I feel guilty about this, of course, but for the most part, I like Disney movies, even the “princess” movies. I liked them as a kid and I like rewatching them (or allowing them to play in the background of my life) now.
What gets me – and what I think, at base, gets most parents who don’t like Disney – is the marketing. Not the fact that there is marketing. I’m nearly 30 years old and I’ve lived in contemporary America my whole life; I don’t have it in me to get mad that corporations try to make money. (Well, sometimes I do. But that’s not the point here.) But the way that the princesses in particular are marketed – as opposed, frequently, to how they come across in their movies – is where I think Disney fails.
A case in point – today we were looking at the Disney website because Zoe wanted a Tangled-themed nightshirt, and I saw this. Now, I maybe need to go take another look, but in my memory, Flynn never has a sword in the movie. The time he engages in a sword fight, he uses a frying pan – which is Rapunzel’s weapon of choice. See, that’s one of the things I like about the movie. Rapunzel is resourceful and capable of defending herself; she arms herself when she leaves her tower. Furthermore, she is respected for this resourcefulness. The only time Flynn gets into a sword fight, he uses the frying pan and very openly admires the frying pan’s – and by extension, Rapunzel’s -capabilities and Max the horse makes them the standard weapon for all of the kingdom’s soldiers.
But Disney is not selling a frying pan in connection with Tangled. They’re selling a sword. For Flynn. They made a movie about a girl who is intelligent enough to arm herself with a nontraditional weapon and use it effectively enough that other people, men, who have experience fighting, are happy to take it up. But they make toys celebrating the idea that boys like weapons and girls like . . . hairbrushes.
The other day at the bookstore, Zoe wanted to buy some ridiculous Tangled book with a “musical hairbrush.” Every page had exhortations to use the brush the way Rapunzel does on this page, to twist her hair that way or loop her hair to support Mother Goethel. But we don’t see Rapunzel with a brush once she leaves her tower in the movie. They make a movie in which excessive hair care is necessary only under conditions of oppression (if that’s not reading too much into it) with song lyrics like, “I brush and brush and brush and brush my hair, and wonder when will my life begin?” but they make toys that promote hairbrushes as a girl’s favorite toy.
They don’t even much paintbrush-oriented paraphernalia for Rapunzel. Yes, her paintbrush is of the oppressive tower, too, but we see her also use her art once she’s in the kingdom, which is a celebratory montage that I think is meant to show us who Rapunzel is meant to be – an artist, a reader, a person who can bring joy to the kingdom. Also, it’s through her art that she figures out who she is – she realizes she’s been painting that sun shape, in one form or another, all over her tower the whole time. And while plenty of parents might not want their child to embrace the violence in Tangled via toy frying pans (although apparently it’s fine to embrace the non-existent sword for boys), what’s wrong with a paintbrush?
Look, I know that as far as Disney is concerned, girly stuff sells to girls and boy-y stuff sells to boys and that’s that. And again, it’s hard for me to make a coherent and reasonable argument against a company trying to maximize profits, even when I kind of want to. But the psychology behind that is more complicated. Girls and boys of a certain age (say, 3 or 4 to 8 or 9) are very, very invested in sex differences. They are just coming to realize that boys and girls are different, but they are not yet convinced, especially on the younger end of that spectrum, that those differences are really just in the body and as such require enormous effort to change. They think that playing with the wrong toy or wearing the wrong color is enough to make them no longer the gender they feel they are and they feel a lot of anxiety about that possibility. This stage of development is natural and normal. But what marketers like Disney fail to realize – or fail to acknowledge – is that we, the adults, are the ones who decide what the markers of girl-ness and boy-ness are. They say, “Look, girls like pink, it’s in their DNA, so let’s sell them lots of pink.” And we, as parents, sometimes look at our pink-hording daughters and go, “You know, I tried to buy her the gender-neutral European-made wooden toys and all she wants is pink plastic Disney princess crap; it must be in the DNA.” It’s not. What’s in the DNA is, “Mark myself like a girl.” We’re the ones who said, “Pink is girly. Hairbrushes are girly. Sparkles are girly. Swords are boy-y.” And when we set up certain things to be girly, girls will pick up on it, even (especially) young ones, and they will make those objects the ones they covet, and, what’s worse, it will color what they think they need to be in order to be acceptable “girls” forever.
Disney is doing something that is in fact interventionist when it decides that hairbrushes are a marker for “girl” and swords are a marker for “boy.” They don’t have to. If they marked frying pans and paintbrushes as “girl” markers, girls would buy them. And then girls would have more than one model of femininity to play with – forever. Boys can have more than one model of masculinity, too.
The crazy thing to me about Disney is that it makes movies like it knows that. In the movies, girls are not just pink and sparkly, they do stuff (even if a lot of it ends up with marriage). They scheme and fight and waitress and read and paint and escape. The guys are not just hulking he-men, either – they are schemers and lovers and clever-line-deliverers. The characters in Disney movies who do adhere to extreme forms of masculinity and femininity are either villains like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast or jokes like Charlotte in The Princess and The Frog. But they market all their toys in a way that promotes the Charlotte-ness in girls and (to a lesser degree) the Gaston-ness in boys. And they really don’t have to. I’m sure if they were selling a frying pan with a picture of Rapunzel on it (or better, for gender-neutrality, the kingdom’s sun emblem), my daughter would clamor for that. Disney is crack.