Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The End of a (Princess) Era

Originally published in the BG News on Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Photo courtesy of Dryad & Sprite Photography under Creative Commons 3.0

Disney announced, just after the release of Tangled, it will no longer be producing fairy tales.  Translation—no more princesses.  And there are mixed feelings, even in the feminist community.
At first, there was a celebration.  Thank goodness!  No more animated representations of docile women.  No more hidden messages about traditional gender roles and hetero-normative marriage.  No more privileging whiteness or depicting women of color with white features.  No more emphasizing women’s appearances as their greatest accomplishments.   No more false idols for little girls to imitate. 
But with the false idols gone, realists wondered, would little girls have any idols at all?
Many were critical when Disney opted to call their take on Rapunzel "Tangled" and narrate the movie with a male lead who seemed to over-shadow the last princess.  However, Rapunzel’s character is more pro-active than the princesses of the past.  Yet she is remains reliant on her co-star for a rescue and a happy ending.
The final call?  Disney was still using their tried and true princess formula and the wide-eyed damsel was very much in distress.   
So let’s rejoice at the end of an era; the princess era.  Thank goodness!  No more royally-endorsed merchandise bearing the blank faces of pure evil in a sparkly, pink, hydra-like formation.  Indeed, if Belle were cut off, Jasmine and Ariel would undoubtedly grow back in her place.
For that, you can blame Mary Beech, the Vice President and General Manager of Global Studio Franchise Development for Disney Consumer Products.  It was her suggestion that the princesses should join forces—their oh-so-marketable forces.  Launched in 1999, the Disney Princess Franchise grew from a 300 million dollar industry to 3 billion dollars in 2006.  Partnered with over 200 companies, Disney capitalizes on every 2 to 5-year-old’s fantasy with universal brand awareness. 
For instance, one could very possibly wear princess pajamas and eat princess cereal while watching a princess DVD surrounded by princess dolls and accessories.  I’ve seen it happen.
If you were to wander through a toy store (which I don’t advise this time of year) you would find these women huddled together, giving Barbie a run for her money-- never mind that several of them came from different continents.  They’re totally friends and apparently they hang out all the time. 
You would also see that costumes aren’t just for Halloween anymore.  What’s wrong with little girls playing dress-up?  Well, when it comes to these princesses, they’re putting on a lot more than glass slippers and satin gloves.  They’re trying out a persona, while adopting the qualities of a flawed role model. 
Princess training, offered at the NYC World of Disney Store (now closed) emphasized teamwork, table manners, truthfulness, courtesy, compassion, curtseys and kindness.  These lessons are repeated in books, movies, music, and every product the princesses endorse.  Sounds harmless, but students are learning much more than tea party etiquette.   
Princesses are passive and obedient, not to mention dependent on others.  Even in their own lives, they’re just along for the ride.  Whether it’s a trip on a magic carpet through a whole new world or re-locating to a castle far, far away, it’s always on someone else’s terms.  They follow men on their adventures.  Without a love interest, their stories would be pretty stagnant. 
Impressionable audiences are absorbing that romantic relationships are the most important thing and love will steer one’s destiny.  Even Mulan was a warrior, but her life was not complete without a husband—her family’s biggest concern
Princesses are kind—to a fault.  In fact, a common theme is how easily these women are manipulated.  They’re pleasant, agreeable, and often taken advantage of, but never rude.  Would it be so bad to tell little girls to “think critically” rather than “follow your heart” when they have tough decisions to make?
And Princesses are always doing domestic tasks.  Even Rapunzel, who lives alone in a tower, spends every morning cleaning.  Cinderella was stuck in servitude, but sang while she scrubbed.  Snow White cleaned up after seven men she hardly knew.  Even Tiana—the only princess allowed to have a goal—worked all day and night because she wanted her own restaurant where she could wait on other people for the rest of her life.
Lastly, princesses emphasize physical appearances.  They are described in terms of their beauty and nothing else.  The fairest one of all, with the smallest feet or the longest hair makes them attractive and desirable.  Because they are pretty, good things eventually happen to them.  All they have to do is wait.
Only time will tell if the “no fairy tales” policy will leave us with a shortage of cartoon women.  The next Disney/Pixar adventure appears to be about a little boy who goes to Mars in search of his mom.  We’ll see if they send a little girl to Venus, or anywhere for that matter.

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