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The Princess is Dead, Long Live the Princess: Disney Won’t Be Letting Fairy Tales Live Happily Ever After…

Apparently Disney are putting an end to the production of fairy tales, which is somewhat ironic for a studio which has an iconic fairytale castle as its distinctive corporate logo. I suppose it was sort of inevitable coming from a studio that was terrified of advertising Tangled as a “princess” movie. Disney board director John Lasseter explained the decision:

Today, among little girls especially, princesses and the romanticised ideal they represent – finding the man of your dreams – have a limited shelf life.

It’s very clever to couch his argument in what might be considered modern feminist terms  – “finding the man of your dreams” is such a fifties aspiration for young girls, after all – but I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable with what Disney plans to replace them with. I’ll admit that I am a relatively conservative individual – I just don’t like change – but there’s something unsettling about such a major refocus, and perhaps what it says about pop culture as a whole these days.

Okay, so maybe Disney needs to work on its female leads...

Apparently the outcry prompted by the original report in the Los Angeles Times led the studio to offer an immediate (and somewhat half-hearted) rebuttal:

A headline in today’s LA Times erroneously reported that the Disney fairy tale is a thing of the past, but I feel it is important to set the record straight that they are alive and well at Disney and continue this week with Tangled, a contemporary retelling of a much loved story. We have a number of projects in development with new twists that audiences will be able to enjoy for many years to come.

I am, to be honest, less than convinced. The fact that they released a movie that had been in the works for over a year before The Princess and the Frog failed at the box office doesn’t exactly demonstrate anything – while, on the other hand, the decision to cancel The Snow Queen and King of the Elves speaks volumes.

I’ll begin with a very loud qualification: it has been repeatedly observed that the clear inspiration for this decision was the success of Pixar, who have never really produced a fairytale (in the sense of having a princess and all that). I would welcome this news if it assured me that Walt Disney studios would be matching Pixar’s sensational output. However, the fact that the last time Disney attempted to “do Pixar” resulted in Home on the Range or Meet the Robinsons does little to arrest my fears.

The impetus for the decision reportedly rests with the lack of financial success that The Princess and the Frog accomplished during its theatrical run. And, to be honest, it can’t have been too much of a surprise to people. After all, what was the last truly classic animated Disney film? I’d be generous and suggest The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which is long overdue a critical re-evaluation), but harsher critics could go as far back as The Lion King. Who recalls Mulan especially fondly? Or Brother Bear? Or even Tarzan? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling them bad films, but they’d at least generate a vocal argument if you labelled any of them classics. I understand where this is coming from.

It's an up-hair struggle...

I also understand that the world is changing. And I wouldn’t mind if this were an attempt by the studio to tell modern family adventures in a timeless fashion, but it seems that the company is simply chasing trends rather than setting them. Little girls aren’t interested in Ariel or Jasmine anymore:

‘By the time they’re five or six, they’re not interested in being princesses,” says Dafna Lemish, who chairs the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and is an expert in the role of media in children’s lives. ”They’re interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.’

That is the market that we are aspiring to? We’re actually following the business model which managed to replace Barbie as the iconic little girl’s toy with Bratz?

In fairness to Lasseter, he has a point when he observes that “finding the man of your dreams” is a trite and outdated dream for young girls to aspire to – can’t they seek to be strong and independent women? You could construct a very strong argument that the vast majority of Disney princesses are incredibly passive and docile – providing moral support for more proactive masculine figures. I can’t argue with that, save to observe that if you’re problem with fairy tales is how they treat women, then change how they treat women. I didn’t love Mulan, but I admired its strong female lead. Pocahontus offered us a female lead who could make a choice that didn’t end with her as a bride-to-be.

However, since when is “being hot” or “being cool” a laudable goal? The core idea – making yourself more desirable to others – is still the same, and so the theme remains unchanged. If anything, there’s something romantic about the idea of finding the partner “of your dreams” (or your “soulmate” to use a hackneyed cliché) as opposed to just some random person who finds you physically desirable. To be honest, though, I think I’m splitting hairs – but if see a problem in the formula, fix it, instead of making it more shallow.

Of course, the response comes that if this what audiences want, then this is what they should get. I don’t necessarily buy that audiences are unhappy with fairy tales – indeed, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a child who wouldn’t enjoy Beauty and the Beast – but just that they are tired of Disney’s modern output. I’m going to call a spade a spade and suggest that Disney hasn’t exactly been knocking it out of the park lately. People don’t necessarily respond to films based on genre, they respond based on the film itself. Lord of the Rings revived a fantasy genre which wallowed in the back alleys of the Jim Henson Productions lot for so long, at a time when nobody really saw too much of a need for a large-scale fantasy adventure.

Maybe they should have just shortened Rapunzel to "Rap" to get that mainstream appeal..

However – at the risk of seeming like an out of touch prude – surely we should be a little sad that “Bratz” are the new icons to little girls all over the world? I am not in favour of censorship as a rule – each to their own, after all – but I think that children are perhaps an exception. Roger Ebert has argued this same point in defending Disney’s decision to keep the racist Song of the South locked safely away in the Disney Vault – kids are impressionable, for more so than you or I. They treat these films as a sort of tacit endorsement of a particular perspective. Sure, you could argue that Sleeping Beauty isn’t a better role model, but do we really want to move away from the portrayal of timeless women towards more heavily “trendy” style-conscious and ultimately shallow leading ladies – being honest, if push comes to shove, I’m more comfortable with the idea of young girls growing up with Cinderella instead of The Ugly Truth.

But, to be frank, it isn’t an “either or” situation. I can want to see Disney move away from outdated archetypes without wanting it to make what are largely shallow and superficial changes. When I talk about “princess” and “fairytale” movies, I am referring to the timeless nature of the films. High School Musical, undoubtedly one of Disney’s biggest successes of the past decade, will age horribly, while Fantasia will still be a masterpiece fifty years from now. I wish I could believe that a transition like this will lead to Disney producing films of the quality of Up or The Incredibles in-house, but it just doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid – especially when one considers the context and mood of the switch.

There’s also the simple fact that these sorts of Disney films are one of the very few genres where girls can find strong leading ladies. The reason that Tangled was not named Rapunzel was because the company simply didn’t want to scare the boys away by seeming female-centric. If you look at the kind of movies that Disney is looking to replace them with – for example, The Pirates of the Caribbean – you’ll notice that the vast majority of them feature male characters. I don’t think the portrayal of women is so irreparably damaged in these Disney films that we should consciously move away from the idea that female characters can carry a film themselves.

I don’t buy that logic. After all, didn’t Disney buy Marvel exclusively so that they could have something to sell to young boys. The guys have their Iron Man 2 or their Thor, so let the girls have their entertainment too. In an ideal world, the idea that entertainment should be divided along gender would be ridiculous and I could say that boys can enjoy classic Disney films too. I know I did, but maybe I’m a special case. Even if boys can’t enjoy it, they have their equivalent of a “no girlz allowd” treehouse club with Marvel and such – surely the girls deserve a “no boyz” genre in return?

I do think that the concept of the Disney Princess movie needs work – particularly to bring it into the twenty-first century. However, I don’t think that it needs the equivalent of cosmic surgery to help it look younger and hipper and trendier. The important thing is not to lose what made the movies iconic in the first place in the transition – remember the fantastic, grounded and immortal emotional appeal that these movies were able to draw from audiences.

4 Responses

  1. I am a somewhat average American 20~something female, yet I literally watched the movie “Enchanted” with Amy Adams at least 4 times, in the theater alone, never mind how many times I watched it on DVD. There is something about Disney princesses that is just TIMELESS! Even the toughest feminist usually has a favorite childhood Disney princess.

    As far as Mulan is concerned, you would be amazed how many college age girls will reluctantly admit to it being one of their favorite movies of all time. Don’t believe me? Go on YouTube and check out all the tributes to Mulan.

    Mark my words, if Disney kills off the princess genre, there will be OUTRAGE!
    ~Just my two cents

    • I don’t doubt it – I think Mulan is one of the better examples of how a Disney princess can be regal and yet avoid being being a damsel in distress or a delicate flower. Similarly Pocahontas, who decides that she does need a “prince” but rather can do more good acting independently. I certainly don’t think the problem is so fundamental that it can’t be worked through.

  2. Except that, technically, Mulan is NOT a princess… which brings us back to square one:)

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