I want to piggyback on one of the Finicky Cynic’s older posts that she pinged back to earlier this week, one in which she shared her thoughts about a certain group of animated female characters — the Disney Princesses, those beautifully coiffed, elegantly dressed, perfectly moisturized characters in Disney-produced films, toys, books, etc., among them the notable gang of six you see on your right. In her post, F.C. led off by saying that “it is common knowledge that Disney = childhood,” and it’s true: The Disney Character Machine, and the Disney Marketing Machine attached to it, are kid-oriented. The Princesses, in particular, are usually aimed towards girls under 10 who (along with their parents) find happiness in the stories from which these characters come from: Young women longing for a better life (with a handsome prince), overcoming some various difficulty (with the assistance of a handsome prince), and living happily after after (alongside a handsome prince) in a castle so fancy it probably cost more shillings and pound notes than the commoners living outside it will ever see in their lifetimes.
My four nieces were raised on the Disney Princess films, toys, books, etc. their parents bought for them (or more often than not Santa Claus gifted them at Christmas). I recall one toy in particular that Santa gave to my now-almost-13-year-old niece, who was around 5 years old at the time, and would share with her now-almost-11-year-old sister. That toy was a plastic Princesses hand mirror; when you hit a button, not only would the whole mirror would light up and produce magical sound effects, one in a rotation of Princesses (Belle, Snow White, etc.) would appear in the mirror and deliver messages of happiness and positivity. I admit I was also the source of Disney gifts: When my 13- and 11-year-old nieces turned 7 and 5, I followed their mom’s suggestion and gave to them as a birthday gift a Cinderella clock radio in the shape of a pink castle. Why would two kids aged 7 and 5 need an alarm clock, you ask? Well, let’s just say their mom wants them to get as much sleep as possible before the next school day… and that the school bus in their town waits for no one. At least the Cinderella clock gently awakened them to the Fairy Godmother’s pleasant singing (“A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes”) and gentle nudging (“Time to wake up!”), and guided them to sleep with a light beam of stars projected over the castle.
I imagine that my nieces gained through these Princesses an impression that beauty and grace were important things about being a girl. Grace is important, for sure, but I hope that that beauty is internal in nature; I’d prefer that they rank having self-confidence and self-respect ahead of having external good looks (though they are cute to begin with, and yes, I’m saying that as their uncle).
I wonder, too, if they also picked up what F.C. highlighted in her posting, that the Princesses chose to be passive and wait for their prince to come and sweep them away from their dingy drudgery for a “happily ever after” life of luxury. The stories of Cinderella, Snow White, etc. came from times when gender roles were clearly defined — the male was a strong provider, while the female stayed cooped up in the castle after she and her prince got hitched. Those set roles never changed very much under Disney’s watch; they chose to mostly adhere to the plot lines of the original source material, taking few noteworthy liberties with the plot, and just throwing in a lovable dwarf here or a comedy-relief mouse there. I just hope my nieces will just take the Princesses’ passiveness with a grain of salt.
Though they still have some of the toys and most of the movies in their families’ possession, my nieces are now older and have graduated from the Disney Princesses’ target audience. They have moved on to other Disney characters, some with their own source material but all benefiting through the use of screenwriters and animators who know that the times have changed from the clean-cut, set-in-certain-ways mindset of the middle-20th century (and similar mindsets in the many generations before then). One such new(-ish) character Disney developed is that of Fa Mulan, the lead character of the 1998 film Mulan that F.C. also highlighted in her posting. One of the things that makes Fa Mulan unique is that she doesn’t originate from from some European-centric fairy tale; rather, the animators and screenwriters gained inspiration from the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan. In, Mulan, Fa Mulan wasn’t some fair-haired girl who would willingly wait for a handsome prince to come in and save the day. In fact, Mulan could actually, if you forgive my language, kick some major booty, choosing to do so — willingly — even when those around her (including her family and some comrades in arms) hesitated in their support or forbade her from joining the fight.
But Mulan did fight. And when reading online about the legend of Hua Mulan for this post, I found one thing quite noteworthy: Once she helped win the fight and was celebrated as the hero(ine), she politely declined any honors from and offers to stay with the Emperor and his army. In fact, all Mulan wanted to do was head home and reunite with the family she loved and respected; it’s one aspect of the Mulan legend Disney preserved in the Mulan film (and credit the filmmakers, by the way, for staying as close to the legend as possible). That longing feeling Mulan had toward her family could also be equated to the longing the Disney Princesses had. But is longing for a prince to sweep you off your feet the same as longing for your own flesh and blood? I mean, you had your loving family long before you met your prince or princess, right?
The independence, initiative, and heroism — and choice — exhibited by Fa Mulan is something I hope will rub off on my nieces now that they are approaching an age where they can comprehend the real meaning of Mulan — that though it may be yet another animated Disney movie with cute characters, its title character serves as a positive female role model. I just hope that they can pay attention to the film when their friends aren’t over to play or their eyes aren’t fixated at the games on their tablet computers. If and when they do, I hope they will enjoy the film (or enjoy it again) and learn something while they’re wowed by the animation and storyline — that being strong, taking initiative, and growing more confident in themselves while doing so, knows no gender lines and can trump the hidebound conservative (and castle-bound) roles that those from previous generations still seem to hold on to like a vise grip.
I do hope, too, that my nieces (and maybe adults) never forget something else that can result from watching a Disney animated movie, be it Mulan, one with the Princesses, or something totally different — the feeling of happiness one gets while watching it. I’m not talking about the joy one feels when seeing Mulan victorious in battle or when the prince slips that glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot, but rather the films’ entertainment value. I find myself agreeing with something F.C. mentions at the end of her posting, that a kid watches films like these for the fun factor and entertainment value, not to be a pint-sized Siskel or Ebert. When I refer to the entertainment factor, I’m talking about the enjoyment generated by the whimsicality of the animation, the giggle-generating antics of the comedic sidekick, or even the happy feeling a princess can have in the middle of the film. Heck, it can also come from the smiling face of the princess in the spin-off book, or even when a contemporary Princess like Anna from Frozen leaves a real-life message of inspiration to a sick child so enamored by the film and the character. (Really, you gotta love Kristen Bell for doing that.)
So, to sum up, love the Princesses or Mulan or Frozen, but don’t forget to learn a few things from it: That it’s okay to long for something. That it’s better — nay, important — to go forth and seek that something you long for. That it’s a great feeling when you conquer the wicked witches or invading marauders in your lives. And that, heck, it’s still fun when the characters (and the comedy relief) can bring a smile to faces young and old.