The new Disney princess equilibrium

My three-year old daughter Julie loves The Princess and the Frog, one of the two or three actual movies she’s seen, and I agree that it’s pretty good.  It’s actually pretty impressive how well many of the Disney animated movies turn out given the restrictions they’re under.  Everybody in the world feels that they have the right not to be offended by Disney movies, and so they’re obsessively scrutinized by interest groups the world over.  Just think about the kind of grief they get.  “Ariel in The Little Mermaid was infatuated and irresponsible.  We need more strong, independent women!”  “Those hyenas in The Lion King sound black.  That’s racist!”  I remember reading these criticisms among many others in newspapers.  With each new movie, the writers must figure out how to accommodate the ever-escalating demands of political correctness.  And yet, they can’t go full-PC nonwhite-lesbian-commune-fighting-America either.  They don’t want to offend ordinary people, and they have to know that the whole attraction of the princess genre is heterosexual, strongly sexually differentiated, and non-democratic.  They’re selling people something they say they (or rather their children) don’t want but obviously do.  The trick in that kind of game is to sell the customer what she wants while giving her some plausible cover to say what she’s bought is really something different.  I suppose Disney could just drop the princess movie line and only write other kinds of stories, but that’s not going to happen while selling princess accessories to toddler girls is such a goldmine.  I’ve tried to mildly discourage it and encourage her in other things, but my daughter has latched onto princess and fairy stuff, and it’s slowly building up in our apartment.

By the way, I think this is the secret of Dora the Explorer’s success.  You want to indulge your toddler daughter’s girlishness a little, without going full Disney Princess.  It doesn’t work.  We’ve tried.

Last aside:  Julie does have some strong non-princess-and-fairy interests.  She’s fascinated by snakes and ceiling fans.  I should tell you stories sometime.

Anyway, three things impressed me about The Princess and the Frog.

First, they followed the most important rule in a magic story, that magic must obey strict rules known to the audience, and the plot must adhere to them rigidly.  If anything can happen, where’s the suspense?  So I was pleased that the transformation of Prince Naveen and Tiana back into humans followed strictly from the rules laid out in the middle of the movie.

Second, the writers found away to get around the fact that, Tiana being the first black Disney princess, she was going to have to be pretty much flawless for Disney to avoid grief from the PC police.  However, flawless characters are usually boring.  Also, the PC police will not allow the heroine to worry overmuch about getting her man, which cuts against the main traditional storyline. The writer’s solution was to make a fun, silly movie with the heroine cast in the comedic role of the straight guy, the foil for the goofy characters.  The irresponsible, philandering Prince Naveen gets all the most memorable, funniest lines.  Tiana needs to be there as a foil to make these lines work, though–never underestimate the importance of the straight man!  She lectures Naveen on the importance of hard work, which would be annoying except that it sets up the next comic exchange, and how can anybody complain?  After all, the black girl is absolutely right!

(Of course, there is a cost here.  If sales of toys, T-shirts, and the like is any measure–and I expect it’s the measure the company cares most about–Disney’s most popular female characters among girls and women are flawed and very distinctly feminine.  There’s a lot of Ariel stuff out there, and I think her popularity is deserved.  Yes, she’s no role model.  She makes stupid decisions, but her flaws are very much those of a teenage girl.  She was a more vividly drawn character than any Disney princess before her.  But what I see most of on T-shirts and backpacks is Tinker Bell, who I remember as a minor character in Peter Pan whose main role was to be jealous of Wendy.  No doubt feminists hate her, but ordinary girls seem to identify with her.  It’s as if, regardless of how they want us to see them, they don’t see themselves as “strong, independent women”.  I think those direct-to-video movies about Tinker Bell are going to run into trouble if they ever try to connect to Peter Pan.  Tinker Bell the wonder-mechanic just seems like a different character from Peter Pan’s sidekick.)

Third, having seen how well it works, Disney is going to have to look for more stories where the hero and heroine get transformed into animals, monsters, or aliens.  You see, the prince and the princess must be conventionally attractive, which means their faces can only contort in physiologically plausible ways.  In a cartoon world, this makes them the least expressive characters.  They seem stiff next to a caricature whose whole face expresses a single emotion, whose chin can drop to the floor, who can have steam come out of his ears, and so forth.  Turn the hero into a caricature, and the animators can use all their tricks on him.  Then, when they’re done, they can make him handsome again.

Anyway, Disney has hit on some tricks that could serve them well for the next five years.  Past that time, I expect the pressure for a lesbian princess will become too great, and Disney will try to appease by removing the love interest altogether, making a princess adventure story that they think will keep both liberals and Christians happy.  Instead, it will kill the genre.

11 Responses

  1. Cue Frozen, with its decidedly ambiguous heroines and no “happily ever after” moment.

  2. Spoiler alert: The villain of the movie does not die the traditional Disney death of falling to his doom, but is literally dragged kicking and screaming into hell. A cartoonish voodoo version of hell, but still…

  3. I’ve got to say, I think those voodoo demons were making a mistake. Sometimes the best plans don’t work out. If I had a graduate student with Doctor Facilier’s drive and ingenuity, I’d be happy to overlook some failed ideas. Whatever his “debt” was, it must have been peanuts compared to what he might have delivered.

    Maybe that’s just Bonald the thesis advisor talking.

  4. Your earlier posts on these sorts of topics (esp. animation and feminine beauty) are fascinating. I think the issue of animation may be a lot more general than the specific case of attractive women. Hand-drawn animation has a strong potential for conveying unearthly beauty of whatever kind in general, (underused by the Disney / Looney-Tunes talking-animal-pratfalls genre), because it builds on the existing potential of a minimalist (iconic) visual style that activates the viewer’s own imagination, combined with the added possibility of graceful motion plus an ability to manipulate the viewer’s emotions that is inherent to the film medium.

    Thus a skilled filmmaker like Studio Ghibli’s Miyazaki can use it to wallop the viewer over the head with a nearly unbearable dose of Sehnsucht. The best Disney movies have the same quality to a lesser extent. This is not a wholly positive or a wholly negative thing.

    The issue is that the human race can’t live entirely without images of Heavenly beauty — it would starve spiritually. But when such images appear they are easily made into objects of lust, idolatry, and desecration. (Although, oddly, it seems to be the second-tier quality of media that is most subject to this, rather than the very best stuff.) In which case the resulting effect is to leave people further from Heaven than they were before. Like some Orthodox theories of Hell, or like a CS Lewis parable, the damned can visit Heaven but are making themselves less and less able to enjoy it.

    One of these days, I will probably find myself writing an entire illustrated essay on this subject, and questioning back and forth on whether it’s justifiable trying to produce unearthly art in a society that would tend to put it to a perverted use. I would title it “The Man Who Dared to Draw Heaven”, or “The Resurrection Body as Imagined by Pagan Animators”, or somesuch.

  5. It gets worse. Really, the rather blatant feminist vibe in its iconic “Let It Go” was already a pretty big red flag.

  6. One thing I despise about modern social liberals and progressives is how they typically enter the realm of fairy tales, ancient religious stories, ancient myths, dreams and other literary fantasies, and often try to ruin ancient and old fairytales with a “modern twist”.

    Why can’t they stick their “progressive morals” to modern high-technological environments and leave the pre-modern natural ones alone? They’re not “environmentalists” one bit and they probably ruin the Earth much more than others. If anything, moderns, social liberals, and progressives, all have the morals and ideologies of hard steel.

  7. I would be interested to hear a Bonald take on Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.

  8. Why that one specifically? Is it just because San is about precisely the opposite of a Disney Princess?

  9. Mainly because Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s best film.

  10. @ The Man Who Was….

    I’d agree with some qualifications. It’s really hard to compare like this the Ghibli movies that belong to essentially opposite genres. Can you say that “Spirited Away” (a mostly-comic supernatural adventure) is better or worse than something like “The Wind Rises” (heavy, tragic biopic set in Meiji-era Japan, with a morally ambiguous protagonist)? They’re not even remotely aiming for the same thing.

    Although I wouldn’t call it the best movie, for whatever reason I find “Porco Rosso” has had the most rewatch value for me. I always seem to notice something new whenever I come back to it.

    Maybe because it’s a very “middle-aged” sort of movie at heart, so as life goes on I start to identify with the protagonist more and more.

  11. […] about The Princess and the Frog, I was pessimistic about the long-term prospects of Disney princess movies in a hostile feminist […]

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