Friday, November 16, 2012

Four Anti-Feminist Disney Princesses....and Why They Deserve a Break

Modern audiences have advocated feisty, role-model worthy female protagonists for films directed at little girls, citing the Disney Classic Princess canon as examples of female passivity on film, exacerbating being pretty, getting married, and waiting for a prince to rescue them from their admittedly crappy lives as worthy female goals. Starting with Beauty and the Beast in 1991, the female heroines of Disney films became more proactive, with Belle assisting in her own rescue, followed by Jasmine doing the same in 1992's Aladdin, Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998), where the heroines serve as the actual action girls, rounding out with Tianna (The Princess and the Frog, 2009), Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010), and Pixar's Merida (Brave, 2012) being the most active, fully-rounded characters in the pantheon of Disney heroines. However, the trend starters for Disney's Princess films were stronger and more vivacious characters than modern audiences give them credit for, and deserve some recognition for their more admirable qualities:

1. Aurora (Sleeping Beauty, 1959)

Sleeping Beauty is criticized most often for "First Guy Wins", in that, having been rescued from the evil sorceress/ dragon Maleficent by Prince Phillipe, Princess Aurora marries him, despite the fact that he's a total stranger and perpetuates the idea that women are prizes earned for acts of bravery.

Why She Deserves a Break
Phillip isn't a total stranger to Aurora. Back when she was still known as Briar Rose, he showed up in the forest while she was waxing poetic about the prospect of meeting a prince and falling in love, and the two of them had a brief flirtation:

Once Upon A Dream

Granted, it's no leading an army or single-handedly defeating the Big Bad, but at least Aurora was in puppy love for the guy, which is a sight better than the original fairy tale, wherein the prince wins the princess just for the kiss, her feelings be damned. Aurora and Phillip are also betrothed to marry anyway, to unite their kingdoms, which again seems way too close to the idea of "Free Princess with Purchase" before acknowledging that Phillip is also being used as a political pawn, and has to marry her regardless of his feelings on the subject. He has to work for it too, as Sleeping Beauty apparently doesn't deem a kiss as sufficiently heroic and requires that Phillip be imprisoned, fight through a thorn maze, and slay a dragon, which at least has him do more to earn his happy ending than his spiritual predecessor Prince NoName from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Speaking of...

2. Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937)
Poor Snow White. It really is a curse to be so beautiful. Her stepmother is all set to kill her over her delicate, unwrinkled features, leaving her running for her life in the harsh wilderness of an untamed forest in an imminently impractical ball gown. The huntsman does spare her life because she's so pretty, which must be why she's so cheerfully singing with woodland creatures while she does free menial labor for a house full of strange men, because women, if they're not making babies, are only good for cooking and cleaning.

Why She Deserves a Break
First of all, it's not free menial labor. She's paying for room and board using her specific skill set, which given that she's royalty, it's amazing she has even basic cleaning skills. Plus, take a look at the dwarves' cottage:

Whistle While You Work

That place is NASTY! She's not rearranging a stack of books and putting away laundry, she's making a sticky, unhygienic hole into a livable, healthy home. That's a basic survival skill, finding or creating a serviceable shelter when you're lost. And, she's assembled a workforce, dictating tasks according to each animal's abilities and showcasing impressive managerial skills, which is more than can be said for another princess who talks to animals...

3. Cinderella (Cinderella, 1950)
Cinderella has no ambitions except one night of fancy fun at the prince's ball. It's the only thing she looks forward to in her life, and she will gladly work as a slave in her own home without benefit of a decent bed or food just for the possibility of attending. Yank away that one shining dream, and be prepared for her to....accept defeat tearfully but quietly. Cinderella does literally nothing for herself. Without the intervention of her fairy godmother and her animal friends, she wouldn't have even had the chance at the ball she so desperately wants to attend, and only the prince getting smitten over her rescues her from a life of drudgery, which apart from that one night, she never even aspired to escape.

Why She Deserves a Break
Cinderella is basically a victim of psychological abuse. She's completely at the mercy of her stepmother, and has been since the death of her father when she was very young. She works as a slave in her own household (watch Downton Abbey sometime to get a scope of how many people are needed to clean and maintain a house that size. The movie makes it clear that, with the exception of mice and birds, Cinderella is taking on that load herself), and has no ambition for freedom and escape because it's the only life she knows. And despite outward appearances, Cinderella is no candy- coated personification of sugar-sweetness:

A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes

Pay attention to the lyrics. She's clearly miserable about her lot in life, but so dejected and beaten down that the fight has gone out of her, and her dreams are all she has to keep her on the healthy side of sane. Having a fanciful dream to fantasize about is her coping mechanism, a device employed by abuse victims the world over. It's hard to aspire to great things when getting through the day is a monumental physical and mental chore. She should be applauded for getting out of bed every day in her position, unlike other heroines who have a stronger foundation for ambition...

4. Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989)
The youngest daughter of the Sea King has all the powers and privileges of the ruling family of the ocean, giving up her culture, power, exploratory freedom, and species to join an alien world to be with a man who loves her so much he can't tell the difference between her and a nominally similar looking sorceress who doesn't even have the same hair color. In the ocean, she's even free to pursue research on a foreign creature, with the caveat that she not directly fraternize with the seemingly dangerous subject of her study, a privilege that is rescinded when she breaks that rule. On land, she can't talk and she brushes her hair with a fork, showing once again that having a man is paramount.

Why She Deserves a Break
Ariel is truthfully the bravest princess in the Disney pantheon. The movie makes it clear that her fascination with human culture predates the events of the film, and she is the most knowledgable merperson on the subject of humanity's qualities, for good and ill. She has the bravery to defy her father specifically because she knows better what the dangers of being near humans are. She wanted to join the human world before she even met Prince Eric:

Part of Your World

She's intellectually and scientifically curious about events and ephemera that she simply cannot experience under water. Further, she doesn't actually attempt to join humanity until her father destroys all of her artifacts, research, and laboratory, giving her the option to "go native", or forever give up her dream to understand the human world. Given the opportunity to do hands on research, she was willing to physically maim herself to achieve her goal. Jane Goodall would consider her a badass, without even factoring in the idea that her pioneering mission to join humanity was a radical step towards eradicating racism between merfolk and people, and broadening the horizons of both groups. Ariel is not a fantasy princess, but a political one. 

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