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The Disney Princess Polemic

Social pressure is on to create genuine heroine characters not animated models with impossible body images. But Disney continues its pursuit of pure fantasy.

The Disney Princess Polemic
Thomas Sotinel

PARIS — A Disney movie without a princess. It almost happened.

So what? After all, there aren’t any in The Snow Queen — Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale on which Walt Disney’s end-of-the-year movie Frozen is (very) loosely based. And Disney warned us three years ago that it was getting rid of royal heirs as main female characters, thus breaking a habit that started back in 1938 with Snow White, the studio’s first animated feature film.

In Snow White’s wake, Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Belle (Beauty And The Beast), Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Pocahontas and Tiana (The Princess And The Frog) all helped convince little girls the world over that happiness was meeting Prince Charming, and then being a good housewife — in Prince Charming’s castle, but still.

Old habits die hard, and abolishing princesses isn’t easy. There are actually two in Frozen: the fearless Anna and her elder sister Elsa, who put a spell on her kingdom, condemning it to suffer an endless winter.

When we met him the day before the film’s French premiere at Disneyland Paris, Frozen producer Peter Del Vecho told us that, upon developing the characters of Anna and Elsa, his first concern had been to “create characters that resonate with today’s life.” Hence young Anna’s vocabulary, more reminiscent of Selena Gomez than a princess. As for her sister Elsa, co-producter Jennifer Lee says that she wanted her to be “more complex than a mere villain; she’s trying to be a good queen to her people.”

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In the first version of the script, the two girls were not of royal extraction. The filmmakers insisted that their accession to the throne of this imaginary Scandinavian kingdom was due to simple scenaristic reasons — to “raise the stakes,” as Lee put it.

Call it a happy coincidence, if you will, but this turned out to be for the best — in terms of marketing, at least. At the turn of the millenium, Andy Mooney, who had previously worked for Nike before being in charge of Disney merchandising, launched the “Disney Princess” range of products: games, costumes, school supplies all inspired by the company’s heroines. It was a huge and immediate success, turning Disney’s merchandising branch into one of its most profitable departments. In 2010, the sector turned a $4 billion profit.

Against stereotypes

Some 20th century mothers may have found it a little unsettling to raise girls who only dreamed of satin dresses and devoted princes. In its Christmas 2006 edition, The New York Times published an article written by one of these mothers, Peggy Orenstein, entitled “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?” Since then, the journalist has been chronicling the fight of women (not necessarily feminists: Orenstein has also received the support of Christian associations) against stereotypes.

From her home in California, Orenstein describes the article’s impact. “It’s like food awareness,” she says. “Today, people find it normal to be informed about what they eat, and they try to minimize their impact on the environment. At first they called me a ‘feminazi,’ then a consensus emerged against the way girls were encouraged to pursue an ideal that’s beyond their reach.” And actually, even before Disney promised to give up its beloved princesses, the company had started to revise its depiction of women.

In January 2009, The Princess and the Frog — to date, Disney’s last traditionally animated film — bent the rules of classic fairy tales: The aforementioned princess turned out to be no princess at all, but an African-American of humble origins who dreamed of opening her own restaurant in New Orleans. What’s more, she spent much of the film in the skin of a frog, and finally managed to balance her career and love life. But the feature was a flop, at least by Disney standards — garnering only $267 million worldwide, compared to Tangled’s $591 million and Rebel’s $539 million, the franchise’s following movies featuring princesses.

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The digitally animated Tangled represents a sort of middle ground between tradition and modernity. If the story, taken from the Grimm Brothers’ repertoire, features a witch who looks like the evil queen from Snow White, this time the captive princess takes care of planning her own escape. Throughout the film, she is shown as being on equal terms with her devoted prince charming in the way of fights and stunts. But a more independent princess did not translate to merchandising sales. In Latin America, people can even buy Disney princesses quinceañeras dresses — for the Mexican celebration of a girl’s transition into womanhood. No wedding dresses yet, though.

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Princess petitions

In May, Change.org launched a petition to protest the makeover of Merida — the fiery princess in Rebel. Created by Pixar (which has since merged with Disney), Rebel originally depicted a teenager more concerned with solving her quarrel with her mother than thinking about boys. But her induction into the Disney Princess collection meant that the Burbank company had to glam up the young redhead warrior as a model, and her bow and arrow have disappeared.

“By making her skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance, you are sending a message to girls that the original, realistic, teenage-appearing version of Merida is inferior, that for girls and women to have value — to be recognized as true princesses — they must conform to a narrow definition of beauty,” the petitioners claim.

Designer and writer Brenda Chapman, who created the character and directed the film during its early develoment years before being dismissed (she is still credited as director, which earned her an Oscar), recently added fuel to the fire. On her website, Chapman wrote: “So now when they girls see what Disney Consumer Products has done to Merida, it tells them that they aren’t good enough unless they lose weight, wear tighter, sexier, "girlier" clothes, wear lots of makeup and coif their hair.”

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“The aim for these characters is to be sexy without being sexual,” Orenstein says. “It’s the same thing in today’s TV series. Which means that little girls’ heroines, actresses and singers like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, sometimes feel like they have to transgress moral codes to break free from these stereotypes.”

It’s a risk that Disney will try and bypass by ... giving life to new virtual — and virtuous — princesses. In Frozen, when Anna appears, she speaks like Miley Cyrus. But when the film ends, she speaks in a way that would make Elizabeth II proud. Looks like girls will want to be princesses for a little while longer.

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