Celebrating Disney Princesses of Colour

I want to celebrate some Disney Princesses…of colour. Continue reading Celebrating Disney Princesses of Colour

Emma Watson as Belle: Hopefully more than just a girl in a yellow party dress…

Seeing images of Emma Watson as Belle from Disney’s live-action remake of their animated hit Beauty and the Beast, reminds 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 the animated 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 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…

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Image Copyright Walt Disney Pictures, courtesy of Entertainment Weekly.

Zog and the Flying Doctors – by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Zog and the Flying Doctors is not only another delightful children’s book from writer Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler – it’s a great story to counter traditional princess stereotypes.

Since Donaldson and Scheffler’s first collaboration with A Squash and A Squeeze in 1993 their books – including the commercial juggernaut that is The Gruffalo (1999) and the follow up The Gruffalo’s Child (2005) – have delighted children (and parents) with their engaging stories, delightful rhyming prose, and irresistible illustrations.

The pair’s latest collaboration is another sequel, and to a particular favourite of mine. 2010’s Zog told the tale of the eponymous dragon in training who struggles to keep up with his lessons. Over the years a girl named Pearl is a recurring figure in Zog’s life, helping him in his times of need.

Pearl is revealed to be a princess, and in a key plot point she enthusiastically relinquishes her royal role to become the doctor she always yearned to be. She even inspires the dashing knight who came to ‘save’ her from Zog, Gadabout the Great, to do the same.

Zog and the Flying Doctors

The sequel Zog and the Flying Doctors picks up where Zog ended. Pearl and Gadabout are the flying doctors of the title (they’re the doctors, Zog does the flying part), and the three of them roam the land helping various creatures in need of medical assistance – there’s the sunburnt mermaid, a unicorn with an extra horn, the Lion with the flu.

To my delight, despite the title, this book really focuses on Pearl, and her struggle to leave her princess past behind her.

While out on their rounds, Pearl urges them to stop by a palace to see her uncle, a King. Turns out that he’s unhappy with Pearl’s decision to become a doctor –  “Princesses can’t be doctors, silly girl!”, he tells her.

In classic fairy tale fashion, the king locks up the princess – seeking to control her and impose his idea of what she should be – a life of “Sewing pretty cushions, and arranging pretty flowers.”

Zog and Gadabout set about to free Pearl. Thankfully, Donaldson subverts the simple trope of the dashing knight rescuing the damsel in distress – Pearl is a world away from the cliched helpless princess, and she engineers her own liberation.

This is yet another great addition to the Donaldson & Scheffler partnership, with each author playing up to their creative strengths. Donaldson’s trademark rhymes make repeat readings aloud fun, and Scheffler’s distinctive illustrations bring these characters to life. Our daughter has insisted on multiple readings already, and we’ve had it less than a day.

But the icing on the cake of this delightful book is the way Donaldson once again subverts the princess stereotype. Pearl was already a key character I referred to when discussing princesses with my daughter, and I’m so glad that Donaldson & Scheffler have revisited her (this is only their second sequel).

This is a worthy addition to your families collection of Donaldson & Scheffler books – and if you don’t have any, Zog and this sequel are as good a place as any to start.
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Zog and the Flying Doctors, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, is available in hardback now and has an RRP of £12.99. We were provided with a copy free of charge for the purposes of this review.

The British Royal Family and the problem with Princesses

We were watching an event on TV recently, and I noticed William and Kate, aka the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, our future King and Queen, in the audience. Continue reading The British Royal Family and the problem with Princesses

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and (Mostly) Love Frozen

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.

girl wearing Olaf t-shirt Olaf jammies Olaf crocs
This was her attire during a recent series of long haul flights to New Zealand and back – Olaf t-shirt, Olaf pyjama trousers, and Olaf Crocs.

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.