I want to celebrate some Disney Princesses…of colour. Continue reading Celebrating Disney Princesses of Colour
This photo of Emma Watson as Belle, from Disney’s live-action remake of their animated hit Beauty and the Beast, reminded me of one of the issues with the way the Disney Princess brand is marketed and used by licensees.
As a female role model, Belle is a great character. She is compassionate, a book lover, has a thirst for adventure, and a yearning to explore the world.
Yet when I first showed Beauty and the Beast to my daughter, I asked her what she most liked about Belle. Her answer? When she wore the yellow dress.
For a matter of minutes in the animated feature, Belle wears a yellow ballgown. But this is the image that you see used constantly on all manner of Disney Princess merchandise from lunch boxes to greetings cards. It is so ubiquitous, it has become the defining image of the film in little girls minds long before they have seen it. The same is true for other Disney Princesses such as Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) and Cinderella.
One of the few things that gives me hope about the live-action movie is Emma Watson. She has become an outspoken champion for women’s rights, a UN Women’s goodwill ambassador, and even runs a feminist book club!
It gives me hope that she can work from within to limit the potential damage of the reductive Disney Princess branding – otherwise her portrayal of Belle may also end up being seen as simply a love struck girl in a yellow party dress.
There’s also the whole Stockholm Syndrome issue, but that’s for another day…
Image Copyright Walt Disney Pictures, courtesy of Entertainment Weekly.
Me: “What did you do at school today?”
4yo: “Played princesses.”
Now, this answer should horrify me. I hate princesses, and their pastel domination of our girls’ childhoods. As a brand, they represent everything I don’t want for my daughter.
But I was curious, as I had a suspicion it might not be what I feared. Continue reading Reinventing Princesses: The League of Extraordinary Ladies
If you have a young daughter, one thing has been inescapable over the past few years – Frozen. As a dad of a girl, evangelised by Cinderella Ate My Daughter, I had zero interest in showing it to my kid. So far, the Disney Princess bug had failed to latch on and she was happy with the likes of Studio Ghibli, Wizard of Oz, and Star Wars.
All I knew was this. It was a watered down version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Snow Queen. Anna or Elsa (I had no idea who was who) were Disney Princesses in all but name. Their inane smiles greeting me in every clothes shop, adorning a sea of pink and pastel clothing. It didn’t stop there. Tableware, magazines, party accessories, etc. all featured the pair. And every little girl around us – including her not yet 3-year-old peers – appeared to have seen it.
I began reading of Frozen themed birthday parties. Where the competition for Elsa performers (I was learning who was who) was fierce. Where birthday girls (and/or mothers) insisted only they could be Elsa.
Other liked-minded parents of girls warned me off. “Don’t show them Frozen! They cannot unsee it!” The song ‘Let it Go’ seemed to be a key offender. My daughter’s best friends had to varying degrees become Elsa obsessed, belting out the song – twirling around with their arms theatrically outstretched – regularly. I often heard a familiar argument between girls developing in playgrounds and playgroups – “You can be Anna, I’m Elsa”. “NO, YOU BE ANNA, I’M ELSA!!”
But I eventually bowed to the inventible. I had to show Frozen to my daughter. While we had seen a few Disney Princess movies, these were not as big a part of the collective girl-hood consciousness as Frozen had clearly become. My daughter could not remain that culturally unaware. All her immediate peers had seen it. But I was really worried about what it might lead to. Was this the Disney Princess gateway drug I had feared?
So last year, we borrowed the DVD from one of her Frozen fan friends (who apparently threw a big tantrum when she spotted it was missing – for one day!). And we watched it.
A funny thing happened. I kinda liked it.
**Some spoilers ahead**
It didn’t start off great. Firstly, for a film that seemingly became synonymous with a form of feminism and/or female empowerment, beginning it with a bunch of men lugging ice blocks seemed odd. When we did meet the sisters, Anna was… well, really annoying. A squeaky voiced little girl, who sings the immensely irritating ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”. Ugh.
But things began to get interesting. Elsa had powers. Magic powers. Superpowers. They were begining to get out of control. And her parents were worried, wanting to hide her away. This is a plot line straight from the pages of the X-Men.
As she grows older, her magical/mutant powers remain contained, but she must withdraw from the world and her sister. Eventually she is ‘outed’ with disastrous results, and she flees.
Alone, Elsa is free to explore her powers and who she is. Much like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, she creates her own icy Fortress of Solitude. Only this is a musical, and so begins ‘Let it Go’. And it was terrific.
As a point in the story (finally being able to revel in who she really is), a spectacular scene (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a musical number with superpowers), and a show stopping song (most surprising), ‘Let it Go’ worked brilliantly. No wonder all these 3-year-olds had decided THIS was the moment – and the character – to latch on to.
More surprising things happened: The story was keen to subvert ‘Princess’ stereotypes. The lead princess actually becomes a queen (and therefore a leader); The handsome prince turned out to be a dick; The men do not save the day; And the quest for a ‘true love kiss’ to remove the curse, came not from an arbitrary romantic interest, but the love of a family member.
In the months since first viewing, my daughter has continued to reference Frozen. I don’t know how much is the film, or the chance to finally engage with this content with her friends. But it had clearly made an impression on her.
Eventually, I asked her THE question: “Who do prefer, Anna or Elsa?” Her answer surprised me. “Olaf”. Turns out, this is the character she has connected to most – her reasoning is that he loves summer, just like she does. He (voiced by Josh Gad) is genuinely funny, and has the second best song (“In Summer”). Olaf merchandise – from toys to t-shirts – have been acquired ever since.
So, Frozen was – overall – ok.
Not entirely. Some other issues remain. However these are nothing to do with the film directly – but the merchandise.
The Frozen sisters had come to dominate girlhood. In every store that sells good aimed at girls, they are there. And the artwork used of Anna & Elsa is generally insipid and passive. The dynamism of Elsa’s awakening is rarely portrayed. The colours are always pastel, and frequently pink – a colour hardly seen in the film. My daughter’s beloved Olaf remained firmly planted in the ‘boys’ aisle.
And the ubiquitous ‘Elsa dress’. I don’t think there is a sadder indictment of the way the film has bee sold to little girls, that Elsa’s plea for self discovery and individuality in “Let it go” has resulted in armies of similarly clad girls, all in the same crappy dress (they’ve replaced the striking elegance of Elsa’s movie dress with an aquamarine polyester frilly horror), all wanting parties with an Elsa performer. To reference Life of Brian, it’s as if they are saying in unison “We are all individuals”.
So while I (largely) applaud the movie itself (another achievement for Disney under Chief Creative Officer John Lassetter), my issues with merchandising remain. Still, my daughter has managed to show off her Olaf fandom well.
Is Frozen feminist? I don’t know. I’ve read articles proclaiming it is feminist, post-feminist, anti-feminist, or an example of false feminism.
To me, at least it’s trying to subvert some of the worst aspects of Princess Culture. It’s not been the gateway princess-drug I feared, and I have no issue with my daughter adding it to her collection of favourite movies.
This week we finally had our daughter’s 4th Birthday party. It was two and a half weeks after her actual 4th birthday because we couldn’t book our hall of choice earlier. But this had been on our minds for a while. For months, our daughter has been very specific that she wanted Hulk and Yoda cakes (she loves green). My wife, the baker of the family, did a great job with that.
The party was the same venue and format as her 3rd birthday party (free play, food, play, songs, play, cake, play…), only this time she wanted it to be fancy dress. For her own costume, she had also spent the past few months insisting she was going to dress up as a fairy, but a few days before the party she changed her mind. She wanted to go as Princess Leia.
She dressed up in the costume she got for Christmas from my parents, and as she often does with her Leia LEGO figures, a lightsaber (also from my parents – who probably can’t believe they’re still buying Star Wars toys) was an essential accessory. Green of course.
What was interesting to me were the costume choices of the other children. The only boy who came wore a pirate outfit, and none of the girls did. But there were a great range of outfits that the girls did wear – there was Tinkerbell, Gruffalo, Cinderella, a Knight, Supergirl, a fairy, Snow White, and our very own Princess Leia.
Every year, I fear that the dreaded ‘Age of the Princess Party’ will fall upon us. People speak of the ‘Princess Stage’ as if it were an actual stage of a girl’s development, as if an obsession with all the trappings of Princess culture is as inevitable as puberty.
A sub-party theme of recent years has been Frozen – which technically can’t be classed as a Princess theme because Elsa is a queen. While that film has a lot of positive things going for it, it is immensely ironic that Elsa’s plea for individuality and freedom of choice (‘Let it Go’), has inspired millions of little girls (or their parents) to dress in the same outfit.
Our daughter has a few Frozen fans among her friends, so I was surprised there were no Elsas at our party. There were also no double ups on princesses either. It was nice to see such a diversity of choices.
Speaking of diversity, of the 3 princess dress ups, while all were white characters, the girls dressing up as them were not. Of the little girls who are white, two opted either for a male character (Gruffalo) or a traditionally male dress up (knight). Another one wore a Superman outfit – but was adamant she was Supergirl. Fair enough.
What does this mean? I don’t know. I certainly wish my daughter knew more boys, but that’s probably more to do with the parents I’ve befriended than anything. But I am really happy my daughter is surrounded by such a diverse group of friends. Not only whose parents are from a variety of cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds, but girls who also have such a diversity of interests – and yet they all have a great time together.
Long may it continue.