Wednesday 18 September 2013

Feminism and the Disney Princesses

As such a significant cultural force, Disney and their Princesses franchise serve as a touchstone for gender issues that more often than not reach far beyond the actual content of the films upon which the franchise rests. Perhaps you have seen images like the one above before, or read certain feminist analyses of the Disney Princess films that arrive at similarly negative conclusions. Unfortunately, when such analyses present themselves as being "feminist," the resulting debate tends to focus on the nature and reach of feminism rather than more pedestrian concerns like whether the analysis is actually accurate to the source material. I am a proponent of women's rights, freedoms and social and economic justice, so I do not intend to make a criticism of feminism as such. It does seem to me that, sometimes, the legitimate concerns of feminism can override clear-thinking and sound research when analyzing works of art like Disney's animated films. What I hope to do by wading in with this article is nothing more than engage in the academic practice of closely and carefully summarizing the source documents - in this case the films - to determine whether these accusations are accurate without troubling to ignite a debate over feminism in-and-of itself.

The easiest accusations to dispense with are those which apparently missed the entire message of the film and arrived at a conclusion opposite to that message. For example, the above image states that the theme of Aladdin is that Jasmine's political worth is determined by her marriageability, which is true insofar as we're talking only of her political worth and even then it is only true up to the denouement. The overarching and (what one would think of as the) unmistakable theme of the film is that one's personal worth is determined by their character and not their economic, social or political rank. The Sultan does attempt to marry Jasmine off against her wishes, in accordance with the law of the land, which she actively rebels against. Jasmine goes so far as to flee the palace, whereupon she meets Aladdin, the thief who dreams of nothing more than being able to rise above his poverty and be afforded at least minimal human courtesies (though living in the palace would be awfully nice, he believes). After Jasmine is recovered and Aladdin comes across the magical lamp, he adopts the persona of Prince Ali Ababwa to woo her. For her part, Jasmine rebuffs his showiness and expresses absolute outrage at her father, Ababwa and Jafar discussing her fate without her consultation. It is only when she realizes that Ababwa is the same thief in the market that she softens to him. Jafar, the villain, also seeks the hand of Jasmine, but only for her political worth and her physical beauty. The villain is the one who degrades Jasmine, first figuratively and then literally after he acquires the lamp. In the end, when the villain is dispensed with, the Sultan realizes the error of his ways and changes the law to suit Jasmine. He recognizes the folly and disgrace of making his daughter act against her wishes, thus exercising his political power to enable Jasmine to marry the man of her own choosing, who himself has demonstrated that good character supersedes the merits of wealth and power.

Here we note a common oversight in these criticisms of Disney's princess fairy tales: ascribing to the films themselves the attitudes held by the villains. Against Beauty and the Beast the charge is levied that it's what's on the inside that counts unless you're the girl. Belle's own name means "beautiful," after all. However, it becomes apparent that the message of good character superseding physical appearance applies both ways, not merely on the axis of good looks/ugly character vs. ugly looks/good character (the dichotomy of Gaston and the Beast), but also Belle's struggle to have her identity and personhood respected in spite of her good looks. She longs to be seen as more than just a pretty face, to be loved for who she is rather than how she looks. His inability to do so is what dooms the egotistical, self-absorbed, intellectually-shallow Gaston. He values her only as an accessory to his own beauty and as a genetically sound pairing for the production of equally beautiful offspring. His pursuit of Belle is an exercise of his own all-consuming vanity. The idea that only her appearance matters is the viewpoint of the villain in Beauty and the Beast.

Another charge against the film that factors in this discussion is that the relationship between Belle and the Beast is an example of Stockholm syndrome. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin describes Stockholm syndrome in the following way:
Stockholm syndrome is a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein a positive bond between hostage and captor occurs that appears irrational in light of the frightening ordeal endured by the victims. In essence, eventually, the hostage views the perpetrator as giving life by simply not taking it... In cases where Stockholm syndrome has occurred, the captive is in a situation where the captor has stripped nearly all forms of independence and gained control of the victim’s life, as well as basic needs for survival. Some experts say that the hostage regresses to, perhaps, a state of infancy; the captive must cry for food, remain silent, and exist in an extreme state of dependence. In contrast, the perpetrator serves as a mother figure protecting her child from a threatening outside world, including law enforcement’s deadly weapons. The victim then begins a struggle for survival, both relying on and identifying with the captor. Possibly, hostages’ motivation to live outweighs their impulse to hate the person who created their dilemma.
On a superficial glance, the situation of Belle would seem to reflect Stockholm syndrome. She becomes captive of the Beast and, somehow, turns to fall in love with him, even defending him against her would-be rescuers. This is not an interpretation that develops from an accurate understanding of either Stockholm syndrome or the film.

Belle is not an involuntary hostage of the Beast: she is a voluntary ransom, exchanging her life for that of her father's, and therefore a person whose captivity is an assertion of her own moral will. Though a voluntary ransom, she is not a victim. Throughout the early part of her captivity she staunchly resists the Beast and his threats, including a willingness to deny herself food and comfort, which is (as the FBI implied) ultimately a rejection of the Beast's power over her. He may hold her physically captive but he has not subdued her spirit, and she will not grovel and beg to appease him. When she finally does eat, it is by the generousity of the servants rather pleading for the kindness of the Beast. At one point - in contradiction to the accusation that the film promotes staying in abusive relationships - she actually does attempt to escape.

Belle's attitude towards the Beast begins to soften when it is he who begins to change in deference to her. What got the Beast into his predicament to begin with was his cruelty and vanity, not unlike Gaston, and so the solution is to begin reflecting the kind of good character that would make him lovable. As a token of his esteem for her, the Beast offers Belle his library... An acknowledgement of her intellect and passion for literacy. This is in marked contrast to Gaston, who wonders why a pretty girl even wants to read. In the end, it is easily apparent that, all along, it was Belle who held the true power through the quality of her own character. It is Belle who transformed the Beast.

If Beauty and the Beast does contain a fundamental betrayal of its theme, it is with the Beast being a pretty hot guy anyways, not with Belle's being an attractive intellectual. A brutally harsh inversion of this theme can be found in Disney's abysmal adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with the apparent message that ugly people don't need companionship and can be perfectly happy assisting beautiful people to mate. Of course, no man is entitled to get the girl in the end, regardless of whether he is a nice guy or an attractive guy. There does seem to be a slight contradiction, however, in complaints that Belle is attractive while declaring that unattractive people (unattractive men specifically) are not "owed" anything. I have seen some criticisms object to the fact that Beauty and the Beast is a love story at all, offering instead the dramatically thrilling conclusion that Belle ought to have kicked all the guys to the curb and opened her own bookstore instead.

That provides yet another undercurrent to these criticisms, being a distaste for the fact that these are love stories and not something else. Here we can look at the example of The Little Mermaid. The above image asserts that the film's message is that "It's okay to abandon your family, drastically change your body, and give up your strongest talent in order to get your man," which is a perfect storm of misinterpretation. The plot of The Little Mermaid revolves around the fact that none of this was okay and that changing her body and giving up her greatest talent to get the man was what she was manipulated into doing by the villain. Had there not been judicious intervention by the cast of characters at the end, Ursula would have taken over God-like, Cthulhuoid powers because of Ariel's moral lapse.

That said, there is a significant point of clarification to make, which is that Ariel was already a rebellious teenager with a fascination for the surface world long before she had actually met Prince Eric. Being with Eric does not provide her with a reason to change herself whole cloth: their encounter provides her with an impetus to act on ideas she already had. Her rebelliousness against the way of life in which she had been brought up, with all of the expectations and obligations of the royal court, and alteration of her body to pursue her own goals were expressions of her own growing independent will. No, Ariel did not make the best choices during this episode, which is part of the movie's point. Nevertheless, they were her own choices to make. After the villain's defeat, King Triton realizes that he can no longer dominate his daughter, as he did when he forcibly invaded her personal space and destroyed her belongings. He must let loose the reigns of both fatherhood and kingship to allow her to make her own way in life.

Whether or not it is a poor message to have a man be Ariel's final impetus to pursue her own independent will depends on whether or not one objects to love stories as a genre. The Little Mermaid is a love story, and women do still fall in love with men even in our day and age, and vice versa. These sorts of stories are not entirely far-fetched, and so long as we carry the biological urge to couple for mating, they will not disappear. Granted that The Little Mermaid is a love story and not a different type of story, what do we actually see in the film? The critique suggests that Eric falls for Ariel simply because of her pretty face, but viewing the film makes it apparent that Ariel is still extremely expressive of her personality despite now being physically handicapped. In this case, the "feminist" critique carries an ugly undercurrent of ableism.  It is at the very least degrading to Ariel as a character, if not to women and the physically or developmentally challenged in general, to suggest that all they offer is a "pretty face" in lieu of a personality, independent will and good character.

What of Sleeping Beauty then? Aurora isn't even conscious when the prince comes for her! This film is odd insofar as it deviates almost insensibly from the original material, either the fairy tale by Charles Perrault or the ballet by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. In those, the titular princess does sleep for a considerable amount of time - a century or more - and the prince who wakes her has not even seen her before he arrives at the foot of her vine-entangled bed. The walkthrough attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim recounts the story of Sleeping Beauty in such a way that one may imagine Prince Phillip and Aurora being drawn together across the centuries by fate. Perhaps, when deciding upon the script for the film, Walt Disney felt that there was a narrative problem in the prince never even having seen the princess before he goes questing for her. Consequently, the pair share a chance encounter in the forest whereupon they sing, dance and conduct a conversation simply as two persons without any knowledge of their royal status or childhood betrothal to one another.

When the good fairies reveal that their Briar Rose is, in fact, Princess Aurora, she is actually distraught at the prospect that this could separate her from the young man she happened to meet in the forest. Prefiguring Jasmine and Ariel, Aurora spends at least a portion of her film not wanting to be a princess at all when doing so would prevent her from exercising her own self-determination. Nevertheless she goes forth out of duty and has her prophesied spinning wheel accident. When Prince Phillip comes calling on the little shack in the woods he is captured by the evil Maleficent, who reveals that the girl in the woods is the very princess to whom he is betrothed. Therefore, when Phillip escapes and battles to liberate Aurora, he already knows and loves her.

The magic of the cinematic montage does much to obfuscate the fact that the princes and princesses of Disney films actually do spend time together. Fairy tales do require a certain suspension of disbelief insofar as we have characters falling head-over-heels over mere days and hours, but there is also a dramatic necessity to not bogging the pace of a story down with deep conversation over hobbies, interests, life goals, values, and the practical, uncinematic things that go into building healthy relationships in the real world. Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella all condense these moments into a convenient montage which asks the viewer to fill in the gaps on their behalf. It is requested of us that when we see Aladdin and Jasmine, or Philip and Aurora, or Cinderella and Prince Charming strolling wistfully through forests and looking out over starlit vistas, they are also bearing their souls to one another. There is no reason to assume, based on the evidence, that these characters are pursuing each other on the basis of physical attraction alone.

Cinderella is an awkward case because, as a film, it actually does pass the famed Bechdel Test. Named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel who introduced it in her work, it is a feminist trope arguing that a piece of film or literature does not overcome gender bias if it does not have two or more women in it who talk amongst themselves about something other than a man. Unfortunately it is awkward due to the relationship these women share being one of domestic abuse against the one by the others. There is no easy male target or male foil in this situation. Of all the characters, it is Prince Charming himself who is the least realized, and Cinderella is not even aware that he is the Prince until after they meet.

While it is easy to become frustrated with the Cinderella character for refusing to stand up for herself, one must consider that she is a victim of an abusive family life that has carried on since her childhood. She has not been equipped to assert her own independent will, and so she retreats to a hidden interior world of her dreams and relationship with the domestic vermin. Every attempt to actualize herself is crushed by Lady Tremain and her daughters, including a shockingly rape-like scene in which Cinderella's step-sisters tear her ballgown to shreds.

At her emotionally lowest point in the film, Cinderella's Fairy Godmother appears as a symbol of positive female empowerment. What she bestows on the physically beaten and psychologically victimized girl is not so banal as a pretty dress and a nice coach so she can go play dress-up at the ball and meet a handsome man. What she bestows on Cinderella is the gift of becoming someone else... To become a new woman, an empowered woman, a free woman who is able to pursue her own ambitions. This new woman woos and wins over the prince, but it cannot last. The time limit imposed by the Fairy Godmother is also symbolic of the fact that empowerment is not a gift that can be given, but a quality that must be grasped for oneself, for it is in the grasping that it is formed. Cinderella's final victory is a result of her first and only self-empowered act in the whole film: when she emerges to seize her right to try on the glass slipper. It is at this point, in open defiance of her step-mother, that Cinderella liberates herself. Even if the shoe did not fit, Cinderella would finally be free to leave that house and never return.

As the first Disney princess, Snow White has elements of all of these issues. The film opens with young Snow having been subdued by her step-mother, not unlike Cinderella and Lady Tremain. The Evil Queen is obsessed with her vanity, not unlike Gaston, bearing within herself an ugly soul that eventually emerges when she adopts the disguise of the Old Hag. Snow White, on the other hand, is revealed by the Magic Mirror to be the fairest in the land as a reflection of her personality as well as her physical beauty. Whereas the Evil Queen can only inspire fear, Snow White's strength of character inspires the love of princes, dwarfs, woodsmen and even the forest creatures. She is portrayed as having a resplendently lovely, optimistic, self-assured and determined personality. Shortly after running in terror through a darkened forest after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt ordered by her own step-mother, Snow White chastises herself for losing control of her emotions. Led to the dwarf cottage by the wildlife she befriends, she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work cleaning it, out of a sense of social responsibility to the children that she presumes live there. When she and the seven dwarfs discover each other, they work out an equitable deal for room and board. Growing closer over their brief time together, Snow is even able to win over the misogynist, misanthropic dwarf. Sadly neither the dwarfs nor the absent prince are able to save Snow White at all from the Queen's wrath. Nevertheless, the nameless prince who fell for her at the beginning of the film is able to find her and break the terrible curse of Sleeping Death. Love for the one who could inspire such love wins out in the end. Physical beauty is not a virtuous goal of itself, and the single-minded pursuit of it can turn a person morally ugly. Rather, a virtuous character is what makes one beautiful.

Clearly the image at the top of the article was created before the likes of Tiana, Pocahontas, Mulan, Rapunzel, or the Pîxar Princess Merida were added to the mix. I don't think that these Princesses bring any new complaints to the table. Rapunzel, for example, is another iteration of Ariel, only this time without a sacrificial act that frees her from her juvenile state. Merida recapitulates Jasmine's rejection of the expectations forced on her by her royal ancestry. Tiana and Mulan add in the theme of meaningful labour to achieve one's goals. There is some debate over whether Frozen constitutes a legitimately "feminist" film, and I think it does depending on the definition being used. I will discuss why more in a coming article on male image in Disney, but suffice it to say now that Elsa's motivations at no time feature a male character at all.

When it comes to these sorts of extreme edge of feminist criticism of Disney Princesses, the best case scenario is that they are simply wrong when one employs a close viewing of the films. In the worst case scenario, the criticisms arrive at conclusions opposite to the themes of the films and can themselves indulge sexism against women. In these films, the princesses are at least as fleshed out as the male characters, if not better. Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, Aurora, Cinderella and Snow White all express strong personalities, excellent talents and attributes, independent will and self-determination that attract their respective princes to them, in addition to their physical attractiveness. To then reduce them to a mere pretty face is itself an expression of the sexist attitude that women only have their bodies to offer men. It is not present in the films themselves. Furthermore, absent from these criticisms are the conditions in which the princesses would be left if they did not pursue their own ambitions, whether or not they were directed towards a man. In The Little Mermaid, the alternative to Ariel fulfilling her own dreams is to subordinate herself to the father who invaded her private space and destroyed her possessions. Had Jasmine not sought to guide her own destiny in marrying who she wanted to, she would have been left to marry whoever was chosen for her. Cinderella would have remained in a situation of domestic abuse, Aurora would have remained asleep until the end of time, and Snow White would have been dead. This is above and beyond other inadvertent bigotries like the abelism I mentioned in respects to Ariel losing her voice.

How do these criticisms persist despite the fact that they are not coherent with the content of what they criticize? If I may play armchair sociologist, I suspect there are two main reasons. The first is that, as people of good conscience, feminists are usually active in other socio-political issues for which Disney is a readily available scapegoat: globalized corporate consumer capitalism, the critique of mass society, and the spread of homogenized American cultural imperialism. Feminist concerns are easy enough to throw into the anti-Disney hate cocktail, regardless of whether they exactly fit. The second reason is that feminism has crafted a certain "official" narrative regarding these movies that carries its own weight irrespective of their actual content. They have been deemed "officially" bad, and one would not wish to appear insufficiently feminist by challenging that designation. It brings Song of the South to mind, which does have flaws of which no critic is aware, because they haven't actually seen it. They just know the "official" narrative that it is a racist movie.

Whether or not the Disney Princesses ought to be reclaimed as feminist icons of female empowerment is up to others. However, I do not feel that, upon close viewing, there is any serious justification for the view that demonizes them as negative role models for their legions of young fans.

Continue with Part II, in which I look at how male image is represented in Disney films.

1 comment:

  1. That was wonderful! I totally agree with everything you said, but I also have to praise you for your argumentation. Perfectly to the point.