“Where there is kindness, there is goodness. Where there is goodness, there is magic.” –Cinderella’s mother qtd in the forthcoming live action “Cinderella” film (2014)
Confession: I love fairy tales in general and Disney fairy tales in particular. My adoration of the Disney princesses is legendary within my social circle. My husband still claims that the fastest he has ever seen me run is after Belle in Fantasyland one night when I was searching for an autograph. I love them. And, I’m very protective of them.
There’s something that has been sticking in my craw for a while now–the general critique of the Disney princesses as antifeminist. It’s been bugging me for so long that I’ve spoken about it in public a couple of times. Some time back, I gave a talk about the Disney princesses and the Jungian anima complex at the Popular Culture’s Association. The thesis was/is that Disney princesses reflect for the Disney studio what Jung suggested was a male projection of femininity. And since the studio (not to mention the animators) has, like the rest of Hollywood, been largely male throughout its history…well, enough said.
Personally, I find Jung’s gendered language both limiting and obnoxious. I feel that in continuing to align these concepts with biological gender only, we in the depth psychological, mythological, literary, and film studies communities continue to reinforce the status quo of all kinds of gender inequality. I do however, agree with his concept of the anima–the idea that there is feminine archetypal energy in our psychological reality, as well as a myriad of feminine archetypal images, all neither entirely positive or negative. I just happen to think that biological gender assignment has nothing to do with how one experiences them per se.
In 2012, I gave a paper on Merida at a Film and Myth conference on Milwaukee. In it, I suggested that Brave was an American feminist response to the over-masculinized and over-militarized myths of American mythic Scotland. Again, the paper focused on the concept of the feminine as more than biological gender…the idea that there is something about inherently feminine qualities, feminine energy in relationship that is lacking and necessary in our culture.
Now, to the princesses in general. Much has been made of them in their presentation of body image, their insanely perfect hair, and their focus on romance and marriage. I’ve heard the princesses criticized as cogs in the marketing machines whose entire purpose is to create “bling girls” so distracted by stuff they want to acquire that they don’t think critically. While I agree that there is some truth in that, I’ll leave those discussions to friends who are inclined to have them. Instead, I’d like to talk about the kind of positive mytho-psychic impact the Disney princesses have. In order to do that, I suggest that we disentangle these archetypal images from gender, and see them as messages from the archetypal feminine.
Disney princesses are often criticized for being weak and without volition. How can that be true? In every Disney princess tale, the actions of the princesses bring healing to their community. Sometimes they bring it through fighting–Mulan and Merida–and sometimes they bring it through their ability to be a catalyst for change–Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. Again, why would one interpret them as weak and without volition? Is it because we see the stories where the princess herself is a catalyst as a sign of weakness? Is this assertion of weakness perhaps because we’ve learned to equate gentleness and kindness with powerlessness? Maybe?
Disney princesses are not shallow, vapid, helpless women who spend all day singing in the forest and looking for a prince. They are brave and tenacious. And none of them act alone. Animals, dragons, trees, good fairies, brothers, people enchanted into household objects, the world–all of the communities that surround the princess are helpers that one might miss if one was not paying attention or did not have the sensitivity to see them. These stories are not about conquering. They are about finding love and meaning in the world.
Let’s look at a list:
Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora–they reconnect with humans and animals, offering their creature friends safety, a human who sees them as sentient beings rather than commodities to be harnessed.
Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan, Merida–among other things are literal saviors who are willing to fight and even die if necessary for those they love.
Rapunzel and Tiana–refuse to give up on their dreams.
Each of these characters sacrifice aspects of their own autonomy because they love, whether it is their kingdom, their families, their animal friends, their dreams, or a man. Why do we fear vulnerability so much? Is it because we fear the pain of it being unreciprocated? Perhaps. Perhaps we fear losing own power. Perhaps we criticize these characters in the wake of a culture of misogyny. Perhaps we are simply rebel against a media onslaught of imagery that lacks texture. Perhaps we simply resent what we perceive to be a lack of options for female characters. These are all fair. But these characters only become problematic to the extent that they are presented as the only option for female characters. And doesn’t this lack of options also happen to male characters as well?
True vulnerability is powerful. It can be a strength. Only through being willing to give up some of our control can we know what it is to love and connect with ourselves and others around us. Rather than to simply dismiss the Disney princesses (and remember I’m not suggesting we be uncritical of them), why not seek to also present them as a soft facet of feminine archetypal imagery? Why not make it ok for human beings to be vulnerable–period. If we think in these terms, perhaps we will begin to understand why these types of images are essential to humanity’s ability to love and empathize. Because truly, do we really want to risk missing the gentle beauty of goodness, kindness, and magic?