My daughters have been drip-fed a new Disney princess every few years since birth.
In the twelve years since my eldest was born, Disney conceived Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana (the studio’s first black princess who, it has been noted, spent much of the movie as a frog) and now – with its latest blockbuster (and rumoured ‘last’ princess movie in the smash-hit range) – Rapunzel.
The entertainment giant unleashed the Disney Princess franchise in 2001, along with a battery of princess paraphernalia – dolls, DVDs, dress-ups, doona covers and decorated adhesive bandages. Sales of Disney consumables rose from $300 million in 2001 to $4 billion in 2009, with over 25,000 princess-based products on the market.
You could say the princess thing struck a chord.
It also struck a nerve and fuelled much anti-Cinderella debate. Feminists agonised over the message that this tsunami of glittering pink schlock sends girls: be gorgeous and ordinary enough and you too can passively await rescue from your humdrum existence by a dashing prince (assuming, as fairytales tend to, that you’re not gay) who will whisk you to his faraway kingdom, where you’ll have a majestic royal wedding, pigeon-pair babies and live happily ever after.
I mean, we all know that kind of thing only ever happens in Disney movies and Aussie pubs.
I have a four-year-old niece in Disney’s target demographic. She is rarely seen in her human guise, preferring to flit about in a mismatched assortment of wings, tiaras and puffy tulle skirts. She is intelligent, determined and strong-willed – like her university-medal winning mother. She knows what she wants. Right now, in pre-school, she wants to be a fairy princess.
Fast forward thirty years and I doubt she’ll be flitting into the board room in fairy wings. I know I don’t – and that’s despite lapping up a childhood diet of far less gutsy Disney heroines. In fact, as the mother of two ex-fairy princesses, I can tell you she won’t be doing it at ten.
Ensconced in the movie theatre then, with a plate of takeaway sushi and my now hardcore-commoner tweens, I let Tangled wash over me (and them) for what it is: escapist mush. The three of us loved it.
Afterwards, and having read a bit of the academic anti-princess backlash, I asked my daughter if she’d noticed any themes or messages about women.
She replied (with a wry smile and that superior roll of the eyes that only almost-Year-Sevens can pull off over the Christmas break), ‘Mothers are mean?’
In Tangled, it’s the princess who wears the pants (not literally, of course – she’s clothed in a floaty mauve gown throughout). She rescues her suitor – a wanted criminal and misunderstood orphan – multiple times, Indiana-Jones style, usually with her magical golden hair, knocking him over the head with a frying pan until he comes to his senses, mends his ways and morphs from outlaw to in-law in the closing scene (all with the indispensible help of a swashbuckling horse).
Feminists are struggling to unpack it. ‘I saw the frying pan as symbolising a kind of feminine/transgressive power, while the sword represents traditional masculine power’, wrote one bloggist. Another commentator, fishing through the film for something to criticise, hooked a few minor points, found them too small and tossed them back. ‘It wasn’t bad,’ she concluded, ‘As far as gender goes, I just feel blah about it’.
So here’s a thought: why not let go of the intellectual angst and just watch it for what it is?
I’ve identified as a feminist (and a romantic) since I was in high school. I’m all for Disney’s new strong-female twist on the Princess theme (we won’t be seeing any more damsels in distress, rumoured the LA Times late last year). I’m as appalled as the next parent about some of the themes our kids are exposed to through popular culture.
There’s a limit, though, to what I’ll fret over at the expense of my family enjoying ourselves. If I want to take my children away from the harsh realities of life for ninety minutes (like much of Australia, my daughters have been watching the flood coverage this week in horror) and if Disney is serving up a temporary antidote, we’ll swallow it.
As we walked back to the car after the movie and adjusted to normal life again, I explained to my twelve-year-old that a lot of adults debate the themes in films like Tangled, pulling apart the messages – analysing the role models…
‘Seriously, Mummy’ she sighed, ‘It’s just a movie! Get over it – it’s not real!’
The same child is ferreting through the garage now for her old fairy wings to give to the flood victims.
That’s what it looks like when fantasy meets reality.
Emma Grey is the author of Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum (Lothian, 2005) and director of the life-balance company, WorkLifeBliss. www.worklifebliss.com.au
Read more on her blog at www.emmacatherinegrey.blogspot.com