Princess Pressure: Why Today’s Disney Heroine is Stressed Out
By now, most movie-savvy people are aware that Disney/Pixar’s Brave is coming out this summer. The movie looks to throw a mystical twist on the rather predictable “strong-willed female struggles against her conventional societal role” theme, made all the more enticing by the heroine’s amazingly rendered red hair (almost rivaling Ariel’s…almost), a menacing monocular bear, and the hysterical fact that Billy Connolly is in a Disney movie. It sounds cliché but if you know anything about the guys at Pixar, re-imagining the same old story is their forte. So there’s a good chance the movie will deliver on the entertainment front, at the same time presenting a strong female role model in the process. However, it also begs the question of where does this shield maiden belong in the pink pantheon of the Disney Princess? Brave’s robust red-head illustrates the struggle that these characters currently face between the messages of their movies and the marketing that makes them icons.
The funny thing about this situation is that it wouldn’t have existed when I was little. There was no such thing as a Disney Princess; there was just The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, etc. But now the princesses are a commercial juggernaut, inextricably linked to each other in some sort of ever-enduring cosmic tea party.
But as books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter point out, in the last ten to fifteen years, marketing execs saw the goldmine they had in these enduring stories and put them in an irresistible glittering pink bow. Now, I’m going to completely circumvent the whole “what is this doing to our children” aspect of the situation: as Dexter would say, “Child rearing isn’t METAL!” so I’ll stay away from that subject. But people who did worry about the children, well, worried about the children and the fact that they were being bombarded with flowery femininity. It made the masses clamor for a healthier female example in their animated movies.
Enter Tiana and The Princess and the Frog. Here’s an ethnic, hard-working, diligent young woman, an entrepreneur, whose last thought is a knight in shining armor (though she does conveniently end up with a prince for a husband, of course). Great, right? Wrong. I hate to say it but, the truth is Tiana is boring. God, three years later that still hurts my heart! She was the answer to a lot of hoping for me: 2D animation and a lead character that I could be for Halloween! Score! But laden down with all that responsibility, Tiana turned out to be a stick in the mud. Even with Anika Noni Rose’s awesome voice behind her, Tiana fell behind Naveen, her prince, and a fricking lightning bug for most memorable character in her own movie! She openly admits to not wanting fun or adventure, just saving receipts and clipping coupons. Trust me, “Tiana’s 1924 Tax Return Kit” was not a big seller. So what did they do? Assimilate her! Even though Tiana was everything a female role model should be, they still dolled her up in her sparkly finest and sold her as the newest Disney Princess. Nothing relating to her desire for her own restaurant, nothing about her passion for food (yep, Tia teaches Naveen how to mince! Ugh, so fricking boring): just tea sets, costumes, and clothes with her smiling face on them. Somehow, even though she was an independent and responsible character with a good message and a ridiculous belt, she still ended up another mass-produced princess.
So what’s a girl to do? If you’re female, royal or marry into royalty, and star in a Disney movie, it’s the glitter guillotine. Look at Rapunzel: That hair, those eyes? She didn’t stand a chance. But I think there is hope for reprieve, though it’s a little sappier than I’d like. I think the saving grace for all these characters is that at the end of the day, their movies are still very good and, more than that, have little to none of the kind of pink patter that saturates their merchandise. Get this: Ariel, Belle, and Cinderella are never referred to as “princess” in their movies. Jasmine’s a supporting character in Aladdin. Aurora doesn’t know she’s a princess until the last quarter of her movie. And even Snow White, though her voice is the stuff of nightmares, is never shown as royalty: first she’s in rags, then she does get dressed up only to be led to her would-be murder, then ends up cleaning house in the middle of the woods. Hell, put that way, it’s sounds like a Tarantino flick.
In the films made before the Princess line, these ladies organically supported education, wit, acceptance, self-confidence, and innovation. Strangely, the re-marketing the characters brought audience concern, which writers had to pander to in the movies, making the characters for the audience and not the plot. It’s a monster of their own making. But before this vicious cycle started, there were only the stories and those were unquestionably good. It’s much easier to shape a character to a solid plot than the fickle demands of the masses. Moral of the story: As long as the story-telling is the main catalyst for the characters, no amount of sparkle can tarnish them. Honestly, does the thought of a Disney Princess cookbook stop you when you make a Facebook status about Aladdin coming on ABC Family. Thought not.
So what advice can I give to Merida, warrior princess of Brave? Stick to your guns, girl…or arrows, whatever kind of weaponry you have. Trust the story and tell it well and we’ll respect you for that no matter what. Now if the story sucks, well…then, you’ve earned your place on the back of those Pampers pull-ups.