Friday, 28 September 2012

The New Age of Princessery

The Second Age of the Princess is upon us. However, with film titles like Tangled, Brave, and Frozen, you could be forgiven for not noticing. Disney is going through a bit of a strange period, in the sense that it wants to keep the girls and their billions, but it also wants to bring in boys. To do this, the company bought the iconic characters of Marvel, and, at the same time, made its fairy tale adaptations less recognizable. If we didn’t know better, we’d almost say that Disney is ashamed of its princesses.


Less than a year after The Princess and the Frog, Disney released another princess movie. And it would really like you to know that it’s not like those OTHER princess movies, except that it totally is.

In Disney’s reimagining of the fairy tale, the former commoner, now Disney princess Rapunzel is the magic-infused product of a union between a king, a queen, and a life-saving sun flower. Eighteen years after she was kidnapped by a witch, Rapunzel lives in a tower isolated from everyone but her “mother,” Gothel. In this time, she has become a bit unhinged. She is almost obsessively busy at all times; her “I Want” song includes her actual dream as something of an afterthought, breaking up a long list of her daily distractions. These distractions include performing all aspects of floor cleaning and maintenance, doing laundry, reading, painting, playing guitar, knitting, cooking, doing puzzles, playing darts, baking, doing paper maché, dancing, playing chess, making pottery, doing ventriloquism routines, making candles, stretching, sketching, climb, sewing, and brushing her hair. It’s a wonder she has any time in her schedule to pencil in some existential angst. She asks, “When will my life begin?”

And, for everyone familiar with the Disney princess library, we know that the answer is “when the guy shows up.” The problem is that the guy has already shown up, not merely introduced earlier, as in other princess films, but actually telling the story. The film opens with a man, Flynn Rider, telling us that this is the story of how he died, then amending that assertion by saying that it’s not actually his story at all, but Rapunzel’s. It’s fine to claim such a thing, but the fact that he delivers the voice-over is reason enough to doubt this claim.

Another reason lies in the title of the film itself. Developed under the title Rapunzel, Tangled was renamed fairly late in the game. The lacklustre box office performance of The Princess and the Frog led Disney to make a completely logical deduction: if a film does not perform well, it is not because it was sidelined by sidekicks, didn’t develop its villain enough, and had a problematic message, but rather because it had “princess” in the title. Apparently, as Disney studio executives claimed, the film was “prejudged by its title,” which failed to draw in the desired demographic for princess movies: little boys. If all of this sounds a bit ridiculous, that’s because it is. Floyd Norman, a retired Disney animator who worked on Mulan, said of the name change:  "I'm still hoping that Disney will eventually regain their sanity and return the title of their movie to what it should be. I'm convinced they'll gain nothing from this except the public seeing Disney as desperately trying to find an audience." It is also a matter of Disney biting the hand that feeds it, raking in billions of princess-generated dollars while trying to distance itself from the very idea of princesses.

This may be why Rapunzel and Tangled feel a bit more Dreamworks than Disney. Another departure from the Disney brand is the protagonist who is not merely assisted by a magical person, but is actually magical herself. The flower grown from a sunbeam instils in Rapunzel’s hair magical powers: it is prehensile, possesses the ability to heal and restore youth, glows, and grows at a distressing speed. This appears to be the first instance of a princess having legitimate superpowers, although they are stereotypically feminine ones. There is nothing inherently wrong with feminine forms of power; however, it is problematic that the hair’s primary ability seems only to exist for the healing and restoration of other people. In addition, the climactic moment of the film occurs when Flynn chops off Rapunzel’s hair, preventing her from sacrificing her future in order to save him, but also eliminating her powers. It’s tough to support a film in which the climactic scene treats the loss of a woman’s power as a net positive because she gets the guy at the end.

Although Rapunzel’s dream of seeing the floating lights gives the film its structure, it is her new dream that gives it its message. When Flynn dies, he informs Rapunzel that she was his new dream and she says the same of him. We hate Rapunzel’s first dream because, while focused, seeing the lanterns is a day trip, not a life goal. We know that the lanterns are an obvious stand-in for the world outside and that what Rapunzel really wants is to see the wonders of the world outside her tower, but that doesn’t make the temporary escape from a life of inanity a better goal than actual escape. Also, Quasimodo did it first and better, because he couldn’t just use his hair to climb down at any time. The problem with her second dream of romantic love and a future with Flynn Rider in his true identity as Eugene Fitzherbert is the implications. Although Rapunzel is stuck in an abusive relationship with her kidnapper “mother”, it is still troubling that the film’s message is one of romantic love (of a day and a half) defeating familial bonds. Even the restoration of Rapunzel’s biological family at the end doesn’t really resolve this issue.

Finally, we can’t discuss Rapunzel without addressing the frying pan. On the one hand, Rapunzel’s chosen weapon is a lovely statement about the use of traditionally domestic objects in new situations; like Rapunzel herself, the frying pan finds a place outside the home. At the same time, it is played for laughs every time it is used, by Rapunzel or anyone else. When she hits Flynn in order to defend herself and her home, she is taking down an invader and potentially proving that she can handle herself in the world outside. This should be a defining moment for her, and she obviously thinks it is, joyously exclaiming, “I’ve got a person in my closet!” It is, however, once again made into a joke when she celebrates by flourishing the pan and hits herself in the head. Mulan may have fumbled with her sword, but she learned pretty quickly how to use it. In contrast, Rapunzel’s weapon of choice and the things she accomplishes with it are made out to be ridiculous, and the agency she asserts in doing these things is dismissed with laughter. We are not amused.

Verdict: Strong Female Character ™


Disclaimer: Precious Princess of Our Hearts

Second Disclaimer: Technically Disney-Pixar, But Disney Seems On Track To Adopt Her As An Official Princess, So We’ll Be Treating Her That Way

Merida is, in many ways, Rapunzel’s polar opposite. Whereas Rapunzel is a Disney Princess by way of Dreamworks, Merida is both a subversion of, and tribute to, the women who came before her. She has the weaponry skills of Mulan, the athleticism of Pocahontas, the rebellious selfishness of Ariel, and a whole host of other qualities gleaned from her predecessors. (For more on this and a few other points we will bring up, see the brilliant “Just Another Princess Movie” by Lili Loofbourow.)

For all that she is derived from the other princesses, Merida is unabashedly herself. With a mane of hair that is itself basically a force of nature, she is stubborn, willful, and strong. She has that quality known as “mad swag,” with confident movements and a massive presence. It seems like a small thing, but she is shown eating on multiple occasions. Her usual snack is an apple from which, like Snow White, she takes only one bite. However, when she brings a platter of pastries out to the dinner table, her mother assumes that that is her meal, making it easy to infer that she does not have a small appetite. She lacks the prettiness and daintiness that tend to mark the princess line, portrayed even in promotional material with a sort of dorky, wide grin and a proud, open posture. When she’s angry or frustrated, she swings a sword around, taking chunks out of her bedposts and forcing people to give her a wide berth. Unlike her predecessors, she does not sing, so her “I Want” song takes the form of the soundtrack that accompanies her on her adventures. In this scene, with “Touch the Sky” in the background telling us about Merida’s yearning for freedom, Merida completes a difficult, oft-practiced archery exercise, gallops around on her Clydesdale, and climbs a rock face to drink from a waterfall. You know, just for the hell of it.

It is perhaps this behaviour, which draws no attention when it is a male character that is awesome at everything, that led Roger Ebert to declare Merida an “honorary boy.” What is refreshing about Merida, however, is that she is no way a boy, choosing to wear dresses and at no point expressing any interest in being anything but a girl. At the same time, she is being trained as a prince in the guise of a princess. Her father, Fergus, teaches her falconry, swordplay, and archery, while her mother, Elinor, teaches her public speaking, history, music, and embroidery, providing training to make Merida both commander-in-chief and lawmaker. When Merida tells the story of climbing the Crone’s Tooth to drink from the Fire Falls, Fergus observes that “only the ancient kings were brave enough to drink the fire.” Even with the threat of impending marriage hanging over her head, we know that Merida is going to be the one wearing the crown and calling the shots.

Indeed, the main conflict kicks off because Merida has her agency taken away. Immediately after Fergus suggests that Merida’s accomplishment makes her part of a group of kings, Elinor tells her that she will have to marry a man who will, we assume, become king instead. Merida, having been created for today’s audiences and therefore not overly taken with the idea of adhering to 10th Century social conventions, is livid. The day of the competition for her hand, which she has already rigged in her favour, she exploits a loophole and proclaims, “I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” She promptly follows through on this promise and beats her suitors soundly. Unfortunately, she’s basically started a war by humiliating her clan’s allies, and her mother understandably reams her out, so Merida turns her into a bear. This is one of the truly lovely aspects of the film: Merida shifts blame onto the witch, but she was the one who demanded a spell to change her fate. Her personal journey involves accepting the truth of her agency; she committed this horrible act, and she must set things right. She is, in this sense, her own antagonist.

Merida continues to distort gendered dichotomies as her story revolves around the typically masculine concept of fate. (Yes, we know that the existence of the legendary Fates and the convenient presence of three major women in this film link it to the feminine conceptualization of fate; however, the fact that it is treated as a kind of heroic destiny makes it an example of a generally masculine trope.) Her destiny, as assisted by the wisps, involves her maturation into a more thoughtful, less selfish person. This development is also directly linked to her diplomatic ability, suggesting that the realization of her destiny will allow her to become a better ruler. In order to achieve this destiny and save her mother, she must lock swords with her father and mend the tapestry with needle and thread, thereby employing both traditionally masculine and feminine tools. (We had planned to use an epic phallic symbolism joke here, but once we considered the context, our brains rebelled and rejected every joke out of sheer horror. Actual gray matter may have leaked out of our ears.)

Although our own sad attempts at humour may have melted our brains, it is the masterfully crafted, subversive message of this film that blew our minds. Brave is set in a world where everyone either is or claims to be stereotypically brave, but this is only part of the reason behind the title. Numerous critics saw the movie, expecting some rollicking adventure film starring a warrior princess who wrestles bears with her bare hands or something of the sort, and many viewers have claimed that the title has no relevance to the content of the film.

However, what they failed to notice is that punching bears in the face is not a pastime practiced by most of the audience members. This kind of bravery is not novel or useful. Merida’s true bravery lies in confronting her own mistakes and learning from them, in having the courage to play her part in keeping society afloat, and, honestly, in facing the fact that she’s a bit of an asshole and trying to be less of one. Ultimately, it is much less difficult to face a horde of enemies or climb a sheer rock face than it is to confront your own failings and actively seek to fix them. Merida is not perfect, but she is made stronger by her imperfections.

Also, she delivers her own damn voice-over.

Verdict: Actual strong female character

Anna (and Elsa)

The third in a list of films that have all spent years in development hell, Frozen is Disney’s next princess venture. The film, formerly known as The Snow Queen (see bitterness about the Rapunzel to Tangled name change above to get our feelings about this shift), is slated to come out in November 2013, and we want to look at it as the potential future of the Disney princess brand. The following is all speculation based on the information currently available about the film, and we will have a follow-up review to address the differences between the film and the hype when it is released.

The second released synopsis reads as follows: “When Anna is cursed by her estranged sister, the cold-hearted Snow Queen, Anna’s only hope of reversing the curse is to survive a perilous but thrilling journey across an icy and unforgiving landscape. Joined by a rugged, thrill-seeking outdoorsman, his one-antlered reindeer and a hapless snowman, Anna must race against time, conquer the elements and battle an army of menacing snowmen if she ever hopes to melt her frozen heart.”

Our first concern is the description of the characters. While the male lead, Kristoff, has an actual character description, we learn almost nothing about Anna or the Snow Queen. We don’t even learn the Snow Queen’s name, which is apparently Elsa. In addition, we have the ever-present male sidekicks, one of whom also gets more of a description than our protagonist. At least one person who has seen concept art, heard one of the songs, and knows more about the plot of the film, claims that it is a story about the two sisters. They also say that the sisters’ relationship will be significantly less adversarial than the synopsis suggests, which makes us wonder why Disney chose to release such a misleading description. Does pitting two women against each other really make people rush to buy tickets?

This person claims that “Elsa creates snowmen monsters to guard her castle of ice atop the mountain. However these hideous beasts get out of control and are going to attack the kingdom.” This is problematic for the simple reason that it makes this film one of a tremendous number that suggest that women can’t handle power. It is already bad enough that Elsa’s ability to control ice is framed as negative and apparently leads her to a self-imposed exile, but the fact that she can’t actually control the ice she can supposedly control is particularly galling. The film may give her the opportunity to reclaim this power as positive and learn how to wield it properly. We certainly hope so.

The final troubling aspect of that synopsis is this language about hearts. The Snow Queen is “cold-hearted,” which the OED defines as wanting in sensibility, cordiality, or natural affection; unfeeling; unkind. We appreciate the fact that Merida’s a bit of an asshole, so we would be ecstatic about a positively portrayed female character who isn’t the embodiment of sunshine and rainbows, and doesn’t go out of her way to please others. Even Anna must try to “melt her [own] frozen heart,” which is implied to be part of the curse laid on her by her sister. The women in this film are portrayed as defined by their hearts, not their brains or anything else, so we would not be at all surprised if Anna’s heart is melted by that “rugged, thrill-seeking outdoorsman.” We hope that it will be reversed through sisterly affection, but we’ve now watched nine of these things end in magical heterosexual romance, and one end in implied romance confirmed by the sequel, so we’re not holding out hope.

We would love to have our cynicism proven unfounded, if only because we would like Merida, not Rapunzel, to be the originator of the next set of Disney princesses.


How do you summarize seventy-five years of princesses? What does being a princess mean?

For Snow White and Aurora, it seems to be a sign of their worth, as the fairies tell Aurora when they give her “this one last gift … the symbol of thy royalty: a crown to wear in grace and beauty, as is thy right and royal duty.”

For Cinderella, Belle, Ariel, and Tiana, it is part of their reward. There is no indication that any of these women will have actual power, as Cinderella’s father-in-law just wants her to have babies, Belle and Ariel marry princes who don’t seem to be involved in any actual ruling, and Tiana’s life stays pretty much as it would have been if Naveen were an ordinary guy. Of course, one day Naveen will be the king of Maldonia, and they will probably have to live there and leave the restaurant; becoming a princess actually means that Tiana will lose her dream. Yay?

For Jasmine, it is being governed by stupid laws, but also, when she is queen, having the power to fire people. Aladdin is explicitly identified as the real future ruler.

For Pocahontas, it is setting an example and sacrificing an apparently epic love.

For Mulan, it’s not actually an issue because, in a way, she doesn’t even go here. She’s also too busy being a badass to care.

For Rapunzel, it is the restoration of her identity and her family.

For Merida, it is a job: intense training for the day when she takes power as the commander-in-chief, head diplomat and lawgiver of a precariously balanced kingdom.

Being a Disney princess means that you will be loved by millions of children, who will one day introduce you to their own children (or, in our case, nephews). These films are rife with problematic elements, but there is still something to be said for many of these characters.

I recently bought a set of Disney princess board books for my nephew (and, I must admit, for the look on my brother’s face). Entitled “I Can Be a Princess,” the set offers twelve lessons: be yourself (Mulan), be adventurous (Rapunzel), be fair to others (Belle), believe (Cinderella), be curious (Ariel), be thankful (Aurora), be determined (Tiana), be polite (Snow White), be kind to animals (Cinderella), be friendly (Rapunzel), be independent (Jasmine), and be brave (Belle, but it’s okay, because I bought a Brave book as well). It’s less about being royal than about being a decent human being, and we think that’s an important lesson for anyone to learn. Even boys.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Outcasts

We interrupt your regularly scheduled princess programming with an urgent news bulletin.

After the end of the Disney Renaissance, the House of Mouse stepped outside its princess box to make some really terrible films as well as some fairly solid ones. In the latter category are Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Lilo & Stitch, two films that feature multiple female characters. They represent a breath of fresh air which unfortunately blew away with the return of the Disney princess.

(We included Meg just for the hell of it.)


In Greek mythology, Megara was the first of Heracles’ four wives: she was given to him by her father, King Creon of Thebes, after Heracles defeated the Minyans at Orochomenos. Heracles brought Megara to his home in Thebes, and she bore him a son and a daughter. Unfortunately, Heracles was driven mad by Hera (who resented him because he was the offspring of an affair Zeus had with the mortal Alcmene, and living proof of Zeus’ infidelity) and killed his children. Some sources claim that he also killed Megara, while others state that she was given to Iolaus (Heracles’ nephew) after Heracles left Thebes, never to return. Not exactly Disney material, there.

But then again, the Megara of Disney’s Hercules isn’t standard Disney material either. She is a dame straight out of a classic film noir, a self-proclaimed loner, and an unabashedly skeptical and sarcastic woman. When we first meet Megara, she’s in a typical Damsel in Distress situation: the centaur river guardian Nessus is manhandling her. Hercules tries to step in and save her; however, she refuses his help, saying, “I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this. Have a nice day.” It is only after Hercules leaves that we learn that she went looking for trouble, having been sent by Hades to convince the centaur to join his side in the coming war. We also learn that Megara is completely unimpressed with Hercules’ “big, innocent farm boy routine.” The Lois Lane to Hercules’ Superman, Megara only truly notices him when he saves Pain and Panic in the guise of cherubic children.

Still, she is reluctant to fulfill the narrative’s role for her, as she plays the double agent while resisting the pull to become a love interest. She is forced at every turn to play the femme fatale, deploying her feminine wiles at Hades’ command. The bulk of her courtship with Hercules is part of Hades’ plan to discover Hercules’ weaknesses, making Megara a pawn in a game played by men and gods. The only control she possesses at this point is control over her own feelings, and even they are rebelling. After a date not necessarily with the Devil, but certainly planned by him, Meg laments her situation, refusing to acknowledge the fact that she’s in love. She is manipulated by her feelings just as much as she is manipulated by her master.

And this is a dangerous and familiar situation for Meg. She’s stuck in this predicament because she sold her soul for a guy who immediately left her for another woman, proving that you have to be a mermaid for that kind of deal to work out. Indeed, the lesson this particular film appears to be trying to get across is that it’s fine to give up everything for a guy, but it has to be a guy worthy of such a sacrifice. Meg goes on to make a similarly substantial sacrifice for Hercules: she pushes him out of the path of a falling pillar while he’s weakened by his deal with Hades, sustaining fatal internal injuries in the process. In doing so, she restores his strength and allows him to go to the Underworld to confront Hades, where he risks his life to regain her soul. In risking his life for Megara, Hercules gains the Official Stamp of Heroic Approval from Zeus and is elevated to god status. He refuses immortality so he can be with Meg, whose mortality excludes her from Mount Olympus. There is a certain equality in their mutual heroic sacrifice, rendering Meg a kind of hero in her own right.

However, it's Hercules’ name on the tin, and Megara’s story revolves around a romantic relationship with him. Like Jasmine, she’s a Supporting Character, albeit a pretty cool one.

Verdict: Supporting Character


With the release of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Disney introduced us to Kidagakash, a competent, capable princess by birth -- the first since Pocahontas, seven films and six years before. In addition to having the coolest name of any Disney character, she may have the most harrowing origin story. Her mother is literally pried from her hands while the apocalypse happens all around her; her mother seems to die as the city sinks.

Later, Kida is re-introduced in a scene obviously intentionally reminiscent of every moment of first contact between colonizing “heroes” and “savage” natives, as she and her companions wear large masks and threaten the invaders. However, we already know that the Atlanteans are actually a highly advanced civilization, and we forged a connection to them before we forged one with the surface dwellers. In this sense, the cliched meeting is a kind of subversion of the trope. Unlike Pocahontas, who learned English by listening to her heart, Kida and the other Atlanteans became polyglots by studying languages. While Kida is curious and knowledgeable about other cultures, her real passion is learning more about her own fading culture. She brings the explorers into Atlantis so she might convince her father to let them stay in the city and teach the Atlanteans about their past. When the explorers are only allowed to stay for one day before leaving, she takes advantage of their short stay to show Milo around the city and have him translate an underwater mural that discloses the heart of their culture and the reason for her mother’s disappearance. While Milo is falling all over himself muttering about “pretty girls,” Kida is using him to get things done.

They are not, however, the things her father would like her to do. He tells her that the invaders should be killed, and that a thousand years earlier, Kida herself would have been more than up to the task. During that millenium, it seems that Kida has been forced by the evidence of her people’s impending demise to experience tremendous character growth. Nevertheless, when Milo and Kida emerge from their subaquatic study date she doesn’t hesitate to take down three of the guards awaiting their arrival, thereby demonstrating that she is every bit the warrior she used to be. She and her father have different ideas about the way Atlantis should be run; whereas she understands that their way of life is dying, he argues that it is actually preserved and that all will become clear when she takes the throne. She learns the truth before she wears the crown, however, having been chosen by the Heart of Atlantis to act as a conduit in order to save her people. Basically, she has phenomenal, cosmic powers without the itty bitty living space. After saving Atlantis from a volcanic eruption, Kida becomes queen in her own right -- the only Disney princess to become an active monarch during the course of the film.

Kida is also the only Disney princess not to kiss her love interest: she and Milo are shown embracing once, holding hands once, and then rebuilding Atlantis together. The most outright romantic implication we get is that Milo marries Kida and becomes prince consort, having donned Atlantean clothing and tattoos. It’s downright refreshing.

While Kida is an excellent character in her own right, what makes the criminally underrated Atlantis: The Lost Empire stand out from the crowd is the sheer number of female characters. Not only are there women shown manning the controls of the submarine, there are four women in the principal cast. Joining Kida are three of the explorers, Mrs. Packard, Helga Sinclair, and Audrey Ramirez. Mrs. Packard is the radio operator, a woman who remains so cool in the face of danger that she offers advice on her friend’s marriage while a monstrous machine attacks the submarine in which she is travelling. Helga is introduced as a straight-up femme fatale, but is soon revealed to be the mission’s second in command. After she is betrayed by Rourke -- who, in another wonderful subversion of the formula, she is not dating -- she plays an integral role in saving Atlantis by shooting down Rourke’s escape balloon.

One of the film’s major achievements is its subtle reimagining of the hero’s best friend. Audrey fills the position of the protagonist’s closest friend, a role usually reserved for a white or black man, here played by a Puerto Rican woman. Despite being only a teenager, Audrey is the chief mechanic on the mission. When Milo asks how that came about, the following dialogue occurs: “I took this job when my dad retired. But, the funny thing was, he always wanted sons, right? One to run his machine shop, another to be middleweight boxing champion. But he got my sister and me, instead.” “So, what... what happened to your sister?” “She’s 24 and 0, with a shot at the title next month.” The real value of this exchange lies in the way it is delivered: as if it is no big deal. When the crew members turn their backs on him, she is the first to step forward to support him, despite the fact that a change of allegiance almost certainly means that she will never return to the surface in order to open the second garage that her pay was supposed to fund. This film is full of women being awesome in ways that the film doesn’t need to draw attention to, because it just expects it of them.

(Bonus points for not female but still awesome Dr. Joshua Strongbear Sweet, a biracial man (Native and African American) who is proud of his cultural heritage and wickedly quick with a bone saw. Extra points for Vinny Santorini, whose past as a flower arranger is in no way disparaged by the film, but is rather upheld as an admirable future plan should his taste for demolition run its course.)

Verdict: Actual strong female character


We are inundated with films about the profound connection between male children and their legendary or science fiction derived creatures: a boy and his dragon (How to Train Your Dragon), a boy and his robot (The Iron Giant), and a boy and his alien (E.T.), to name a few. Little girls find this kind of connection almost exclusively in girl and her horse movies, which offer significantly fewer opportunities for the protagonist’s story to have national, global, and even intergalactic significance. Lilo & Stitch represents a departure from this model.

When we first meet her, Lilo is a brilliant yet profoundly troubled kid. She runs late to dance class because she was making an offering to Pudge, a fish that she claims controls the weather. When she arrives at dance class Lilo jumps seamlessly into the routine being performed, only to have the rest of the girls slip on the water she tracked in. After explaining the reason for her lateness and being mocked by Myrtle, one of her “friends,” Lilo fights (and bites) Myrtle. Their dance instructor breaks the fight up, and Lilo is immediately remorseful and apologetic. It seems that while she’s trying to be good, she can’t quite keep on track. Still, Lilo is treated as a very wise character: she is aware of the problems with her relationship with her sister (“We’re a broken family, aren’t we?”) and is doing her darnedest to try and make things right. When we find out that her parents died in a car accident caused by bad weather, the importance of her peanut butter and jelly sandwich offerings to Pudge the Meteorologic Fish takes on much more gravity. Presumably, the offerings she makes are to stop Pudge from causing more harm to her broken family.

With Lilo’s wisdom comes eccentricity. She makes voodoo dolls of her “friends” and shakes them in a pickle jar. When she crafted her ragdoll Scrump and accidentally made her head too big, Lilo decided that it was because Scrump had bug eggs laid in her head. When she meets Cobra Bubbles, her first question for him is if he’s ever killed anyone. She is a massive Elvis Presley fangirl. Later, when Stitch is trashing Lilo’s room, she clutches some of her finger paintings and proclaims that they were from her “blue period.” Her eccentricity also manifests itself as an incredible gift for finding the beauty in odd things. She cultivates a collection of photos of obese beachgoers, and when Nani examines them Lilo sighs, “Aren’t they beautiful?” Indeed, it’s this same gift that actually leads to her picking out Stitch at the animal shelter, even though no one is entirely sure what animal he is. When the rescue lady explains that Stitch had been hit by a truck and presumed dead, Lilo’s first reaction is to proclaim “I like him!” Talk about rose-coloured glasses.

Stitch is actually the greatest proof of Lilo’s strong character. She manages not only to tame a purely destructive force, but to make him a member of her family. Unlike earlier films, true love does not even factor into the equation, unless you count true familial love. It is reductive to make every film starring a female character focus around the family unit, but Lilo’s story, while certainly revolving around the domestic world, also revolves around whole other freaking worlds. That is something remarkable: that this little girl can do what the entire Galactic Federation cannot, and that she is important on such an epic scale.

Also, there is a chairwoman. It’s the little things.

Verdict: Actual strong female character


Despite the lower box office take, we would argue that this period produced some of Disney’s most daring and creative films as well as some of its most fascinating female characters. From the acerbic Meg, to the queenly Kida, to the bizarre Lilo, as well as all the women with whom they share the screen, this set of characters represents a welcome departure from the tried and true Disney Princess formula. Ironically, this change occurred just as the princess brand was being invented.

We now somewhat begrudgingly return you to your regular Princess-centric programming.

Friday, 14 September 2012

The Minor(ity) Players

(A word of warning: this post is LONG. Seriously.)

In 1999, the Disney Renaissance came to an end, overlapping somewhat conspicuously with the beginning of an eleven-year-long princess drought. Some might argue that the drought began long before this point, as Pocahontas and Mulan are not technically princesses, but we beg to differ. So, too, does Disney.

Membership in the official princess lineup is less a matter of royal birth or marriage than of royal profits; princesses are a cash cow from which Disney annually milks about four billion dollars. During his time at Paramount, the future Disney CEO, Michael Eisner, stated, “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.” Hence the creation of the Disney princess franchise in 2000, the inclusion of two not-actually princesses in the official lineup, and the resurrection of the brand in 2009 with the aptly named The Princess and the Frog.

What sets these princesses apart is the fact that they are set apart. In much of the merchandise featuring multiple characters, they are relegated to the background. Like, the very back. The very, very back. In addition, they represent departures from the white, European protagonists that had previously defined the brand and, in many ways, still do.


Pocahontas is a film about differing viewpoints, so it makes sense that our feelings about its heroine are tremendously conflicted. What prevents Pocahontas from earning the designation of actual strong female character is Pocahontas itself.

First, we need to discuss Pocahontas the historical figure. Wikipedia tells us that she was born sometime around 1595, the daughter of Powhatan, the chief of a network of tribal nations in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Her mother’s identity is unknown, but she was one of dozens of wives taken by Powhatan. Pocahontas was not a princess in the context of Powhatan culture – while she was her father’s favourite, she was not in line to inherit anything. In 1607, John Smith was captured by a hunting party and saved from execution by Pocahontas when she placed her head on his as her father raised his war club to bludgeon Smith. Aside from this well-known historical anecdote, it seems that Pocahontas had little interaction with Smith. However, she was known to visit Jamestown with provisions, where she would play games with the colonists. In 1609 Smith was injured by a gunpowder explosion and returned to England. Pocahontas was told he had died. Sometime before 1612, Pocahontas married a common warrior named Kocoum, but the marriage likely ended when she was captured by the English and held for ransom in 1613 as part of the First Anglo-Powhatan War. While being held captive, she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. When the opportunity to return home arose, Pocahontas/Rebecca chose to stay with the English. In 1614 she married John Rolfe, a tobacco cultivator, and bore him a son the next year. In 1616 John and Pocahontas travelled to London, where Pocahontas was presented to the English public as a princess by the Virginia Company. She became a minor celebrity and was celebrated at fetes and masques. In March 1617 the Rolfes tried to return to Virginia, but Pocahontas became gravely ill when they had only gone as far as Gravesend on the Thames. She died there of unknown causes. Prime Disney material, obviously.

Before the film becomes Disney’s slightly lighter take on West Side Story, its protagonist is much more than a Maria. We are first introduced to Pocahontas through her absence, like Ariel; instead of remaining in the village to greet her recently returned father, she is high on a cliff, contemplating a potentially prophetic dream. When her friend calls her down, she leaps from the peak and dives into the water, demonstrating her athleticism, courage, and penchant for showing off. Returning to her village, she learns that she is to marry Kocoum, a man too serious for a trickster like herself. She is a force of nature (almost literally, as her mother has become a kind of wind spirit), and she resents the weight of her impending marriage tying her down.

As always, Pocahontas expresses her conflict in an “I Want” song, itself a song born from conflict. Her father, Powhatan, urges her to settle down, using her beloved nature as support: “As the river cuts his path/ Though the river’s proud and strong/ He will choose the smoothest course/ That’s why rivers live so long/ They’re steady as the beating drum.” Pocahontas, however, sees the river as an ever-changing entity, and seeks to follow its example as she waits for the change which she feels is approaching. It is only in the final verse that the river takes on the significance not only of a life path, but of a specifically romantic one. The change is no longer something, but someone: a mysterious Dream Giver who might enable her to avoid the unutterably boring fate of life with Kocoum.

Of course, second and third and now seventh verse, same as the first -- it’s a guy. Not only is it a guy, it is the guy (which becomes somewhat awkward, seeing as she marries someone else in the sequel). Pocahontas meets John Smith, who we know is meant for her due to their mutual interest in exploration and longing gazes, and the most contrived plot device of all time allows them to turn these gazes into words. Pocahontas “listens with her heart” and suddenly speaks perfect English, which admittedly allows her to avoid the appearance of ignorance which so often afflicts Disney princesses, but also strains credibility, to put it mildly. In explaining her world to John Smith, she again demonstrates her ability to understand different perspectives, making her, as the film later demonstrates, the perfect person to prevent war. It’s only too bad that every time she and John Smith list a number of completely valid reasons for maintaining peace, the one they constantly return to is that war would get in the way of their relationship. This -- and Nakoma’s inability to be as awesome as Anita -- is why Pocahontas is nowhere near as effective as West Side Story; whereas the latter uses the love story in service of its intended themes, the former uses issues of racism and colonialism in order to bolster its love story.

This is also ultimately the problem with Pocahontas as a character: her selfhood is defined by her romantic relationship, and all of her actions from the time she meets John Smith revolve around him. She secures peace by saving John Smith’s life, countering hatred with love. Their love song, entitled “If I Never Knew You,” not only revolves around the concept that life gained meaning when they met, but actually suggests that they could not become their full selves without this contact: “And if I never held you/ I would never have a clue/ How at last I'd find in you/ The missing part of me.” It’s as if Pocahontas, who starts out as a genuinely compelling character, must be forced into the Disney princess mould with the Heteronormative Hammer of Blandness, losing all of her sheen in the process.

Verdict: Strong Female Character™


Mulan represents the pinnacle of the Disney princess’s development, not because she is the best example of the brand’s spirit -- in many ways she’s actually the worst -- but because she is the most complex character.

Hua Mulan is a legendary figure from China, originally described in The Ballad of Mulan. While the historical setting is uncertain, early accounts of the legend state that Mulan lived during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534). The Ballad of Mulan was first transcribed in the 6th century, the text of the poem as we know it comes from an anthology compiled in the 11th or 12th century, and the story was expanded into a novel in the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In the ballad, Mulan leaves her family, buys a horse and saddle, and disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army. She goes on to ride ten thousand miles in war, crossing mountains and passes and fighting for ten years. At the end of this decade, the surviving warriors return to see the Emperor, where they are celebrated and offered great rewards. Mulan refuses a position as an official and instead asks for a camel to carry her home. When she returns home she is welcomed by her parents, her elder sister, and her younger brother. She then removes her armor, dons her “old-time clothes,” puts on makeup, and steps out to surprise her comrades-in-arms with the fact that “[they] travelled twelve years together. yet didn’t realize Mulan was a lady!”

We are introduced to Disney’s Mulan in much the same way as we were introduced to Belle: as a person destined to achieve a nearly impossible feat. However, whereas Belle’s task was to learn to love that which seems unlovable, Mulan’s is to save an empire. She is framed as a hero from the outset, although it is quite clear that she has a long way to go before she can fully realize her potential. The first time we see Mulan, she is eating breakfast while cramming for a test on which she’s planning to cheat. She will be quizzed on the proper attributes of a woman -- “Quiet and demure, graceful, polite, delicate, refined, poised, punctual” -- and we know even before seeing her disastrous test performance that she is going to fail epically. She possesses none of these traits; she is, instead, clumsy, perpetually tardy, and unwilling to submit to the authority of others when she knows that they are wrong.

Compounding her trouble is the fact that she possesses the stereotypically masculine trait of rational, strategic thinking. She builds a contraption that allows her dog to do her chores for her, makes the winning move in a game of strategy after looking at the board for a mere three seconds, discovers the tricks to playing Arrow-Pole, the world’s worst game, and singlehandedly defeats an army with a judiciously aimed cannon. Like Sherlock Holmes, Batman, and the whole set of damaged, male geniuses that populate our television screens, Mulan is very much the smartest guy in the room.

Pocahontas has to choose between two paths; for Mulan, no choice seems to exist. The perpetuation of traditional gender roles is figured through the language of honour. A person must bring honour to their family and their emperor by adhering to these roles. As stated in “Bring Honour to Us All,” men accomplish this task by bearing arms, women by bearing sons. Because the matchmaker deems her unworthy of the latter and her gender precludes her from the former, Mulan is not just restricted by social roles, but nearly defeated by them. So she finds a loophole in a pair of pants.

This raises the question: can a strong female character masquerade as a man without entering Strong Female Character territory? Does her strength derive from the sword in her hand or the one her outfit suggests lies between her legs? (I swear we are going somewhere with these jokes.) Although Mulan does take out the Huns as Ping, she saves the emperor and China very deliberately as herself.

What truly sets Mulan apart from the other princesses is this very self. In her most troubled times, Mulan must confront her self, in the form of myriad reflections. The feminine standard she cannot hope to achieve is reflected in the other young women going to meet the matchmaker, each appearing as a slightly altered, perfectly conforming version of Mulan. When she sings the aptly named “Reflection,” she reveals the angst she feels about her own identity, never able to repress her self enough to live up to societal standards. These reflections disappear when she becomes Ping, only to return at the defining moment for her character. Revealed to be a woman, Mulan looks at her image reflected in her helmet, and considers the real reason she assumed a false identity: “Maybe I didn’t go for my father. Maybe what I really wanted was to prove I could do things right, so when I looked in the mirror, I’d see someone worthwhile.” In that moment, she becomes the most nuanced and, arguably, the best character in the Disney princess line up to that point.

Although Mulan saves China with style, she truly wins our hearts by keeping matters of the heart in the background. Her moment of accomplishment comes not from the confirmation of Li Shang’s romantic attention but from her father’s recognition of her value: “The greatest gift and honour is having you for a daughter.” The only kiss in the film comes when Mulan kisses Mushu on the head: this is not True Love’s Kiss, but rather True Friendship’s Appreciative Peck.

Verdict: Actual Strong Female Character


In 2009, Disney revived the princess for the second time, unfortunately electing not to revive the idea of a storyline that does not revolve around romance.

The problem with Tiana, and with the film as a whole, is that Disney tried to make her both a criticism of the Disney princess and a shining example of the brand. Tiana is introduced as a skeptic who, even as a child, resists the pull to believe in things like frog princes and fairy tales. Instead she values hard work and, well, very little else. She plans every detail of her life, and every detail just happens to involve the restaurant which she hopes to own. Her “I Want” song, “Almost There,” isn’t a call for freedom, but a specific course of action with an already determined endpoint. Taking up her dead father’s dream, she wants to run a restaurant that will bring people together, all while ignoring the people in her life. It’s unfortunate, because while her tenacity and dedication to see her dream through are commendable (“Fairytales can come true, you gotta make 'em happen, it all depends on you"), Disney puts tremendous emphasis on the negative consequences of her dedication.

Whereas Pocahontas gave us conflicted feelings, The Princess and the Frog seems to have inspired the same in the Disney writers. The entire film revolves around Disney’s most problematic message: every wish comes true, just so long as you believe. The problem is that no one seems to have decided whether the film was intended to support or debunk this idea. During the first act, Tiana and Lottie represent opposing viewpoints, the former portrayed as the level-headed non-believer who proudly asserts that she would never kiss a frog, and the latter depicted as a caricature of an unhinged Disney fangirl, desperately wishing on a star and willing to “kiss a hundred frogs to find and marry a prince and be a princess.” So, for the first act at least, Disney takes itself to task. Even Tiana’s perfect father warns her that wishes are no substitute for actions: “You wish and you dream with all your little heart, but you remember, Tiana, that that old star can only take you part of the way. You gotta help it along with some hard work of your own, and then you can do anything you set your mind to.”

Then, as always, it all goes to hell the moment the guy shows up. Not the very first moment, mind you, because Tiana and Naveen’s first contact is a non-event. However, their second meeting occurs when Tiana wishes on a star for her restaurant and gets a newly froggy Naveen instead. From this point on, the film both demonizes professional accomplishment and champions romantic fulfillment, the latter described on several occasions as “what’s really important.” Tiana’s admirable ambition is overshadowed by the alienation brought on by her tunnel vision, while Naveen’s actual problem of being an utterly useless leech is nowhere near as thoroughly problematized. Indeed, the film is so taken with his character that it quite literally switches to his point-of-view when he experiences the first signs of actual development. When they meet Mama Odie, she encourages them to “dig a little deeper.” For Naveen, this translates to “All you need is some self-control” and “Maybe love will grant you peace of mind.” For Tiana, however, the only conclusion appears to be that she needs to fall in love and have a family, like her father did.

And this is the conclusion the film ultimately supports. Given the opportunity to have her restaurant (through evil machinations, but, you know), she argues that her father “never did get what he wanted, but he had what he needed. He had love! He never lost sight of what was really important, and neither will I!” After that, the restaurant which should have been a happy ending all on its own becomes a mere by-product of a happily-ever-after romance. Her greatest dream is reduced to a montage before the credits roll. Her marriage, not her restaurant, is treated as the realization of her dreams, especially as it magically restores both Tiana and Naveen to human form. In this sense, her wedding actually allows her to have her restaurant.

Verdict: Strong Female Character™  


In all cases, these characters seem warped to fit the Disney princess model. Pocahontas prevents a war because the guy she fell for the first time she saw him is in danger. Mulan has a strange romantic subplot in a story about discovering one’s own value independent of others’ expectations. Tiana’s hard work is devalued in favour of a model that prioritizes love, and romantic love in particular, over professional fulfillment.

At the same time, these characters have managed to re-define the concept of the Disney princess, expanding it to include not only a wider variety of cultures, but a more comprehensive conceptualization of what it means to be a princess. Like a Holmesian intellect, a real work ethic, and the guts to jump off a ridiculously high cliff.