As the stepparent of a 6-year-old, the Disney princess marketing machine is old news to me. This article by the always-behind-the-times Newsweek pisses me off, though. Here’s part of the concluding paragraph:
Considering that “What’s Love Got to Do With It” attitude, it’s no wonder that Disney is modernizing its princess formulas.
In the new Broadway “Little Mermaid,” Ariel no longer needs Prince Eric to dispatch Ursula the sea witch; she does it herself. In 2009 the studio will debut the animated film “The Princess and the Frog,” featuring its first African-American princess (which is pretty shocking, if you think about the fact that there’s already been Asian, Native American and Arab princesses). She’s already stirred some controversy —she was originally a lowly chambermaid named Maddy, but after the blogosphere got wind of that, she was promoted to full princess and given a more regal-sounding name: Tiana. “Enchanted” (which comes out this week) offers its own extreme princess makeover. Giselle begins as your classic, animated princess. When she falls through a manhole into Times Square (where the movie switches to live action) and falls again after climbing up a billboard for a castle-themed casino, she reasons she’s always falling because, well, someone always catches her. Not in New York City, sweetheart. Giselle soon discovers that her petticoats are a pain and her saccharine personality annoys people. She gets her man, but not before she’s lost the dress and the breathy voice and learned to stand on her own feet—or at least catch herself when she falls down. “Traditionally, the female character is very strong until the last minutes of the film, and then the prince comes in and she’s saved,” says “Enchanted” director Kevin Lima. “I don’t think that’s a contemporarily responsible story. I had to give an alternate ending.” Lima wants the new message to be: “You are responsible for your own happily-ever-after.” And if that includes a Disney Fairy Tale Wedding Snow White gown, all the better.
So, after a review of the Disney princess marketing machine, this article tries to allay concerns that said marketing machine is racist, classist, sexist and generally stupefying to people who buy into it, especially if they are little girls who don’t know any better. The concluding paragraph as quoted above turns backflips in an attempt to convince readers that Disney princess culture is not a huge cause for alarm.
Disney princess culture isn’t sexist, the article argues, because, for example, the stage musical version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid has given Ariel a more active role in defeating the sea witch Ursula. She’s more assertive, not a wimpy woman at all.
No, actually, what would make The Little Mermaid less sexist would be having Ariel defeat the sea witch by herself in the first place in the damn original animated film…or by considering the novel idea that perhaps a powerful, magical, ambitious, frustrated, middle-aged female character like Ursula should not be automatically vilified, ridiculed and made into a grotesque parody.
Disney princess culture isn’t racist, the article insists, because…look! They have an African-American princess coming up in The Princess and the Frog in 2009.
No, actually, what would make Disney princess culture less racist would be, say, a little respect for the cultures they’re portraying. For example, the ancestors as venerated in Mulan could be serious characters; or they could be off-screen completely; they needn’t be slapstick caricatures. Or the Native Americans as portrayed in Pocahontas could stop having some sort of gooey, hallucinatory relationship with colored wind and talking trees, and their spiritual practices could be woven into the story with more understatement and less excuse for talking non-human characters.
Disney princess culture isn’t generally retrograde, the article tries desperately to convince us, because Enchanted provides a modern twist on the happy-ever-after ending. In Enchanted, Giselle finds that her animated air-headedness can’t stand up to reality. Also she saves the divorce lawyer before the end. That makes it all better.
No, actually, what would make Disney princess culture less retrograde would be for them to dump the pining/suffering/wedding arc that characterizes all Disney princess stories. Just because Giselle in Enchanted momentarily flexes her muscles before settling down to her wedding does not mean that the pining/suffering/wedding arc has been radically disrupted, allowing for change. Giselle’s rescue of the divorce lawyer represents a superficial concession to reality, brains and general feminist agitation. There is no wholesale examination and revamping of the inherent passivity and stupidity of the tropes. Enchanted is NOT “contemporarily responsible.” It’s just a tired old retread.
“You are responsible for your own happily-ever-after.” And if that includes a Disney Fairy Tale Wedding Snow White gown, all the better.
This conclusion disturbs me. It implies that happily-ever-after does exist and is achievable. Furthermore, it suggests that participating in the Disney princess culture helps a person achieve said happy ending. But, as we’ve seen, Disney princess culture is a seething boil of sexism, racism, classism and general hebetation. It may purport to be liberating, hip, empowering and cool, but it is not. It is merely dressing up sexist, racist, classist stupidity in an appealing guise so that people will think that Disney princess culture represents the road to happiness and therefore consume more Disney princess products and increase Disney’s capital.
There is no happily-ever-after. There is only life. Happily-ever-after is not achieved by consuming Disney princess products because there’s no happily-ever-after to achieve in the first place. Thus, Disney princess products are merely a part of life. Their consumption does not lead to happiness. I do not deny that their consumption may bring pleasure to people; I do, however, vehemently dispute the assumption that consumption of Disney products causes lifelong personal fulfillment and deep satisfaction. They do not. No product does. In fact, consumption of Disney princess products can lead to distress, unhappiness and a dead-end state in a mire of racism, classism, sexism and stupidity…if one does not develop a critical intelligence about the hidden goals of the Disney corporate conglomerate.
So that’s the key, folks. Examine; criticize, and provide alternatives.
P.S. For bonus nausea [and possibly VOMITING!!!!!], note that the 2009 Princess and the Frog is set in New Orleans. Cue the sassy Southern mammy stereotype, the comic and subhuman speaker of Cajun creole, not to mention the stupid, ignorant, stereotyped jokes about voodoo [more properly called Voudon, I think]. Extra bingo points for gratuitous depiction of New Orleans as some sort of swingin’ place full of cheerful Stepin Fetchits just groovin’ to the wild rhythms of that racy, “uncivilized,” “wild” jazz.
P.P.S. For a bonus bonus, read Deborah Siegl’s review of Enchanted, which uses the movie as a case study to argue many of the points I bring up here.