If there’s one thing feminists and traditionalists can agree on, it’s that Hollywood needs more stories about strong, independent female monarchs.
Writing about The Princess and the Frog, I was pessimistic about the long-term prospects of Disney princess movies in a hostile feminist environment, but having seen Tangled and Frozen, I see that I had underestimated the cleverness of the Disney storywriters. (Insightful reviews of Frozen by antiliberals can be found here and here, but really, these movies are a lot of fun, and you should just go see them.) What’s remarkable is that these movies strike me as less PC and more gender-realistic than anything since Disney started trying to deflect feminist criticism (circa Beauty and the Beast). How are they getting away with it?
As I said before
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.
What they’re paying for is nostalgia for premodern, monarchical Europe, celebrating the charms of youthful femininity, and the great female coming of age story that centers on marriage. The basic template: beautiful young woman living constrictive existence reminiscent of childhood uses the power of cuteness to defeat the schemes of the sinister older woman and gets her man. Nobody wants to admit to enjoying that, but it’s catnip to little girls. (Being a monarchist and by no means insensible to the charms of youthful femininity, my own tastes track little girls’.) I suppose if you ask parents or Disney employees about the attraction of these movies, they’d probably mutter something about “encouraging girls to follow their dreams”, but that’s like saying you buy Playboy for the interesting articles.
How do they get away with it? By throwing in “disclaimers”, little wrinkles in the story to head off feminist criticism, or sops to feminist sensibilities which are then subtly subverted by wider context. (I don’t of course claim that the writers are consciously doing this. The feminist censor may well be internal.) Let’s take a few.
Girl ruling and/or with superpowers
Rule by a queen happened from time to time in the patriarchal Middle Ages, so I don’t have a problem with this. If it buys the writers cover, it’s worth it. Besides royal inheritance, magic is a good way to make a female character powerful without destroying her femininity. Especially if your magic power is something like having long hair that glows, rather than turning into the Incredible Hulk when you get mad. Girl magic and guy magic–very different.
This is a trick Disney has been playing for quite a while now. It’s not that she wanted to dress up in a pretty dress, marry a prince, or other girly stuff like that. It just somehow keeps ending up happening. She set out to do something else.
It’s not her fault. She was locked up her whole life.
I was afraid that Ariel would be Disney’s last openly boy-chasing princess. The fact is that this generation is extremely uncomfortable with female sexuality. “Like a fish needs a bicycle”, etc. Back when I was born, it seemed entirely natural to people that a healthy sixteen year old girl (like, say, Aurora) would dream about getting a man and be duly impressed when she met him. One really should pity our poor easily-scandalized secularist friends. But to accommodate their tender sensibilities, we had to watch Belle and Jasmine rebuffing suitors and no princess ever taking an interest in a man until he has proven his sappy sensitivity and moral worth. Under these circumstances, Tiana’s role as the straight guy foil to the more fun Prince Naveen seemed like the best a princess could do. It worked for the story, but while its easy to admire Tiana, it’s hard to imagine having a crush on her.
Rapunzel and Anna have been, for various reasons, locked up in isolation from the world their whole lives, and this gives the storywriters an excuse to make them charmingly girlish and naive. And they’re lonely, the poor dears, so certain other behavior becomes understandable. Princess Anna actually sings about hoping to meet her true love at a ball. (But wait, the guy she meets turns out to be evil, so that’s a score for feminism, right? Well, but look where that reasoning leads. If For the First Time in Forever is subverted by outcome, so is Let It Go. The three main characters–Anna, Elsa, and Olaf–each sing a song about what turns out to be a false road to fulfillment. And in the end, just as Elsa gets freedom to use her powers, Anna does get a man.) If they wish, viewers may tell themselves that if she hadn’t been stuck in a tower all those years, Rapunzel would never have been so quickly and obviously attracted to a disreputable rogue like Flynn Ryder. Whatever the excuse, Rapunzel and Anna get to spend lots of movie time being cute, especially when they try to act tough in front of the guys.
If all else fails, one can always give in and make a feminist or multicultural movie, lose money on it, and use the ensuing PC credit to put out something popular. There have been a lot of crappy Disney movies, but we tend not to remember them, and the company has survived them.