The four-year-old and I have been watching our way through the classics of Disney recently. It's been a joy to sing along with The Bear Necessities and Everybody Wants to be a Cat again but it's also been interesting to see how progressive the films have become over the years, especially in the Princess Arena.
If you have a preschool child that hasn't been living halfway up the North Mountain these last few years, then chances are you'll have a touch of Frozen fatigue. But take a moment to reassess the message of the film - Anna thinks that she needs romance to save her, but actually the strength and love comes from her own heart. Elsa doesn't even have romance on the agenda. We're a long way from Snow White and Cinderella, who wimpily sat around doing the housework, until a man turned up to save them. Watching the 14-year old Snow White ride off with a man she'd barely even met set off all kinds of alarm bells for me. What I would have given for a Kristoff to pop up with a well-timed: "You got engaged to a man you'd just met that morning?"
14-year-old? Yeah, we'll come back to that.
The princesses have taken an upward curve in terms of feminism and independence - the early princesses were bland and simpering (yes Aurora, I'm looking at you) but Ariel in 1989 heralded a new model of heroine. She was feisty, defiant and yearned for something bigger than just a man's love. She wanted her independence, she wanted to join a culture that excluded her, she longed for experiences... the handsome prince was just a bonus. Then we had Belle, reading books and rejecting suitors for being "positively primeval". We were on the way up,
Next, Disney tackled its diversity problem. The remainder of the 90s saw heroines Jasmine, Pocahontas, Esmerelda and Mulan give the lineup a touch of variety among the identikit blondes. In some ways it's surprising that it took until 2009 to have an African-American princess but even slow progress is progress. What's more, Tiana's film wasn't about being African-American...it was just a story where the heroine happened to be from that community. She wasn't presented as an exotic wonder, in the mould of Pocahontas or Jasmine - she was just herself. Ambitious, hard-working and entrepreneurial...that's the kind of princess we need more of. I'm looking forward to seeing what Moana, the first Polynesian princess, is going to be like.
But there's still one glaringly backward part of the Disney canon and that's the issue of age. Think how young all these princesses are; they are all teenagers. True, Elsa is 21 but she's progressed to the status of Queen. Anna, the more traditional princess figure, is 18, just like Pocahontas and Rapunzel before her. Belle was 17, Aurora and Ariel 16, Jasmine 15 and Snow White - as discussed above - 14.
14? That's really young. In the 30-year gap between me and my four-year-old, her role model sits half as far away from her as she does from me. I don't consider myself old, but Snowie is full two decades younger than me. Over half the princesses are under half my age. Think again for a second how weird that is, especially when they're all getting married at the end of their stories. Do I want my daughter riding off into the forest with a strange man in ten years' time? No, I think I'd call the police. It doesn't help that the princes are all older than their wives - this handy guide will explain to you how few of these pairings would pass the Age of Creepiness test.
The idea of these teenagers making such huge commitments on the basis of so little is only part of the problem. The lack of older role models leads girls to believe that nothing good will ever happen to them after the age of 20. That beauty and romance simply don't exist. Which leads naturally to the idea that all middle-aged women spend their time seething over their lost youth and plotting how to regain it. Look at Snow White's evil queen, Cinderella's stepmother, Malificent and, more recently, Rapunzel's Mother Gothel. All bitter and jealous of the slim-waisted, shiny-haired princesses. And that's just the characters that make it to middle age - a tricky proposition, given how many of Disney's mother figures die before their children grow up (Cinderella, Snow White, Jasmine, Ariel, Belle, Anna and Elsa are all lacking mothers..and some of their fathers don't fare too well either).
It's only when you pass into proper Old Age that Disney had a place for you again - personified by the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast and the Good Fairies in Sleeping Beauty. These ladies have accepted that their time is past, and they're happy to bless the younglings' romances and dish out kindly advice. Again though, I'm not sure I'm ready to be a Mrs Potts (how is she Chip's mother? That always confused me). Is there really no scope for decent characters in their 30s and 40s.
Occasionally, a mother will survive childbirth and middle age to attend their daughter's wedding but these characters have fairly minimal parts - see the interchangeable queens in Sleeping Beauty and Tangled who just stand around looking beautiful and worried. I can't ever imagine a Disney film where a 30 year old woman is the main character.
I have deliberately not talked about Brave so far, which is both a wonderful film and an anomaly. The Queen in that film is shown to have a lot of human weakness - slamming doors and shouting at her infuriating teenage daughter. That teenage daughter goes on to kick some Caledonian ass in an archery contest and win her own hand in marriage. Up the Sisterhood! But this is Pixar, which has always been a progressive force in filmmaking and - as such- doesn't really fall into the Disney pattern. Merida might stand shoulder-to-bare shoulder with the rest of the princesses but she's never quite going to be one of them.
So how about it Disney - how about breaching the final frontier and making a film like "The Incredibles", where the mother figure is concerned about saving the planet, AND getting the baby down for a nap? Only maybe the mother figure could occasionally do the Disney thing of turning up to a ball looking drop-dead gorgeous. Because, yknow, even a feminist in their 30s likes to rock a ballgown now and then...
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