allowed to be imperfect and make a fool of herself.

7 out of 10.

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