Even though I’ve been writing fairytale retellings since I was 10 or so, I’m ashamed to confess that I’ve never seen any of the animated Disney movies. So far my source material has always been the written versions published by the Brothers Grimm.
After publishing ‘Let Down Your Hair’, though, I tracked down some fellow fairytale scholars, and finally saw two Disney fairy tale adaptations with them: Maleficent, which I saw last year, and Cinderella, which I saw the night before last. And even though these two movies took a different approach to the original tales (Cinderella is a straightforward adaptation, Maleficent presents the story from the Wicked Fairy’s point of view), both of them had me twitching in my seat with their depiction of The Princess.
I don’t mind the standard issue long blonde hair. Long blonde hair is pretty, and when you’re telling a story set in northern Europe, it’s fitting enough that the beautiful heroine has the stuff. I’ve mused here before about the miniscule waistlines (which bother me more in the live action versions, where there’s a more concrete “you too could/should look like this” subtext than you get from a cartoon), but I can live with them so long as they’re not Photoshopped into cartoon proportions. What bothered me most in these movies wasn’t the way the princesses looked. It was how they behaved.
I get that storybook princesses are fictional. The innocent, beautiful kind young girl is the sort of archetype you expect to find in a fairy tale. But watching actual human actors floating about all innocent and radiant and golden-haired having twee conversations with adoring little animals struck me as a bit sickening and sinister.
For a start, these princesses are teenage girls, right? I challenge anyone who’s had close contact with real teenage girls to identify a single one who wafts around like an angel of goodness kissing flowers all day. People who project this innocent angel image onto real teenage girls tend to be people who’ve well and truly lost touch with the sweaty, self-conscious, nasty world of adolescence (and, I fear, often people who want to cast them as sexual fantasy figures, but more on that later). Unless she was very sheltered or lucky, any girl who was that innocent and kind and beautiful would be DOOMED in your average high school.
Another disturbing angle to reflect on is the extreme popularity of the Princess as a fantasy for little girls. Walk down the toys aisle in a department store and the designated girls’ shelves are positively shimmering with tiaras and Elsa costumes and begging little girls whose dream is to be a princess when they grow up. And while those little girls will nominally grow out of this by seven or eight, I personally suspect the fantasy just goes underground and resurfaces later as the Princess for a Day wedding fantasy. Apparently it’s common for women to experience post-wedding depression, because their wedding has been set up as the pinnacle of their lives, and it’s all downhill from there. In the movies, they scroll the credits after the wedding; in real life you have to keep building your happily ever after, and lots of people don’t succeed.
My final and most disturbing thought was who invented this angel-princess template? Seeing the live action movies are drawing on their animated predecessors, I presume the answer is whoever was calling the shots at the Disney studios. Walt himself, and/or his directors and producers. And I’m guessing here, but something tells me that most of these people were middle-aged men. Do those anodyne princess-angels with their impossibly sweet-natured blonde innocence and almost total absence of personality represent Disney’s personal fantasy of the perfect pliable virgin bride? Not a pleasant thought, especially if you cherished those movies as a child, but not an implausible one either…