I more or less alway have a post like this in my drafts, because there is more or less always a moral panic about how Disney Princess Movies Are Ruining Our Girlchildren. Today’s word salad specials: this Cracked article and this BuzzFeed article, on top of dozens of blog articles about how Moana is terrific (true) because it’s not like those other Disney Princess movies (. . . eh . . .). On the list of things that are Ruining Our Girlchildren, Disney Princess movies rank like a 96. In fact, the biggest feminists in my life are also the biggest Disney nerds. Hot take: it’s almost like they became feminists because of Disney Princess movies, not in spite of them. Funny how growing up seeing media of young women achieving their dreams makes one want to break down societal barriers so women can achieve their dreams. Funny that. So, here is my entry into the word salad specials:
The way American culture treats cartoons is weird. We’re supposed to treat them as if they’re beneath us when we’re adults, but we have higher expectations for them than other media because they ~*shape our youth*~. A bad action movie or romantic comedy quickly fades into obscurity, but a bad cartoon movie makes everyone indignant, as if the parents that allow their children to watch them must also use safety-recalled car seats and gluten-filled baby food, quelle horreur! Merely knowing about Sausage Party angered a lot of parents, even though it never lied about what it was in promotional materials and press junkets, because how could a cartoon movie, a medium for children, be so . . . adult? (South Park’s been a thing for 20 years, people, get with the program.) And, on the surface, a lot of Disney Princess movies have themes that make adults queasy–I bet the first thing that came to your mind is the first that came to mine, which is “Beauty and the Beast is about Stockholm Syndrome!”* It is also admittedly hard to defend the three classic princess movies (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) for feminism.
But to act like feminism in Disney movies was a thing invented in the aughts is disingenuous. I’ve written before how people acted like Frozen was blazing new trails when it really wasn’t, and it’s looking like more of the same with Moana. One of the things I appreciated about Moana was that it subverted Disney Princess movie tropes without putting blinking neons signs that they were subverting them like Frozen did. Frozen made a big deal out of the “you can’t marry a man you just met” thing, while Moana has no romantic relationship for the main character and it’s incidental. No one mentions it. It’s not the first Disney Princess movie to do this either, like some people are saying–there’s been some infighting about whether or not Mulan does this, and I’m on the side that it doesn’t. Sure, Shang has a cute crush on Mulan and the Emperor says “You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty” with a tone that implies “don’t mess this up, fuckboi,” but a Shang/Mulan marriage is not imminent by the end of the movie. A relationship, yes, a marriage? No. (Although, sort of ironically, Mulan begins her movie as a bride.) People also forget that Pocahontas ends not with a marriage but with a clean, healthy, mutual breakup. That’s super useful for kids to see!
But you’re not here for my Moana review, so back to my point: Are Disney Princess movies feminist? Yes. Even the older ones? Yes. Allow me to elaborate:
A lot of people complain about Disney movies because they overly focus on marriage as a goal for girls. And that’s fair, but it’s throwing Disney under the bus unnecessarily because there are so many strong female characters in literature who are still defined by marriage, usually by spurning it, e.g. Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, and Jo March. Girls–and boys, considering how many non-Disney-Princess properties show the male protagonist “getting the girl” in the end–will still get a cultural message of (hetero)romantic relationships or marriage as the end-all, be-all of human existence even if they don’t see a single young lady aged 14-20 sing about wishing for something with an animal sidekick. That’s not to say this aspect shouldn’t be criticized, it should, but to rest this solely on the shoulders of Disney movies ignores the real problem that it’s friggin’ everywhere.
Plus, focusing on the marriage aspect misses the point that, with the exception of Snow White and Aurora, none of the princesses start out wanting to be married (and even with Snow White and Aurora, it’s more girlish daydreaming than putting things in motion to make that happen, kind of like how people plan Pinterest weddings while not being engaged). Cinderella, as that famous Pinterest graphic states, wants a night off and a dress, Ariel wants to explore the human world, Belle wants adventure, Jasmine wants to be free, Pocahontas and Merida want to have adventures before they get married (and to get married on their own terms, not their family’s), Mulan wants to please her family (while, again, she is literally dressed as a bride at the beginning of her movie, what she wants is to please her family, and she thinks she’ll get that through marriage), Tiana wants to open her restaurant, Rapunzel wants to see the lanterns . . . you get the gist. And they set out and eventually get what they want, picking up a cute man along the way who doesn’t hinder them from getting what they want. You know, like . . . life. I met my husband in college, and I know several fellow feminists who met their spouses in college, but accuse them of going to college to “get their M.R.S. degree” and watch the hackles raise. So why do it to imaginary women?
Of course, this is not to say these movies are perfect. There’s a laundry list of racism alone in them, for instance. (Here’s looking at you, Pocahontas and Aladdin.) And don’t even get me started on the body image stuff. But to act baffled that Millennial women nearly unanimously grew up to be feminists despite aggressive Princess Indoctrination (registered trademark) when they were young means you haven’t really been paying attention. When I was growing up, you kind of had to take what you could get in terms of female role models in media that was child-appropriate. Sure, there was Princess Leia, but there was also Princess Leia’s gold bikini. I remember being nine and seeing The Phantom Menace in the theater and leaving upset that there were no women on the Jedi Council (on top of, of course, being upset at having just seen The Phantom Menace). Since all the Jedi we had seen up until that point had been men, I was kind of hoping it was open to women, too. (Yo, George Lucas, make THAT edit to a special edition.) There was Harry Potter, of course, aka “Harry Potter and the Notion That It Should Be Hermione’s Series Because She Does All the Work.” There was Ripley and Buffy, technically, because my childhood coincided with when they came out, but I wasn’t allowed to watch them. So here comes a batch of young women who are stars of their own stories and go on cool adventures–of course I lapped that shit up. You don’t get to squawk about how the Disney princesses are terrible or how an all-female Ghostbusters is “unnecessary” but then leave all the well-written strong female characters for the grown-ups. That’s too little, too late.
Moana is great. Moana passes the Bechdel test and does “everything right” for a piece of feminist media today. But she is not peerless; rather, she has her foremothers to thank, as this excellent BuzzFeed article articulates:
What has actually changed over time is not that each princess has rejected everything that constrained the princesses who came before her, but rather that, starting with Ariel, the princesses all seem more human, in part because there were greater numbers of real women creating them. Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Anna, Elsa, and Moana are each distinct; there is no anti-princess because there is no one way to be a princess, and there hasn’t been for nearly 30 years. Each imperfect character gained a deeper humanity because of women’s work behind the scenes.
[. . .]
Moana is strong and smart and brave and single not in spite of her princess peers, but because of them — and the women who demanded more.
Disney uses in their promotional materials a lot that Disney teaches you “how to dream.” The Disney Princesses taught me and my Millennial feminist sisters how to dream, certainly, but more importantly, how to achieve. The Disney Princess panic will always be there, but the Disney Princesses will always be there, too. Let your daughter be Belle. She will be fine.
*This is very “college freshman”-esque media criticism, because it’s edgy, but everyone who says this can’t seem to elaborate on it past “well, she falls in love with her captor so it’s obviously Stockholm Syndrome.” Like . . . no. Stop. It was very important for the storytellers of Beauty and the Beast to show how Belle stands up for herself to avoid accusations that this was a Stockholm Syndrome story. Plus, the legendary Howard Ashman poured his heart and soul into the film, making it about how one can be loved even as an “outsider,” which is poignant considering he made this film as an out gay man dying of AIDS. But sure. Keep saying that Beauty and the Beast is about Stockholm Syndrome. Now put that red Solo cup down and break out your acoustic guitar, we’d all love to hear your “Wonderwall” cover.