Life is absurd. And life is precious. Family is a lot of both.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Once Upon an Egotistical Daydream

My 18-year-old senior won a writing award this week. Not that I wouldn't be just as proud if she won a math award, but a writing award ROCKS! Several people asked me to post her essay when I mentioned it was about the dark side of the Disney princess genre. Before we go all serious and deep, here's some proof that we are not a princess-free household. 
Princess Birthday Tea Party. It was AWESOME!

All three little brothers have been dressed in princess
pink tulle and fairy wings.
At least until they were big enough to protest.
I agree with everything she wrote, but parenthood is full of contradictions. Now, and I'm not making this up, I have to turn on Sofia the First for her 2-year-old brother. It's currently his favorite show. 

Life is funny.

Once Upon an Egotistical Daydream
Animated Disney movies are a staple of the complete American childhood. Ask any group of children, and they will know all about Simba, Ariel, Pocahontas, and Aladdin. The fascination extends beyond youngsters to teenagers and adults. Everyone, it seems, loves Disney.  The franchise began in 1937 with the release of Snow White, Disney’s first animated full-length feature, which did wonderfully at the box office. The movie reinvented the classic tale of Snow White in a benign, kid-friendly way, setting the tone for the rest of the movies. Indeed, it is the princess movies that are the most successful and well-loved among viewers. Young girls, especially, are entranced by the portrayals of beautiful, enchanting women who win the love of a prince and live happily ever after. Disney’s portrayal of women on the big screen has an undeniable influence on society, social norms, fashion, commercialism, etc. In her article, “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?”, Peggy Orenstein observes that “even Dora the Explorer… has ascended to the throne…” (1). In short, Orenstein is pointing out how America’s princess obsession has gone beyond the bounds of Disney and influenced other children’s shows. Our fascination with royalty in an anti-monarchy nation is strange, if not a trifle concerning. Americans today tend to believe that Disney films have harmless, even positive, influences on their children. However, these are films that require close analysis to determine the true effects of the princess mentality on young consumers. In sum, beneath the top layer themes of bravery, love, and family, there is an equally present, if less visible, layer of negative messages including superficiality, selfishness, and stereotypes.
            Many Disney princess movies encourage the idea that physical appearance is the easiest way to find happiness, and more importantly, to get that prince. Every female character is strikingly, impossibly perfect. They all have tiny waists, long legs, gorgeous hair, beautiful voices, flawless skin, and intelligence. They are all traditionally feminine. Their ankles are small, and their voices are high and soft. Most of them are of medium height and have long hair. Their noses are perfectly straight, their cheeks are pink, their lips are red and full, and their eyes are unnaturally enormous. According to E. A. Lawrence, “Good characters (e.g. Simba, the Sultan, Ariel, Pocahontas) exhibit juvenile traits such as big eyes and round cheeks and are drawn in curves, smooth, round, soft, bright, and with European features” (as qtd. in Lee Artz). Lawrence goes on to point out how villains such as Scar, Jafar, the Hun, and Ratcliffe possess sharp angles, dark, oversized features, and have a general ugliness about them. Lawrence’s claim is important because it illuminates the superficial nature of Disney in regards to the viewer’s reception of specific characters. When the villains are first introduced, audiences are immediately clued into their evil nature not because of words or actions, but because of appearances. With constant exposure to films that so strongly support the idea that physical features mimic the heart and mind, children’s perception of reality may be altered for the worse.  
Furthermore, the majority of the female leads fall in “love” at first sight—literally—with an almost-as-perfect prince. The princes usually lack basic personality traits. This is especially prevalent in Snow White and Cinderella, whose princes do not even have actual names and go by the generic “Prince Charming”. They are like Jake from Sixteen Candles. They are there to look cute and save the day, but rarely is the viewer given any reason to believe that they will be a stable and loving relationship partner. Of course, there are always exceptions. Li Shang and Mulan did not become romantically involved until the last five minutes of the movie. Aladdin has a man as the lead character, so he has some depth to his personality. At the end of most of the movies, the princess is beaming, having triumphed over ugly evil, her trophy husband on her arm.  
In addition, Disney princesses exhibit, at times, shocking levels of selfishness. Take Ariel, for instance. She has everything at her fingertips: power, wealth, family, friends, and her health, yet she yearns to be a human. She is unhappy with what she has. The underlying selfishness that Ariel has motivates her every action, including that to abandon her father, sisters, and kingdom to chase an unfamiliar life with an unfamiliar human (let’s not forget that Prince Eric is also technically an entirely different species). Although it is true that the Little Mermaid may possess some admirable qualities such as determination and bravery, her less wholesome traits cannot be overlooked (Clausen/Kielbasa, 1-3). However, Ariel is by no means the only princess with blinders. Pocahontas spends all day out gallivanting in the woods instead of helping her tribe with work. She is so wrapped up in her own love affair with the outdoors that she has put her own desires above her responsibilities. Even Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is a workaholic who is unable to see anything but her dream of a glorious and lavish restaurant. What appears to be good, hard work is actually self-absorption. She is willing to give up all her time with family and friends in order to save up the money. While the concept of saving for a future goal is generally positive, the extremity to which Tiana has gone is downright unhealthy.
Finally, there is the intensely stereotypical side of Disney films that is the very essence of the films themselves. The fact that the lead characters are princesses at all, in fact, is stereotypical of Disney movies, especially those aimed at female audiences. Is it not strange that the media in America, a country which began by rebelling against monarchy, is infatuated with the idea of royalty? From William and Kate’s wedding to Sleeping Beauty to the new Disney Channel show, Princess Sophia, little girls sure do love their princesses. The stereotyping goes on in other way, such as in The Lion King. The lions, especially Mufasa, all speak with perfect diction, while the scraggly group of hyenas speak with a ghetto accent. It was reported that in a shopping mall, a young white child was heard to shout, “Look, Mom, hyenas!” when they were nearby a group of urban, black teens conversing with one another (Whittock, as qtd. in Lee Artz). Not surprisingly, the child was referring to the Disney hyenas and connected the voices of the youths with those of Scar’s idiotic, malicious posse.
Moreover, since the dawn of Disney, young, innocent women have been tormented by wicked stepmothers and taken it with a smile. Though Cinderella is practically a slave to her evil stepmother, she does all of her work with a cheerful attitude. She behaves perfectly and does everything she asked to do. Belle is ridiculed by the townspeople and sexually harassed by Gaston, and yet she consistently treats these people with kindness and decorum. Snow White is hunted by her stepmother and finds herself homeless in the dark, cold forest, and as soon as she finds shelter, what does she do? She cleans house (but of course, she doesn’t get all tired and sweaty- she has woodland creatures to help her out).  Mulan is abandoned by her band of brothers and almost killed by Shang, yet ends up saving them all. Jasmine, only a teenager, is forced by her sultan father to find a prince to marry, and she holds no grudge against him. In fact, she has a fantastic relationship and understands that he has no choice because it is the “law” (one would wonder how she could forget that her father is the master of the law). Princesses never yell. Princesses never lose control. Princesses always have a level head. They are good girls who are constantly “the bigger person,” and though they might cry on occasion, they are never allowed to ugly sob like the rest of us.
In conclusion, while Disney princesses are not the best role models, they are perfect for commerce. Disney knows what sells, and that is why the company continues to produce princess after princess. Certainly, the characters have evolved—no longer do we see princesses who are devoid of personality and passively do as they are ordered. Perhaps in the future the princess infatuation will die out, but only if our culture changes and turns away from the idolization of self-gratification and flawless, easy romance. Parents should think carefully about what they allow their children to watch and not assume that just because a film is a Disney movie, it is healthy. After all, Disney is merely answering the demands of the consumer, as all successful businesses do. 

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