Society

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

“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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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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