A Defense of a Disney Princess?

Ugh, I don’t really want to do this.  I mean, I let my daughter watch the Disney princesses and everything, because I liked those movies when I was a girl and I want her to experience them, too, but I recognize their problems – obsessions with boys, tiny waists, the nods toward feminism that make the actually not-at-all feminist nature of these stories all the more insidious – and I don’t really want to defend them that badly.

But sometimes I think their stories get misread.

I just finished Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein and I really thought it was terrific.  I think Peggy Orenstein is great; in preparation for this book, I also read her 1994 book Schoolgirls which was about middle school girls she interviewed while I myself was in middle school, which was sort of interesting.  I think she’s very sensitive and very thoughtful, even if she does sometimes sound a little – well, fuddy-duddy.  I mean, not too bad, not hand-wringy like Caitlin Flanagan, who I’ve gone on about in other posts.  But it’s clear she doesn’t share a cultural frame of reference with her subjects.  But Cinderella Ate My Daughter certainly deals very well with a lot of the issues I know I’m having or will have while raising Zoe.  I, too, complain constantly about the excessive pinkification of stuff for little girls – like, even Minnie Mouse on The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse has a pink dress now!  Why?  She always had a red dress before and was still recognizable as a girl because of the hair bow and the eyelashes and the FACT THAT SHE WAS WEARING A DRESS.  I love that she deals with how you talk to your daughter about feminine beauty in the current climate – do you tell her she’s beautiful no matter what or that beauty doesn’t matter?  How do you do both?  It’s a similar story when it comes to sexuality – in a world that tells your daughter to learn to BE sexy, but never to FEEL sexy, how do you teach your daughter the exact opposite?  I really like that she addresses the problem of being told, as parents, that if we don’t like all the pink, all the princesses, all the dollZ, all the Facebook, to just say “no.”  In fact, I wish she’d go further with that, and in a specifically political way, like, here’s how we can organize to protect our kids from this kind of marketing and these kinds of products, and to promote better products, so we don’t always have to be the ones saying no.

But she said a couple of things about Ariel that I think are just wrong.  When feminist-leaning writers write about Ariel, they always say, as Orenstein does, that she gave up her voice for a man.  But the thing about the movie is that that is portrayed as the WRONG CHOICE.  The person who tells her that giving up your voice for a man is a good idea is the EVIL WITCH who is deliberately fooling Ariel into making a stupid decision, not the man himself, or even a trustworthy character.  It kind of reminds me of the Harry Potter naysayers who cited that line about there being no such thing as good and bad, only people with power and people without, and used it to illustrate that Harry Potter was teaching horrible lessons to children, when, in fact, that line is spoken by the villain of that novel, who is himself quoting the villain of the series, the biggest evil that ever evilled.  And, as it turns out, giving up the voice to get the man is nearly disastrous for Ariel because the man is LOOKING for the girl with the voice.

In discussing the then-upcoming movie Tangled, Orenstein talks about the original Rapunzel tale, in which the prince hears Rapunzel singing and falls in love with her.  Orenstein says, “(T)hat makes Rapunzel the inverse of Ariel – she is loved sight unseen because of her voice” (italics hers, p. 191).  Except that that’s almost exactly what happens in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  Prince Eric can barely see Ariel; he can’t even discern her hair color (which is why I guess he can get fooled by the sea-witch-in-disguise-as-a-brunette later – well, that and her magic seashell necklace).  But he hears her singing voice and falls in love.  Then he refuses to fully recognize his attraction to Ariel because he CAN’T HEAR HER VOICE.

Now, there are plenty of problems with The Little Mermaid.  I can’t even get into it now; it goes too deep.  (Although I was annoyed when someone I read recently complained about how one of the key characteristics of a Disney princess is how nicely she sings, like this is an anti-feminist thing.  Um, the movies are musicals.  Of course it’s important that the girls can sing in a musical.)  But I think she’s consistently misread by Peggy Orenstein types – you know, adult women who are feminists and look at pop culture, especially pop culture for the under-18 set – as a bad figure for girls because of this giving-up-of-the-voice thing, when the movie fairly explicitly paints that as a stupid-ass choice.

As a note, I thought her discussion of whether Disney would fuck up the good things about Rapunzel in Tangled was interesting and I wish I could see where she came down on that.  I read in an interview that she liked it but I’d like to hear more.  She loves that in the original, the villain is not so much a villain as an overprotective mother, and doesn’t die a grizzly death in the end, and obviously, Tangled does away with that.  But I do think it does a very interesting villainization of the “helicopter mother.”  Mother Goethel, who in Tangled takes Rapunzel for her own selfish purposes, because Rapunzel’s hair has the magic power to keep her young forever.  And in order to keep her in the tower, always available to keep Mother Goethel young, Mother Goethel tells Rapunzel that the outside world is just too dangerous, and that Rapunzel, as young and naive and incapable as she is, could never handle it.  And don’t helicopter parents basically tell their kids exactly that?  And isn’t it, in a way, maybe subconsciously, keeping them young, too, by maintaining a situation where a child is dependent on them, rather than independent and over their need for that much parenting?  (I’m one to talk.  I’m nearly 30 years old, and when I got a bee sting this summer at my daughter’s birthday party, I still whined to my mother about it and had her take care of me.)  You know, how old can you be if there’s still a child in the world who needs you to cut up his grapes so he godforbid doesn’t choke, even if said child is in his early teens?  I thought that was pretty terrific.

Again, not that Tangled doesn’t have its problems.  Like, sometimes I get tired of trope that a sense of childlike wonder is sexually, or at least romantically, attractive to a guy.  Although it plays a lot better in a movie aimed at children, who should exhibit an uninhibited enthusiasm and delight in the world, than it does in, say, “Sex and the City,” where a forty-some-odd-year-old woman should perhaps conduct herself with smidgen more dignity for heaven’s sake.  But I digress.  As usual.

The other issue for me was, does she have to have a pink-and-purple dress?  Really?  And I think the decision to have the guy cut off the magic hair – rendering it un-magic – was really interesting.  On the one hand, she was about to be even more and more cruelly enslaved by the deranged Mother Goethel, to whom she’d be useless without the hair, and therefore free, so his move rescued her in that sense (and at the cost, he thought at the time, not realizing he was a hero in a Disney movie, of his own life).  On the other hand, he disempowered her in a very significant way that she did not ask for or approve.  Maybe she wanted to have hair with healing powers for the rest of her life?  Maybe she was hoping she could escape and then use her power for good?  Or maybe not.  We don’t know; Rapunzel doesn’t seem, during the movie, to take any special pride in the fact that her hair can heal.  She’ll use it that way, sure, but it does seem rather incidental to her own sense of self; she seems to recognize that it’s what others would find important about her but not what she finds important about herself.  So the moment that he cuts it off is interesting and difficult to read.  And that’s without even getting into the possible losing-her-virginity metaphor the whole thing could be.

Speaking of losing-one’s-virginity-metaphors, never sing “A Whole New World” from Aladdin with a group of fourteen-year-olds.  I did, albeit while I was myself a fourteen-year-old, and you can read a lot into that song if you’re trying.


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