After a year when everyone from Nicki Minaj to science toys cloaked themselves in the warm, motherly folds of feminism -- when A-list starlets like Divergent Girl and Katy Perry distanced themselves from the "F" word, and when TIME magazine got so sick of the label that they flirted with putting the word on the naughty list -- I think it's safe to say "feminism" is having a moment.
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And then Beyonce stole that moment, as she steals all moments. Now and forever.
And the hubbub that kickstarted the pro-girl talk this year was Frozen, the Disney cartoon that stunned the universe with two female protagonists, a twist on Prince Charming and a song that we dare not mention but rhymes with "Debit, Yo." "Finally!" said everyone who existed in time and space in 2014, "Disney gets it! It only took almost 80 years for the most powerful and influential entertainment company in the world to address its girl issues, but we finally made it! Praise Oprah!"
But what if Frozen was Disney's cynical, pandering take on something they've been successfully doing all along? What if Disney has always given us great feminist role models but we were too blinded by tiaras and frilly dresses to see it?
What if the Disney princesses are the strongest, most reliable feminist icons pop culture has ever produced ... ever?
4Start by Thinking of Them as Protagonists, Not Princesses
Let's play a game. Mentally strip the Disney princesses of their tiaras and poofy gowns, and then IMMEDIATELY replace their clothes with jeans and T-shirts because I'm not facilitating your nasty fantasies. Now, what makes Snow White different from Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins or Jack from Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill? Or Jack from Lost. Either Jack works equally well in this scenario. The important thing is that just because we're talking about princesses doesn't mean they're not following the well-worn hero's journey that we take for granted when we're talking about Harry and Luke. Just for a quick reference, here are the actual princesses we're talking about:
Aurora from Sleeping Beauty
Ariel from The Little Mermaid
Belle from Beauty and the Beast
Jasmine from Aladdin ... although I'd argue Aladdin is the Disney princess of the relationship
Tiana from The Princess and the Frog
Rapunzel from Tangled and
Merida from Brave
Anna and Elsa from Frozen aren't on the list, but that's only because Disney hasn't widened their princess banner enough yet. Maybe if some people could cut down on their petticoat width -- I'm talking to you, Belle and Tiana -- there would be a little more room for the sisters who have practically saved the brand.
For years critics have argued that the main problem with the Disney princess franchise was that the princesses all get saved by, then immediately marry, men. And that's a fair statement for most of the ladies on the list. Even the ones who don't explicitly get married get a big ballroom dance scene at the end of the movie, maybe because the Disney animators were huge fans of concluding every story with a prom. Or maybe because dancing is code for sex, and we're all dirty monsters.
But it's not totally fair to claim that the princesses are helpless babies who don't do anything for themselves. Before getting sucker punched by a tainted apple from a much more powerful woman (more on that later), Snow White saves herself by taking over the household of not one, but seven men. Yes, she gets in the door by cleaning up their filthy rattrap of a hovel, but hey, that's the value she has to offer at that moment. And if taking over and managing a household isn't a worthwhile job, I dare you to say that to your stepmom's face. It's not like she loves you anyway.
"Please stop calling your stepmother "Captain Fartface!"
Cinderella doesn't get saved by a prince; she gets saved by a godmother and her own rebellion against the lady who made her a maid in her own house. If Cinderella was, say, Harry Potter, Prince Charming would be nothing more than Hagrid, the guy who got her out of her house. Except Harry didn't marry Hagrid outside of certain fan circles.
In fact, if you were to approach the Disney princesses from a purely feminist standpoint, you should start with the recognition that most of their adventures begin with rebellion against the patriarchy; Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan LITERALLY disobey their fathers to achieve their goals. Getting out of an oppressive castle/house ruled by evil parents/society is a perfectly reasonable goal at any point in history. Skywalker was bored, so he got out. Belle was bored, so she got out. Same thing. Different universe.
3The Princesses Fill a Decades-Long Role Model Gap
My oldest daughter was born in 2001, barely a year after the whole idea of the Disney princess franchise was launched. Up until that point, each princess existed in her own universe, never crossing paths and never standing in a line side by side under a big banner that read "Sistas Are Doin' for Themselves!" in Walt's loopy handwriting. Sometime around my daughter's 3rd birthday, I not only noticed that suddenly Belle and Snow White were getting merchandised together, but that I was totally excited about it. I bought my daughter a princess storybook, and eventually costumes, tiaras, movies, and every other manifestation of the princess franchise made it into the house.
The queen pondered her kingdom happily, unaware of how STUPID and HISTORICALLY INACCURATE her feather boa looked.
My daughters are 11 and 13 now, and I can't find any evidence that the princess franchise was ever here. So my first piece of unsolicited advice to parents, culture critics, and haters, is that little girls will grow out of the princess phase. Unless you're actually a terrible parent, never think for one minute that your daughters will somehow internalize crowns and costumes to the point where the real world is dealing with their princessness. It NEVER HAPPENS. This is important, because when I bought that first princess chapter book in 2003, I was a little nervous about passing on ideas of entitlement and our beauty-obsessed culture. Whatever misgivings I had about promoting terrible pink values were overshadowed by how excited I was to see all those princesses lined up in a row.
Here's why: The Disney princesses are the little girl's equivalent to the Knights of the Round Table. There is no other context, real or fictional, where girls will see 11 powerful women standing side by side. Except that time Beyonce danced with clones of herself, but that doesn't count anywhere but my heart.
Yes, their waists are way too tiny, their eyes are weirdly huge, they're not as independent as we'd like, and most of them don't have many skills to bring to the workforce, but the Disney princesses have been front and center in their own adventures, decade after decade. Science fiction can barely comprehend women as anything but spunky companions at this point, and we're still mad at Disney?