December 12, 2010

Disney's princesses grow up, a little

The emancipation of the Disney princess

The sweet simplicity of 1937's Snow White has given way to the no-nonsense, take-charge attitude of the 21st-century Rapunzel

By Shelley Fralic
The early Disney princesses (there are now 10 official princesses, in what has become a billion-dollar enterprise) were, in fact, portrayed as helpless gamines requiring rescue from peril and/or ruin by a handsome and brawny prince.

The stereotyping began way back in 1937, when coquettish Snow White depended upon the kindness of dwarfs for eternal happiness, and she was followed by a simpy Cinderella and her dainty glass slipper in 1950 and then Sleeping Beauty's sweet, clueless Aurora, in 1959.

It would be another 30 years, in 1989, before Disney introduced its next princess and, perhaps sensing the coast was clear after having ceded the inappropriate dream girl market to Barbie and her bodacious bosom, they debuted the sassy Ariel in The Little Mermaid.

The tide had turned. Ariel was a stubborn redhead who defied her family and chose love over crustaceans and, ever since, the Disney princesses have been breaking the mould.

In 1991, Belle romanced ugly in Beauty and The Beast. Jasmine was the sultan's daughter who rejected prearranged suitors in 1992's Aladdin. In 1995, Pocahontas gave up her prince to stay with the tribe. Mulan kicked serious Hun hiney in 1998, while Tiana was a waitress-cum-restaurateur in 2009's The Princess and The Frog. And now we have Rapunzel, who gets in and out of jams with a flick of her glowing ponytail and rescues her husband-to-be, a hapless buffoon who is nowhere near as charming as her sidekick chameleon Pascal or the palace steed Maximus.
Comment:  I agree Disney's women have progressed over the decades, but I'm not as impressed as Fralic is. Let's review the recent record:

  • Ariel:  Sacrifices her undersea life to marry a prince.

  • Belle:  Accepts captivity and eventually marries a prince.

  • Jasmine:  Initially interested in Aladdin only because he pretends to be a prince. Eventually marries him.

  • Pocahontas:  Falls in love with John Rolfe in Pocahontas II and lives happily ever after.

  • Tiana:  Eventually transformed into a princess and marries a prince.

  • Rapunzel:  Eventually learns she's a princess and marries a prince.

  • The common denominator is that these women are defined by love, marriage, and (usually) royalty. If it seems "natural" for these movies to be romances, consider this: How many male heroes are defined by their relationships with women? A handful in a hundred? For every Edward Cullen, there's a Sherlock Holmes, Lone Ranger, Batman, James Bond, Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Rambo, the Terminator, Harry Potter, Captain Jack Sparrow, Wolverine, Jason Bourne, Frodo, et al. I could go on and on listing male heroes who don't get married and live happily ever after in the end.

    About the only Disney women who break the "marriage or bust" mold are Meg (Hercules), Mulan, and Esmeralda (Hunchback of Notre-Dame). In other words, a minority of Disney's female characters. The majority may be "intrepid and brainy," as Fralic writes, but they don't have career plans that require them to stay single. Unlike the male characters, they don't have a higher calling beyond love.

    For more on the subject, see "Marriage or Bust" for Disney's Women.

    Below:  Seven of eight Disney women who married their Prince Charmings--some of them literally.

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