Thursday, February 3, 2011

Anissa Defends the Kingdom

In the midst of Peggy Orenstein's insightful book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, I will remind you that I have stated my case against those troublesome Disney Princesses here, here and here.

But now I present you with a different opinion, in favor of the royal pains, by my friend who likes to disagree with me.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user serena_in_VA under Creative Commons 3.0

A guest post by Anissa Mahmood, who is "in the princesses' corner."

We all know the argument: Disney is an evil corporation, corrupting society by marketing racist and sexist animated films (fairy-tales, as they are often called) to children. Disney's female roles, which mostly consist of princesses (or princesses-to-be) are pure cartoon evil.

Helpless young ladies suffer through the most unthinkable circumstances in their quests to find (and keep) true love, exemplifying gender-normative women in their most genuine form; soft, feminine and frail.

Or are they?

Call me crazy, but there’s something to be said for the princesses and against continuing to bash them as anti-feminist femme fatales.

The first few generations of Disney Princesses (you know, the white ones) get plenty of flack for their wimpy, damsel-in-distress attitudes. Snow White, the pioneer princess and "fairest of them all," not to mention exceptional housekeeper, had to be rescued by her prince.

So did Sleeping Beauty—also living rather commonly in the woods. And again, with Cinderella, and the maid status.

Ugh. How dare they marry up when girls had plenty of other opportunities to elevate their socioeconomic status in medieval times. They should stand up for themselves, have dreams of their own, and live adventurous lives without the help of men.

Obviously Disney had an agenda here.

Sarcasm aside, what we're really making an argument against is fairy-tales. Tales are rooted in folklore. Tales nestled deep in a patriarchal history. While the stories are problematic, there’s no sense blaming Disney.

Watch any film from the era of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (film noir, anyone?) and misogyny is a common theme. But Disney didn't invent patriarchy or fairy-tales or love stories.

The films are merely a reflection of the times, not the other way around.

Fast-forward to third wave territory and the majority of Disney's movies featured non-whites. Disney doesn't get any points here because they white-washed the characters and played on racial stereotypes-- but these were the baddest bitches any fairy-tale could ever want.

These women didn't need love--they chose it.

Jasmine was an Arabian princess destined to marry a stuck-up prince. What did she do? Well, she was certainly "not a prize to be won." She stuck to her guns and married for love, breaking tradition and the caste system.

She got an entire law changed. If anything, that’s a story arguing against classism.

And Pocahontas?  She fell in love with a white man and suddenly she’s blamed for the colonization of America. However, I vividly recall the obvious moral-- we are all people and shouldn’t be divided along racial lines.

Both races were trying to kill each other and Pocahontas became the peacekeeper, showing them the error of their ways. How is this a poor representation of women?

And please forgive Disney for re-writing the history of United States colonialism as it makes a terrible love story.

But let's not forget about Ariel and Belle-- the misfits. Yeah, they were white, but definitely "different" by traditional standards.

Ariel was the wild adventurer who wanted to explore the world outside of her watery home. Unfortunately, everything got a little crazy when she fell for that Eric guy, but that’s what happens when you take a leap of faith and stop at nothing to achieve a silly goal.  

(Can you tell she is my least favorite princess?).

And then there’s Belle, the nerdy bookworm who reformed a beastly prince. Belle: using her kindness and intelligence to change the world one cold heart at a time.

How about Mulan? She joined the army, disguised as a man, to spare her father. She clearly did not fit the gender-normative world of her parents, but showed them she was an amazingly courageous person.

Ta-da! A girl doesn't need to be feminine to be a hero!

Oh, but wait, she is stereotypical because she falls in love at the end.

So what’s with this love stuff, anyway? I don't know about you, but I'm starting to see a trend.

Are we saying falling in love is anti-feminist because it makes us weak and dependent on men?  I think we are confusing different concepts.

Yes, falling in love makes us vulnerable, but I don't think we can downplay fierce female figures just because they "screwed themselves over" by enjoying a little romance.

These ladies were awesome all on their own and finding male companions didn't change that. I don't consider love to be inherently anti-feminist, so princesses finding lifelong companions shouldn’t revoke their badass-ery.

And lucky them, falling into the arms of men who supported their non-traditional endeavors and loved them unconditionally—because really, shouldn't we be worried about male characters as role models in these movies too?

We are giving Disney way too much credit for children internalizing gender stereotypes.  It’s everywhere. And the princesses of the last two decades were the strongest female characters appearing in animated children's movies.

I am not saying kids can’t absorb gender norms from Disney's princess films. I just think kids tend to focus on the moral messages aimed directly at them--NOT the sociological problems hyper-sensitive adults see.

The princesses are pieces of the whole, used to tell audiences that love conquers all.

And Disney’s damage is mild compared to others.

If you want to be angry, watch an episode of Entourage or Gossip Girl. Study their female characters. Notice how modern young women are portrayed and treated in these shows. 

What messages are they sending?

Or you can take a romp through tween erotica with the Twilight saga. If you are getting a stomachache, you’re probably digesting the concept. Pop culture can be a destructive force, but we have to pick our battles.

Everyone huffed and puffed about Disney until the corporation gave up on fairy-tales. Now what do we have? Movies about robots, toys, aliens, cars, and monsters. I guess we won the battle against femininity in the children's film industry.

Now what are we left with?


  1. Wow. Well said. I don't agree, but you make a strong case.

    Jasmine: Sure, she was tough. She swung from rooftops after all. I still think however,that even though she chose who she wanted to marry and broke through the caste system, the overall message of the movie is 'marriage'. She has no other options. She is 'protected' from the world and not allowed to leave the castle. It perpetuates the idea that no matter how old a woman gets, everyone gets a say about what she should or should not do. She submits to her father wanting to keep her trapped in the home. She get's put back in her place. Okay, she got to pick who she married, but she hardly had any other choices in life.

    Pocahontas: Never saw it, so I feel weird talking about it.

    Ariel:Wants to explore the world. Meets a man. Decides this is where she wants to stop. She looses her voice. She has to use her body, because she cannot express her mind through vocab. She silences herself in oder to get a man. All highly problematic.

    Mulan: Again, never saw it.

    Personally, I am glad that the princess films are done. What is wrong with young girls being into robots (science), toys (development), aliens (looking beyond our self-centeredness), cars (math, engineering, design), or monsters (creativity)??

    I am glad if femininity becomes downplayed and outdated. I'm not saying we all need to walk around smelling like testosterone, but, lets be allowed to be human- and not perpetually performing the socially constructed roles we are continuously spoon fed.

  2. I know how to settle this...
    Hold on while I fill this wading pool with jell-o.