Feminism Friday: Fairy Tale Endings

One of my earlier memories from my childhood is of me onDisney Princesses a weekend afternoon, wearing a casual dress and watching a princess movie on TV. Maybe Swan Princess. I remember spinning around and being delighted as I imagined what it must be like to be a princess.

I’ve been around a lot of people lately who began questioning gender roles from a young age. I wasn’t one of those people. I grew up on Disney–on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. I lived for those. I grew up wanting very much to be a proper lady. Sometimes I admonish my younger sisters for acting in ways I find inappropriate (but I question whether I should stop admonishing them, b/c some things I find should be considered inappropriate in common society…)

So, why should it be wrong that children-especially girls- grow up on these Disney fairy tales (the original tales are a different story altogether…)? Is there something wrong with a young girl sitting in front of her mirror, brushing her hair and imagining what it would be like to be a princess waiting for her prince charming?

Yes. Yes there is. I’ll take two of the Disney princesses and examine their roles in the films and what message they are sending to girls. The princesses: Sleeping Beauty and Mulan

Sleeping Beauty: Better Off Asleep?

Disney released Sleeping Beauty in 1959. There are two distinct female characters in the movie: Aurora-who is the ideal of what a princess should be. She’s beautiful–her long, thin, willowy body is undeniably striking, she sings beautifully, is a good daughter and is completely pure. Her activities consist of only “proper” activities for a young princess–she’s not the type to rebel, she’ll do what she’s told. She is the ideal proper young lady: pure and compliant. And helpless. In Onceuponatime: The Roles, Andrea Dworkin noted the role of the lead female character in fairy tales: “Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow-white, Rapunzel–all are characterized by passivity, beauty, innocence and victimization. They never think, act, initiate, confront, resist, challenge, feel, care, or question.””

Then on the other side you have the evil fairy Maleficent. Cruel for her own pleasure, she does what she can to make people miserable. It doesn’t take a lot to rouse her anger. Miss inviting her to a party and she’ll take that small mistake and make sure you’re paying for it for the rest of your life.

The only way to wake Aurora from the deep comatose sleep is through a male character- Prince Phillip. And in a classic Disney moment, those in the audience can all be glad because her prince came for her! and now she can be happy and give herself up to him-because of course he is her one true love, and she’ll obey him in all matters.

Maleficent, the evil woman that she was, was killed. Unlike most female characters, she was an active character. She took action. And because of this she is considered evil and must thence be destroyed.

So if you think about it, women have two destinies–be married and live happily in domesticity (because domesticity is what ‘happily ever after’ refers to) or physically shown her place. As Andrea Dworkin said in her essay on fairy tales: “The good woman must be possessed. The bad woman must be killed, or punished. Both must be nullified.” Meanwhile the prince in the fairy tales is: “handsome and heroic. He is a prince. That is, he is powerful, noble, and good. He rides a horse. He travels far and wide. He has a mission, a purpose. Invevitably he fulfills it. He is a person of worth and a worthwhile person. He is strong and true.” (emphasis mine)

A young girl watching Sleeping Beauty is not, of course, going to grasp all of these issues-but they will affect her. They affected me–so I should know. When I first stepped outside of what it meant to be a ‘lady’ in this tradition, the guilt I felt was immense. I went from being a proper young lady to being something else–and the only other option was one that was completely reprehensible.

Mulan: A Woman In a Man’s World
By the time Mulan came out the princess landscape was changing. Jasmine, the daughter of a sultan, had delighted audiences by her feisty nature and Pocahontas, the daughter of a Native-American tribal chief, had enchanted audiences with her connection to nature. Mulan came out nearly 40 years after Sleeping Beauty which was apparent in her character. Mulan and Sleeping Beauty are complete opposites. Where Sleeping Beauty was an outright victim, Mulan sought out her destiny. Where Princess Aurora dressed in the gowns expected of a princess and embraced her feminine side, Mulan put on a man’s clothing and worked to prove herself-as a man.

So where is the problem?

Anti-feminists frequently assert that sexism is not a problem and women have access to plenty of options that they did not before. In terms of equality they are plenty equal, they would argue. Yet in the film Mulan, which celebrates the ability of a female to succeed in a masculine world, she has to do it as a man. Her main concern in going out to fight is not for herself and for adventure-it’s due to her father’s inability to fight and her wanting to be ths son he did not have. In addition to this, it’s interesting to note that despite her initial interest in making her own path she does end up meeting “the one” that she falls in love with. So it is almost as if she’s making a full circle: From the domestic home and back to that domestic place.

Writing this I can see how some of this might be construed as being far-fetched-it is a lot harder to argue Mulan being a tool of female subversion since it seems like Mulan has a lot more agency. The key point here is that the heterosexual relationship is continuing to be reinforced within the context of this ‘girl power!’ movie. Despite Mulan’s ability to pave her own way, one of the big themes of the story is her and the relationship with Captain Li.

I can’t speak for myself how this particular movie affected me-since it came out in 1998 it didn’t have the effect on me that films like Sleeping Beauty and Snow-White had. Yet certain themes are clear to me and I believe are apparent to young girls watching: a)if you expect to make your way you are going to have to prove yourself to be as worthy as a man and b)romantic relationships are of primary importance. Sure you can do adventurous things and make your way, but without a man, none of it will be worth it.

After writing all that, I can’t help but to think that Disney has gotten slightly better with its portrayal of characters. However, Disney is also making a big thing of marketing the Princess characters–especially the original few like Cinderella, Snow-White, Beauty from Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty. And it is these characters who have the least agency. (yes, even Belle the bookworm. Remember it wasn’t her choice that she was stuck with the Beast. Between the whole thing she was under the influence of either her father or the Beast.)

While Disney is getting better, the story fairy tales are remaining much the same. And that, my dear friends, is another story that I cannot get into right now. If demanded however, I’d love to go into that as well.

Happy Friday the 13th.

Keep in mind…Maleficent is watching you.



5 thoughts on “Feminism Friday: Fairy Tale Endings

  1. vintagefan April 14, 2007 / 3:30 am

    That was a nice read.
    My favourite though was Ariel. I had her poster on my wall till I was … um, eighteen.

  2. rose May 2, 2007 / 2:49 pm

    wouldnt it make you the most powerful of all if you KNEW that you got the happy ending?????
    that YOU had the ultimate power to defeat evil – by simply being the main character?
    that if all you had to do was put on the pretty dress of POWER?You even took the humiliations of the ‘evil ones’ because you knew they must fall before you….and you can trust your own judgement absolutely- because Whatever action you choose, you will ultimately triumph!!!

    i always thought that was what little girls liked so much about those movies. You stand in the centre, you are the best and you win. ahhhhhhhh. we ALL like that feeling.
    i do agree, as an adult i can see there are subtler comments about agency and responsibility… but i missed that when i was a kid. i just wanted to be in a fairytale and win. (and as i wasnt really into princes at that age sometimes i would imagine alternate endings for myself where i got to swing the sword. Or cut off heads…)

  3. Mandeep August 24, 2007 / 3:16 am

    This is so true. When I was younger, I used to read the Disney fairytale books all the time. I used to look at all the princesses. My mum even dessed me up in dresses, and I used to pretend that I was a princess. Thank goodness, I didn’t own any Barbie dolls. The thing that influenced me the most at that young age, was the fact that I thought I had to be beautiful and feminine, and how old was I? Only about seven or eight. Young girls should not think this way. I used to look at myself in the mirrror and wish that I was ‘perfect’ like the princesss, as only then would I truly be happy, and since I was a girl, I had to act like a girl, feminie and passive. It was the way girls were “supposed” to be. Thank goodness, that society is slightly improving, and realising that this is wrong. It is indeed sendig out the wrong message to young ones, who cannot realise it, but subconciously are being affected by these stereotypes. People need to realise that girls should not watch these fairy tale movies and books. It sends out the message, for young kids that this is how they are supposed to be. What is a young girl going to think when she is supposed to be passive, feminine, and have “flawless beauty” like these princesses, who are act in a way as role models and idols for young girls. That is just horrible. i’m glad, that stories for young children, especially girls, are improving these days, as society slowly is getting rid of these stereoype, whcih some might refer to as sexist. Nowadays, we have improvement as we see more of characters like Dora the Explorer, etc. I know for a fact that I am not going to want my children to grow up with the fairy tales that I grew up with. Mulan, Pocahontas, and Jasmine may not be perfect, but I know that they have gone a long way since the older traditional fairy tales, such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Snow White, etc. I mean, let kids be kids, why do young girls have older role models such as these anyways? I mean, why should they want to grow up to be a “lady” anyways. there is plenty of time for that in their later years. they should just be able to enjoy the life that they have then as kids, without having to worry about stereotypes such as these. They should grow up in teir own type, and not be constantly exposed to older female role models such as Barbie, and these fairy tale princesses. What message is being sent to them, when they are at such a young age, by princesses getting married. I mean, they should have role models who are closer to their own age. It is ridiculous for girls at such a young age to have to relate to female figures such as Barbie, Snow White, and Cinderella. As I said before, characters such as Dora the Explorer and Lilo and Stitch, even cartoons that come on television nowadays, are much better for children to wacth and to read about than those dumb old fairytales, that we grew up with back then.

  4. Sabrina September 4, 2007 / 8:58 am

    I’m going to be blunt about this.
    I think you’re wrong.
    Completely wrong.
    I’m pretty sure that little girls aren’t taking and underlying meaning to these stories. I grew up on Disney movies, I still watch them. I never felt like I had to be the perfect young lady and I never thought that I needed a guy to rescue me. Yes I did and still do believe in happy endings, because those can happen. No you don’t need a huge effing castle and a prince charming to get it.
    Maleficent was not killed because she decided to ‘take action’. She was killed because she cursed a baby just because she didn’t get invited to a party. I mean really, who goes around cursing babies. That doesn’t even sound good. Not only that, but she kidnapped the prince. She died because those acts were and still are evil. So what if Aurora was girly and perfect. That’s a nice image, but we know it’s not real. You find out really fast in this world that princess don’t exist but they make really great Halloween costumes.
    As for Mulan, she lived in CHINA. Okay in China they don’t have the same customs and beliefs we do. Women weren’t equal back then. I’m sorry if you’re offended that disney was actually slightly realistic for once. So she had to pretend to be a man to get anywhere. She was still respected as a woman later on, or didn’t you see the second movie. People realized her as a woman captain and still sought her help. As for falling in love with Li, she wouldn’t have done that if he had challenged her freedom at all. That just wasn’t the kind of girl she was. She fell in love with him because he treated her as his equal.
    Princesses do take action. Pocahantas went against her whole tribe for something she believed in. Yes, she was saving the man she loved, but it was because she believed in the things he had said. She saw past meaningless combat and realized that they weren’t that different. She never let herself be dominated by men. Even in the second movie when she went to England. They dressed her all up and told her what to say and she still ended up doing what she believed in and went against the king.
    I’m sorry if when you watched the movies you felt that you had to be as pretty and perfect as a princess. I don’t think that many girls felt that way, because there’s not exactly a lot lf ‘ladies’ walking around these days. No one is proper anymore.
    Disney made movies, amazing stories, but they didn’t try to push the belief that women will only be happy under the dominance of a man. They tried to show the strength in women, and how kind and understanding they could be. They showed women with big hearts and keen minds.
    I don’t think Disney needs to really worry about what message they’re sending out because it’s the most wholesome thing left anyways.

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