Monday, January 21, 2013

Princess Marketing Is Insane, But Princess Movies Rock (Part 1)

This post got big, so I broke it into two. Here's the first part.

Princess culture has had a big backlash, and this week a little voice came forward to defend it, tentatively. Andy Hinds compared his twin daughter's enjoyment of dressing up as royalty to drug addiction several times, but with the help of Justice Sotomayor's appearance on Sesame Street he reached a detente.

Commenters and other bloggers closed ranks, perhaps imagining that an army led by Peggy Orenstein would strike back. As a movie fan, I want to emphasize a distinction that I think may help parents sort out their stand in the conflict.

Princesses are not the enemy. In fact they are getting more and more terrific. And it's Disney who deserves the credit for digging them out of the cultural hole (that they put them in).

The Origin Story

It's easy to forget, through the hysteria around the sparkly dresses, that the princesses themselves had a rougher origin story. Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty entered the permanent record of the collective consciousness through the hands of folklorists from the 17th and 19th centuries like Perrault and the Grimm brothers. Their strange, magical folk tales established a set of heroes for the West: resilient heroines who navigate to safety and prosperity in a world steeped in sudden violence and death.

Then, skip a hundred years, and there was Walt Disney. He seized on the idea of domesticating some of these public-domain stories to appeal to American families in the tumultuous middle of the century. And he ended up building an empire of children's entertainment and, ultimately, setting parameters for American popular culture.

First-Wave Princesses

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the very first animated feature film, breaking ground with every frame. A dozen years later, the studio released a lovingly designed cartoon based on Cinderella and then, a decade after that, Sleeping Beauty.

Cinderella,Aurora,Snow White photo july1861.gif
Kimberly Gray (PhotoBucket alien4112004)
Kids wouldn't know it today, but these three weren't a trilogy. They were just three releases out of sixteen or so that the Disney artists released for their first twenty years, some of which were also based on copyright-free material like Peter Pan, Pinnochio, and Alice in Wonderland.

Many have noted that the Disney films imply a worldview very different than the one we glimpse in Grimm. Like much American popular culture in the World War II era, they were constructed to delight and divert, while reinforcing trust in authority and stable family structures. Behind Snow White, Dumbo and Bambi, we see the fragile innocence of our liberty gaining its confidence. And after the war, as in so much 50s culture, we see in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Tinker-Bell the American wife infantilized, as if to say, "Go back to the house, honey; we need our jobs back."

These three Disney princesses are grating to progressive parents. The vigor of these artifacts from our cultural adolescence is still visible, but it's clouded by their stereotypes and blind spots.

Second-Wave Princesses

But the country changed in the late 60s, and Disney's messages landed with quieter and quieter thuds. Their animated features drew from boy-driven stories like King Arthur, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, Oliver Twist and Sherlock Holmes--often recast with animals--with diminishing returns. By the 1980s their films were flops, and animation looked obsolete.

The studio needed a hit. And they got it with the lucky combination of a fairy tale source, a couple of New York theatre insouciants, and an adaptation that connected to audiences by giving the heroine the yearnings of a modern teenager on the brink of puberty. The Little Mermaid made Disney relevant again.

A run of inspired classics lasted a few years, with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King--the first two with Mermaid's ingenious songwriting team. (The genius lyricist, Howard Ashman, died while Aladdin was in development, and Tim Jesus Christ Superstar Rice was his wordy replacement.)

Lots of insightful people have reflected on the ways these films are both feminist and reactionary, both progressive and patronizing. But compare them with the first wave of Disney movies. They share the painstaking artistry that makes masterpieces, and, yes, the square happy endings that ensure a satisfying family viewing experience for all ages. But the 90s Disneys introduce a tonal sophistication far surpassing anything in Hollywood entertainment up to that point.

Ariel trades her voice for a chance to be a woman, with the understanding that she can only recover it by encouraging the sexual advances of a wealthy male suitor. The screen could have been captioned "PIERCING METAPHOR FOR BEING A TEENAGE GIRL IN LATE 20TH CENTURY AMERICA." And look at the care taken to set Belle up as a reader, even though "her name means 'beauty.'" SHE TEACHES THE BEAST TO READ.

No, these cartoons are not radical. And they end with, gasp, the promise of romantic happiness (as do Shakespearean comedies).

But the entire plot is driven by a woman chafing under the restrictions society places on her, and the consequences of her breaking free of them. Sounds like A Doll's House, or The Awakening, right? I'm so proud of that mega-corporation for putting those seditious ideas in a delicious package for mass global consumption.

Blowing It

Of course, it didn't last. Following the boy-centered Aladdin and The Lion King, Disney proceeded to photocopy their winning formula until it was a kind of blotchy smear of itself. Squeezing animal sidekicks into Pocahontas, and musical comedy into The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

Strangely enough, one reason I think these movies started to alienate audiences was that the liberal messages became more important than the entertainment. Watching the colonists sing a number about pillaging the New World's resources was awkward, especially coming from the Disney Global Media Empire.

Meanwhile, a new gang of animators, many of whom had spent apprentice years at Disney, had  exploded into family movie history. The newfangled computer-animated features from John Lasseter and Pixar were based on original stories, with no music or reliance on formula. And they were instant classics.

2-D animation was declared obsolete again, only ten years after being brought back to life.

It is in this dark time that the real culprit for Princess-hatred was born. But, as Peggy Orenstein passionately chronicles in Cinderella Ate My Daughter (previewed in the New York Times Magazine), the sparkly-dress phenomenon that so infuriates her and many Free To Be You And Me parents did not come from the Disney movie studio.

Read part two to learn the story...and why the Third-Wave Princess is one of the most exciting things in American movies.