Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Princess Rant #1

OK, I'm a 41 year old man writing about his issues with Disney Princesses. What about that isn't just a little bit unsettling. However, I have a four year old daughter, and like any parent, I worry about the influences that will shape her into the adult she is going to become. In some ways, she has it easier than my wife and I did at her age. There are many more opportunities to expose our kids to positive media that is enticing enough for them to pay attention. My daughter and her twin brother have recently discovered the charms of PBSKids. Good for them.

Anyhow, I'm hardly the first to gripe about the Disney princesses. I've read countless times about the Borg-like way they assimilate young girls into a media empire, consuming little minds with their consumerist mandate. I have encountered critiques of the princess that center around their message of acquisition (honestly, when was the last time you saw Cinderella portrayed in her servant rages? For all that Disney tries to preach 'it's what inside that counts', they certainly manage to define the Princesses by the pretty things they wear). And recently I read a feminist take on the Princesses that convincingly traced their descent to the cult of domesticity in the nineteenth century (head always bowed demurely, eye contact is always indirect, idealized figures (more curvy in each incarnation).

But few seem to consider the message kids receive from the Princess narrative. Individual stories and plot elements might be critiqued (ie the eagerly assumed domesticity of Snow White, the petulance of Ariel), the topoi which seem to inform every Princess film go unchallenged.

In each version of the Princess story, there is a girl who considers her circumstances unhappy. She wishes for change, and through her determination and the intervention of magical friends, she achieves her desire. In no case does the princess have to undergo any transformation or personal growth. Compare Jasmine (unhappy because of her confined circumstances, achieves happiness through being wooed) to Aladdin (unhappy because of poverty, achieves happiness not only through magic but from the realization that character counts more than wealth). In the Disney mythos, personal growth is for boys, wish fulfillment is for girls.

Pixar, in my opinion, gets it right. In every Pixar film made to date, the hero and the characters around him (usually a him, isn't it?) has their assumptions about the way things work challenged. They have to undergo significant loss and discover new depths of maturity to achieve the happy ending.

Hear that, princesses?
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