One of my earlier memories from my childhood is of me on 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.