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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.

Disney Princess Tea Party

These petits fours went stale nineteen years ago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Aquisha

5 responses

  1. Pingback: Ridiculously Awesome New Feature: A little Tete-a-Tete! « The Ridiculously Awesome Movie Adventure Blog

  2. This is a very good discussion of a problem that kind of annoys me. I don’t mind the Disney princesses when they’re in their original movies (except for Ariel, who is a brat always, and Tiana, who is boring), but Disney marketing is puke-inducing.

    Although, I was actually expecting you to talk more about why the “modern” princesses since Ariel are always so tense and stressed and bitter, in their attempt to appeal to “hip” youngsters and be “strong,” when the original princesses were much more well-adjusted and mature. Perhaps that’s material enough for several posts, though.

    I too was disappointed by The Princess and the Frog. I had so hoped for a new renaissance in 2D animation, and while the landscapes were very pretty, the story let the visuals down. Disney deliberately chose a story, setting, and heroine far outside of their usual range, but then they crammed their normal formula into it, and nothing really fit well. I went into the movie very optimistic, but hardly smiled at all while watching it. The characters were annoying or just bland, the songs okay but uninspiring, and everything was just…flat. Very sad about that.

    *sigh* Well, we’ll always have the classics.

    14/04/2012 at 02:24

    • aquisha

      I love Disney movies and have more opinions on them than most adults should have, so I had to stand up for the “Princesses” when it comes to their character. I must say, I disagree that modern princess are more tense than their predecessors, or I can at least defend them if they are. The more modern movies go into more depth and detail about the characters than those before them. The writers had more time to delve into problems and conflict than they had in the 50s when audiences just wanted to see a cute story with singable songs. Disney was stretching what audiences expected from animation with a lot of what we’d now call “the princess” movies and a major part of that was building deeper characters. The princesses seeming stressed is just because we get to see more of them and how they react to their circumstances. So, what I’m saying is, yes they are definitely more put upon than princesses before them, but I think it’s justifiable since they have a heavier load to bear.

      16/04/2012 at 19:24

      • It’s true that the older princesses in the canon don’t get as much character development as the later princesses, but character development doesn’t have to equal angst. The older princesses went through just as much hardship, if not more!, than the later ones, but they didn’t whine as much. Snow White sings about wanting a true love, but never complains about her evil stepmother or having to board with seven smelly dwarves. Cinderella is the picture of patience and love, even towards her abusive step-family. Aurora—well, Aurora doesn’t complain much either, but then she doesn’t say hardly anything at all. Ariel, on the other hand, is a spoiled princess who basically brings her problems on herself; Belle is much nicer, but doesn’t suffer more than the older princesses; Mulan certainly isn’t abused like Snow White or Cinderella were; nor is Jasmine, who seems pretty good at getting what she wants from the Sultan despite his insistence that she marry…

        Anyway, my point is just that modern Disney could easily have written Ariel, Belle, Mulan, Jasmine, Ti’ana, etcetera as very deep, interesting characters, without making them all uniformly social rebels troubled with angst. (In fairness, Belle is pretty relaxed, despite being a little snobbish, and I do have some respect for Mulan, though she still complains too much.)

        But I guess my real complaint isn’t so much towards just Disney as it is towards some general trends in Hollywood as a whole. Angry protagonists are in, well-adjusted ones aren’t so much. And truly, I do like quite a few of their ’90s animated canon.

        16/04/2012 at 20:35

  3. Merry

    I really, really agree with your statements. I was really excited for a return to 2D and a black princess (or just a black heroine). And while the movie had some great moments (Dr. Facilier is my favorite disney Villian) I was ultimately disappointed in the film. It lacked the epic feel I hope for in a Disney film, and felt too manufactured and lacking in passion. And I was really disappointed that I couldn’t love Tiana more.
    It feels, because of this princess thing, and their first black princess to boot, a huge amount of pressure was put on the studio to make her fit a certain mold- she had to be feminine and a ‘classic princess’, but also a good, independent role model. That doesn’t sound so hard, but I feel like the studio buckled under outside pressure. They needed her to not be ‘lazy,’ but she needed some sort of human flaw, so they made her a workaholic, and in the process of doing that, a stick in the mud-, which really made her stand out in a negative way in her environment: fun loving New Orleans. She had this wish for the restaurant, but I felt like she was lacking an underlying passion- I was hoping to see her in the mold of Pocohontas, as much as she is criticized.
    She and Naveen did develop a relationship, but it felt like the ‘princess’ title and the fancy ballgown were just slapped on her in the end so she would fit the second end goal of shoe-horning her into the Disney princess pantheon. While there was so much beautiful art, and a lot of feeling on the part of the creators, the overall product felt processed to me.
    I hope that the Disney studio develops another black princess- or Queen!- soon, one that will be under less scrutiny, and will be able to develop organically. Maybe a character in Frozen 2? Who knows?

    27/07/2015 at 22:10

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