And, in other news, something published in The New York Times has irritated me.
The feminist megastar Naomi Wolf has written a column in defense of little girls liking princesses, which is surprising to me given what I know of Naomi Wolf, which is maybe not much. And look, those of you who know me know that I have a little girl who f-ing loves princess, particularly the Disney variety, and while her extreme adoration of them and of all the glittery, girly, goofy products that come with them leave me feeling chagrinned, I don’t actively object. I liked the Disney movies growing up, too, and I don’t think there’s any real harm in her liking them.
But the column is a little goofy, a little discombobulated, and a little beside the point. (I know I can be all three of those things. But, you know, this is my personal blog. I do it for free and I am read by, I think, my aunt and my sister’s friends and maybe one or two of my friends. She’s Naomi Wolf and she’s being paid by the New York Freakin’ Times.)
She starts off with some fluffy nonsense about images of Kate Middleton and do we even need princesses as, like, a job description any more when the world is so grim? And I’m kind of going, well, until all countries that still have a royal family decide to dissolve that system, we’re going to have literal princess, i.e., daughters of kings and/or queens, or women who marry sons of kings and/or queens, so we’re probably also going to have images of those people. I mean, we don’t need the Kardashians, but they exist, and their claim to fame is even more tenuous than Kate Middleton’s. And the world has been grim and still had princesses before. Like during the Crusades. Or the Black Plague. So . . . what’s your point, exactly?
And yeah, I think for now, no matter how feminist a mommy you are, you’ve got a strong chance that your little girl will go gaga for princesses at some point or another. But then she says, “Little girls are obsessed with princesses for the same reason little boys are obsessed with action heroes. What other female role model can issue a sentence and have the world at her feet? What other female figure can command an army, break open a treasury . . .” And that’s something that needs a lot of unpacking. Like, first of all, why aren’t there more girls obsessed with action heroes instead? Why aren’t there more female role models that can issue sentences and have the world at their feet? Or command armies or break open treasuries? (I mean, there are, but for some reason she dismisses Hilary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice as being less powerful than princesses, and with less nice outfits. And hey, she’s got a point about the outfits. The minute I can order a grown-up sized, grown-up-looking green Tiana ball gown, the one that looks sort of like a water lily in dress form, I will do so.) And hey, if Zoe aspires to be powerful and commanding, great, but she could also aspire to be kind and loving, scholarly, inventive, creative – a host of other things. Why is power supposed to be the most alluring value to feminist-mommy me? And . . . what Disney movies are you watching, Naomi Wolf? I haven’t seen a princess do any of that shit.
Wolf talks for a long time in the column about Princess Di and Princess Kate (Can we talk for a moment about why does she spell Kate with a K when she’s Catherine with a C? Why isn’t she Cate? Am I the only one bothered by this? Yes. I guess I am.) and the British class system and how princesses are just like working moms these days, juggling their lives and whatnot. (. . . Sure.) But if this is an article about preschoolers who are obsessed with princesses, who cares about Princess Di and Princess Kate? My daughter has no idea who those people are. She saw pictures of Princess Kate around the wedding, while we were at the grocery store (When I explained who she was and that those were pictures of her wedding, Zoe demanded to see pictures of the kiss.) but Princess Kate definitely does not occupy the head space that Aurora, Belle, and all their cohorts occupy. The Disney girls; that’s who my daughter means when she says “princess.”
So what does Wolf have to say about those chicks? Not much. “They are busy being the heroines of their own lives. In a scary face-off, Anastasia kills off the evil Rasputin – and saves Russia. Mulan, in drag, helps defeat the conquering Huns – also saving her family and her country. Belle releases her enslaved beloved from the curse of his enchantment. . . . Even that slightly annoying Cinderella . . . is not so bad if we see that the glass slipper fits because she is nice to little creatures – and that it cannot fit her stepsisters not so much because they are ‘ugly’ as because they are unkind.”
Now, I do have an encyclopedic knowledge of these films, not so much because I love them but because in addition to currently having a three-year-old daughter, I had significantly younger siblings and thus spent a good portion of my teens as well as my own childhood watching them. So let’s start with the nerdy things. Anastasia is not a Disney movie. And yes, she defeats Rasputin, and yes, the face-off is scary, but at that point, in the narrative of the film, she’s not saving Russia, just herself. (And I guess 1920s Paris, which is important to save, but Rasputin didn’t have it in for Paris; he just didn’t care what else he destroyed in order to kill Anastasia.) And Mulan, while being the ass-kickiest, most feminist-friendly Disney heroine, is not, literally, a princess. She is often included in the Disney-Princess-marketed things, but she is neither is the daughter of a king nor does she marry a prince. She also saves her country both in drag and out of it; the first time, when she’s in drag, the villain doesn’t really die because it’s a movie and you can never trust the villain to be really dead the first time. The second time she’s in girl clothes.
And seriously? Cinderella’s glass slipper fits because she is kind? The stepsisters’ don’t fit because they’re unkind? No. I’ve seen the movie. Cinderella has tiny feet. The stepsisters have comically large feet. Much is made of their comically large feet and Cinderella’s dainty, beautiful ones. Yes, Cinderella is kind, although if one were to do some sort of psychological reading of the film, one might conclude that Cinderella reaches out to the mice and birds because she doesn’t have anyone else in the house to love. Okay, I’m being a grouch. She’s kind. But the Prince doesn’t really know that she’s kind, and neither does the slipper. She’s rewarded for being tiny and pretty.
Belle is a complicated one. I have read that Beauty and the Beast was sort of Disney’s apology for not making The Little Mermaid feminist enough. But for my money, The Little Mermaid is more feminist, if also more obnoxious. The Little Mermaid gets dinged for two things on the feminist front – that Ariel has to change in order to be with her man, and that she gives up her voice to get her man. On the first issue, Ariel starts the movie already wanting to be a human. We open on her searching for human stuff in a human shipwreck, and then singing an ode to all her human stuff in which she expresses her longing to be “part of that world.” It’s not even so much seeing Prince Eric that is her impetus for actively seeking ways to become human – it’s when her dad destroys all her human stuff. I think I’ve written this before, but in a way, Ariel is like those hipster boys who love anime and dating Asian girls – Ariel is sort of fetishizing Eric for the culture he belongs to, in which she already immerses herself. So she’s kind of obnoxious. But she’s not changing herself for a man; she’s changing herself because she wants to.
And the giving up her voice thing drives me the craziest, because it’s like those Christian groups who hate on Harry Potter and quote that line about, “There is no good or bad, only power” as an example of why Harry Potter has bad values even though the villain says that line. The villain in The Little Mermaid is the one who convinces Ariel to give up her voice, even though we can see that Prince Eric is totally in love specifically with her voice and forgoing it makes landing the man much, much harder. The movie is doing the exact opposite of advocating that girls give up their ability to speak to land a man.
Belle, on the other hand, does the Stockholm Syndrome thing. I mean, sure, she likes to read, which nerdy bookish girls like me love. And sure, she rejects the obnoxious, handsome, popular man who thinks girls shouldn’t read or think. And she can certainly stand up for herself when need be. And the movie is really good; the visuals are great and the songs are top-notch. I love watching this movie. But in terms of feminism? A pretty girl falls for a beastly guy who treats her bad but totally lurves her and is made better by the power of her kindness and beauty? Not so much. She sings about wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but apparently settles for one adventure, the adventure of being held prisoner in an enchanted castle a few hours away from her home village. She “releases” the Beast by doing nothing more pro-active than kissing him when she thinks he’s dying. It’s not an objectionable action, but it’s hardly the work of a feminist hero.
Other princesses are really not so bad. Jasmine may not be the main actor in the story, but I love the way she picks up on Aladdin’s trickster ways and masters them quickly. Rapunzel is a little excessively child-like and naive, but she’s also strong and sure of herself and resourceful. The Princess and the Frog is not a great movie – the pacing is weird and they spend too much time as frogs which I’m not so into, plus I can see why maybe the African-American community did not embrace the movie whole-heartedly – but Tiana pretty much kicks butt. (And the songs are good, too.)
And in terms of opening treasuries, leading armies, etc. – we never see that stuff from Disney princesses. Ever. They don’t function as political figures in any way, shape, or form. (Remember, Mulan is not a princess. And she doesn’t command an army; she just gets four guys to follow her lead. And yeah, she saves China, which kicks ass. But doesn’t come with any extra power as far as I can see, except the power to avoid a serious grounding from her father when she gets home.) The only instance I can remember of a Disney princess attempting to use her “I’m a princess” power is when Jasmine orders the palace guards not to take Aladdin into custody – and it doesn’t even work! Because Jafar, the palace advisor, outranks her! And yeah, at the end of Tangled, they talk about how happy the kingdom is to have Rapunzel back and how she’s a good and wise ruler and whatnot, which echoes the power that the British princesses apparently have to “simply bestow, with the power of [their] presence, a sense of magic, excitement, and healing” that Wolf talks about. But the movies aren’t really about politics. They’re really romantic comedies, usually with music, and animals who talk or at least have strong personalities. And that’s fine. Zoe can watch romantic comedies. I just don’t think I can buy into a statement like, “Don’t worry if your 5-year-old girl insists on a pink frilly princess dress. It doesn’t mean she wants to subside into froth; it just means, sensibly enough for her, that she wants to take over the world.”
The truth is, little girls do like princesses for the same reasons boys like action heroes – because they represent the extremes of gender identification at an age where identifying one’s gender is super-important. In other words, girls love princesses because they are figuring out how to be girls, and boys love action heroes because they are figuring out how to be boys. And I think the heart of the dilemma for feminist moms is that, first, many of us are not into gender essentialism and are sort of squicked out by the idea that our daughters are tying to figure out how to “be girls,” but also because the femininity that these princesses embody is imperfect. There is a lot of emphasis placed on being pretty, landing a man, etc. And it’s not that I object to romance as a reasonable life goal for women, obviously, but when all the Disney movies featuring girls as main characters are romances, whereas the ones featuring boys as main characters are frequently about something else, the cumulative effect is annoying.
I’m not really sure what Naomi Wolf is trying to do in this article. If she’s trying to justify the love some people have for seeing stuff about Kate Middleton, fine, but that’s got nothing to do with little girls. If she’s trying to justify the love little girls have for Disney princesses, she doesn’t write very much about that, give very good examples, or make any sense at all, really.