Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why Disney Princesses Are Good Role Models, Part 2

In September of 2012, I wrote a blog defending the Disney Princess name.  I was defending them for a number of reasons.  In the blog I talked about society's definition of feminism and why it isn't necessarily a healthy definition and how it applies to the Princesses and their impact on girls.  I then went on to address a blog condemning the Princesses by selecting specific points and proving why these points were essentially invalid arguments to say that these characters are bad role models.  And finally, I stated why each of the Princesses are good role models and their virtues.  If you have not yet read that post, click here.
Well, it is National Princess week and this is as good a time as ever to post a follow up to my first
blog.  Note - although I posted this during National Princess week, the week after I wrote it I had a sudden inspiration so I rewrote much of this piece so it isn't entirely in it's original form.  But it's a whole lot better now so I'm content.  A lot has happened since I wrote Part 1.  Two new Princess movies came out and both attacked the issue of feminism in their own way.  There was also a Princess redesign that sparked a lot of controversy.  This blog post will do accomplish three things.  It will discuss the millennial generation and why the study of this general gives a good look at why people view Disney and their Princesses the way they do.  Next, I will discuss the Princess redesign in comparison to the release of Average Barbie.  And finally I will talk about the new films, how the new Princesses are good role models, and why these two new films aren't focused enough on making a genuinely good film.
I was reading an article in Relevant Magazine by Jesse Carey titled Generation Rising.  The article discussed the growing controversy of how the world defines the millennial generation.  Either we're lazing and entitled or authentic and creative.  There is no middle ground apparently.  After presenting a lot of research and perspectives from all sides of the spectrum, it is implied that our generation feels like we were lied to.  We were told to believe in ourselves and anything is possible.  But that isn't true and I think Disney played a big part in sending this message out.  One of Disney's biggest criticisms today is their message of dreams coming true with little to no work (magic) or, for a girl, finding a man to do the hard work for her.  I think there is a bit of misconception to this idea which I discuss in my first defense of the Disney Princesses post but I digress.  
Reading Carey's article was a real wake up call for me because even though it had nothing to do with Disney, it screamed the answer as to why this debate exists between Disney and the public.  The millennial generation is defined as being born between the years of 1980 and 2002.  Disney peaked in 1989, right in the middle of the millennial generation, and they continued to capture children from this generation with their spectacular films.  Essentially, critics believe that Disney held a stick with a hundred dollar bill tied to it and millennials kept chasing it, believing that one day they would catch up and get that hundred dollar bill.  But it isn't that easy and neither is achieving your dreams.  When the harsh reality set in, people became angry and the the public began to look for someone to blame for their misconception.  Disney was the scapegoat.  What bothers me about all of this is that there is something that people have failed to see about the movies Disney released during the years millennials were growing up.  Yes, Disney promoted easy ways to reach dreams.  It is Disney's market and signature and has been since 1940 when Gepetto wished upon a star for a real boy.  To say that Disney has lied to our generation is an overstatement.  You might as well say they lied to every generation (which I disagree with).  But people fail to see what Disney did right during their Renaissance and through most of the corporations career in film and other aspects of entertainment.  Disney has a keen sense of depicting the inner reality of it's viewers and making films that are just plain good.  In other words, they are good at what they do.  If we can learn anything from Disney, we can learn from their artistic depictions of the inner reality of the child within all of us.  We can learn from the detail and research they put into their movies.  We can learn from the hard work they put into their animation.  We can learn from the well crafted musical scores and numbers.  No, Ariel's choices are not going to necessarily push young girls on the right path.  What Ariel's choices do is depict a human being - a 16 year old girl who yearns for adventure in the unknown and finds out the hard way that things are so easy.  No, young children aren't going to have good advice from films that use magic to solve their problems.  But whoever said we are to take fairy tales literally?  When we read Harry Potter books, do we believe brooms will magically carry us away when a bully comes near?  Of course not.  And when we watch the Wizard of Oz, do we believe tapping our red shoes three times together while take us home?  No.  So why would we expect Disney to be any different?  I fail to see why critics are being more harsh on Disney than any other fairy story.  They have just as much right to stretch fantasy as the next story-teller.  I think it okay for me to speak up as a millennial myself because I too fell for this lie that your dreams will come true no matter what.  However, if I ever had to blame an institution for planting this idea in my head, I would blame the school system that told me one day I could be a writer and follow my dreams.  Even in high school I was lied to when my teachers said when I went to college I would be able to focus on what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  Well, that is a clear lie for the simple reason that gen-eds exist.  My point is that Disney should not be blamed for the so called ideas they plant in our heads.  They are a company that makes fantasy films.  It is time we stopped viewing these movies as kid movies and stick to Walt philosophy of making films for the child in all of us.  Disney is not to blame for making kids a certain way.
I think the millennial generation is a generation searching for authenticity and sometimes Disney movies don't come off as very authentic.  Fair enough.  A statistic in Carey's article says that 60% of millennials have abandoned religion and it is fairly clear as to why.  Religion, like the idea of dreams in Disney movies, has proved to be a let down.  Not only that but religion is represented by hypocritical people who constantly aren't who they say they are.  My generation is searching for truth in places other generations have not looked.  As a millennial who is still involved in religion, I can say that religious leaders are not what Christianity is and secondly, Disney actually dips into religious topics with their characters.  I would love to talk about all the ways Disney brings Christianity into their films but I will stick to the Princesses in this post.  A question many people are asking is if we should be telling girls they are Princesses or not.  Are we all royal in God's eyes or is there a problem with this terminology?  In my opinion, there are two sides to calling a little girl a Princess.  Of course God views little girls as Princesses and little boys as Princes.  He values them and loves them and wants the best for them.  However, we shouldn't expect God to treat us as Princes and Princesses.  We should expect God to be God, to be fair in the ways he sees fit which won't necessarily seem fair in our earthly ways.  Another issue that I sort of skimmed over in my last blog was the issue of following your heart.  Disney promotes this idea but points more toward doing the right thing and saying that your heart will guide you toward doing the right thing.  But the Bible says otherwise.  Jeremiah 17:9 states, "The heart is
deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?"  I don't think Disney wants to promote getting your way all of the time.  Their films point to doing the right thing when the easier choice is to do what you want.  But their films also promote this idea that if you want something and work toward it and pray when it feels necessary, you will earn your heart's desire.  I don't want to get into all of the reasons why Disney distorts Christianity though, I want to talk about how the films promote it.  Christian symbolism is littered throughout Disney movies, even in the newer ones.  Many of the Princesses present Biblical imagery whether we are aware of it or not and I want to share this with you all.  I will not include some of the Princesses because I do not want to force symbolism.  If I saw it, I will include it.  Let's start with Elsa.  Elsa is the prodigal son figure.  She runs away and then returns accepted and forgiven completely and earns redemption.  Anna is a Christ figure.  As I said above, her love for Elsa never dwindles even when Elsa mistreats her and in the end, she gives her life up for Elsa as Christ did for his people on the cross.  Rapunzel's tear could symbolize baptism.  When she cries onto Eugene, she renews his soul and gives him new life and he is a new man.  Pocahontas is a very spiritual Christian figure.  She teaches us to love and accept the nature around us and use it to speak to God by listening to the wind or the flowing rivers or the animals speech throughout the forest.  Belle is another Christ figure next to Anna.  She gives up her life for her father when she becomes prisoner in the Beast's castle.  And finally, Snow White shows grace.  Her character is seemingly perfect and when others are not so perfect, she still accepts them just the same as we all should love and accept one another for our similarities and our differences.
Back in April/May last year, Disney gave their Princesses major designs.  The results were shocking.  Disney has always milked the Princesses for marketing.  They release videos with the Princesses, dolls, McDonald's toys, clothing and shoes, posters, notebooks and pencils, backpacks, etc.  The Princesses are always dolled up in their signature dresses and many have complained that this takes away from their character.  I would have to agree with that.  I would love to see Belle in her village outfit with a book or Cinderella in her maid outfit but at the same time, I'm okay with the glamor because a lot of girls like to dress up their dolls and it seems fitting.  I'm not okay with the Princess redesigns though. The Livejournal blog titled "Oh No They Didn't" spoke out straight away about the new Princesses, saying things like, "This is the Kardashian-ization of the Disney Princesses" and "It can be subtle (Rapunzel) or it can look like cosmetic surgery.  Cinderella now looks strangely like Taylor Swift, while poor Belle - I can't decide if she looks more like Kim, Kourtney or Khloe."  And I have to agree.  Most of the changes are horrifying and it isn't just for the reason that they look like culture clones and that their redesigns take away who they are as characters.  Not only that but they all look like they were designed to be sexually objectified.  This redesign begs us to ask the question, what is beauty?  Because the definition of beauty has changed over the years. Another big issue is with the popular doll, Barbie.  I grew up playing with Barbie dolls and I never had any issues as an adult.  But apparently some people feel differently and so not long ago Barbie was redesigned and sent out to toy stores with the name "Average Barbie."  You know, there is Dentist Barbie and Scuba Barbie and now there is an Average Barbie.  But apart from her figure, people say she doesn't look much different than any other Barbie.  Her face is still our ideal model of beauty, which begs the question - is Average Barbie really average?  She is still thin, still has a typical beautiful face, and wears nice clothing.  What about the girls who don't dress "nice" and like to wear all black or prefer not to wear bright blue or plain old blouses?  What about the girls who are heavy?  What about the girls who aren't white?  In my opinion, there is a screaming problem with this whole thing.  Constantly we think that telling girls that everyone is beautiful will solve things, yet that isn't true.  Too many girls are learning that they define themselves by what they look like.  They are still learning to identify with their outward appearance rather than being taught to find beauty in other places.  Hannah Anderson, author of the book Made For More, said in an episode of the Christ in Pop Culture podcast when discussing Average Barbie that "we are so focused on womanhood, we forget to focus on personhood."  This is the argument I was making in my first blog.  We need to stop looking at ourselves by what makes us different but rather what unites us.  Yes our skin may be different colors and gender differs but it is who we are on the inside that matters.  We are all people when it comes down to it.  The reason these Princess redesigns bother me is that they take away from these characters their personhood.  They have become culture clones rather than their individual selves that people can relate to.  They are a tool used to make money off of kids. 
Disney has been criticized for years about their female characters, specifically the Princesses.  We have now entered a modern age where Disney faces public scrutiny from every direction.  People are so focused on films being politically correct, especially Disney movies.  I think people are more critical of Disney because they are seen as a company that makes kids movies.  I think the real issue with all of this is, 1. a film shouldn't be judged by how it represents people/places/or things and 2. animated movies should not be judged as kids movie because many kids movies are animated.  Number 2 I touched on in my first point and is not an issue I plan to discuss any further in this blog but it is something to be aware of.  Number 1, however, is a real issue with animation today, especially when it comes to Disney movies.  Instead of critics and moviegoers paying attention to the film's artistic integrity, they are only focusing on it being politically correct.  In this case, people are expecting a female character to not be rescued by a man and be her own hero.  I am all for doing something different.  It is known that Disney typically has male and female characters interact very intimately and that men are usually there to either save the day or help save the day.  I am okay with Disney changing it up instead of doing the same thing over and over again (though while Disney does this style over and over again, they change up the way they come to the conclusion and in my opinion, they do a really good job with each story) but what I am not okay with is them creating a story that conforms to a certain expectation from outspoken moviegoers.   In my opinion, it takes away from the artistic integrity of the piece.  It shows that Disney is working around this limitation rather than just making a good movie.  This is particularly apparent in Disney's newest Princess movie, Frozen, when they adapted the story The Snow Queen, which had a strong female character already in it and Disney changed it.  The film would have had a strong female character if Disney had stuck to the story yet they went in and changed it completely and in my opinion ruined their chances of making a strong female movie.  It was still a strong female movie...but a particularly silly one.  It will be hard to take seriously in years to come.  Disney's newest Princesses are very much in the expected feminist Princess mold and the public seems to be eating it up.  Just look at the bucks Frozen brought in.  Money doesn't lie.  I'm happy that Disney has been successful and I am happy they are changing things up...but I'm not happy with the reasons for doing it.  Disney has taken a new approach to advertising their new Princess films as well.  They are trying to veer away from their typical Princess movie and instead make a general family movie for both genders and all ages to enjoy.  This theory in itself is silly to me since Beauty and the Beast didn't try hard to do this yet was a genuinely good film and was enjoyable by all ages and both genders.  Today, Disney creates silly movie trailers that give little to no detail about the actual film that will be released in order to give their new film a particular look.  They want to portray a family cartoon.  I see their reasoning behind this tactic but like many choices Disney has made in the past ten years (like switching to making movies in CGI permanently because Home on the Range was a poor movie made in 2-D animation), it is a poor one and won't work in the long run.  Soon they will be searching for new ideas.
The newest Disney Princess movies have not fallen victim to the redesign.  Although Merida was given a new look, people became infuriated and Disney cowered under pressure and switched her back to her original design.  Why just Merida though?  Why didn't all of the Princesses get some defense?  Well, maybe we will find out by looking at the newest Disney/Pixar Princess movie Brave and Disney's newest animated feature, Frozen.  I saw both of these movies in theaters and want to comment on both.  First, let me talk about the story in each one.  Brave's story was all over the place which made it very weak.  Some of Disney/Pixar's best films are simple ones and Brave was trying too hard to be all kinds of stories rather than telling a good story in itself.  The movie borrowed too much from different places and didn't have time to return back to the things they borrowed from which made the film feel incomplete.  Frozen fell victim to the same issue where it tried too hard to accomplish many things and ultimately left us feeling unsatisfied.  Both films only fixed one of the issues they created and everything else was left unexplained.  Of course, many people didn't notice this because the things these two films accomplished had to do with feminism and as far as today's moviegoers and critics are concerned, that is all that matter.  Never mind telling a good story, right?  The characters in Brave were typical and forgettable.  Merida was...unique.  I definitely think she is an awesome Princess but once again her character was simply created to fit a gender ideal for our modern day.  I cared more about Merida's mother than Merida herself though.  It seemed to be a story about a woman struggling with the job of motherhood and how she could learn not only to accept her children for who they are but also learn to teach them without making an enemy of them.  The characters in Frozen weren't as strong as the characters in Brave.  Again, very generic apart from Elsa.  Elsa was the only character worth caring about.  Anna has depth to her character but her silliness ultimately ruins it for me.  I did like however that Anna wasn't an obvious feminist character.  Besides her annoying silliness, she surprised me at the end when she found that true love didn't always have to be romantic love.  At least Frozen did something right.  The music in Brave isn't really worth commenting on as it didn't drive the movie.  It had the cultural Scottish instruments and fit the movie well.  Frozen's music started out epically and then all too quickly became a generic pop phenomenon, lacking any culture that it had previously established.  The lyrics were very ditsy and American.  The instrumentals could have easily had a culture feel but there was none.  I won't say I don't enjoy the music but it doesn't hold up next to most Disney films and will be forgotten in 50 years.  And finally, I want to comment on the animation.  Both films were beautiful but my biggest issue is character animation.  Brave is a Pixar film and so I knew what I was getting into and they didn't disappoint.  Merida's character design bothered me though.  Why is her face so circular?  Frozen had terrible character animation in my opinion, specifically for the girls.  Why are their eyes so huge?  And why all the makeup on Elsa?  I mean, I get that the animators were experimenting but couldn't they have experimented with a short film?  She looked like Shakira with her sexy hips during "Let it Go" and almost like...well, like a redesigned Disney Princess.  Overall, as you can probably tell, I don't hold either of these films in high regard.  They are both okay at best. 
But let's talk about why the newest Princesses are good role models.  I had a hard time with these three ladies but I think I have come up with unique attributes for each of them.  I will start off with Merida.  Merida is a good role model because of her belief.  Right away we see her believe in herself and she has confidence.  She believes when she goes out to get a potion to change her mother's attitude, she believes when she takes her mother to the woods to change her back from a bear to a human, she believes when she lets the wisps guide her, and she believes at the end that she and her mother will mend their relationship.  Anna is a good role model because of her unfailing love.  All throughout her life she is seeking love from her sister who does not show love in return but gives Anna the cold shoulder.  In a desperate attempt to accept love whenever it comes her way, she clings to Hans who immediately shows her love and wants to be with her for the rest of his life (seemingly).  Then, when she becomes aware that Elsa has been lying to her for her entire life, Anna still goes after her sister and believes she is not a monster despite what everyone else is saying.  Then, she jumps in front of her sister to give the ultimate sacrifice of love by giving her life.  And finally, Elsa is a good role model because of her humble nature.  While teaching her to fear her own powers was never the right away to go about things, her experience was almost a mirror to Harry Potter's.  Harry was shut in a cupboard under the stairs while the Dursley's hoped to stomp the magic out of him.  When he discovered he was a wizard, he came from a mindset that he wasn't good enough and therefore went into the world always thinking himself to be average because he had been led to believe that he was never special.  Elsa as well was taught that she wasn't special in her powers and that they needed to be contained, just like Harry's magic.  When she becomes free in the mountains, she tests what she can do and does this without hesitation because she is alone.  Once it is recognized that she is not to be feared, she gives her magic to the people but not to gain anything for herself or take any credit and therefore shows her humble nature just as Harry shows he is humble when he doesn't take full credit for the things he has done when recognized.
After looking at these three Princesses by discussing their movies and now their attributes, I want to bring up the question off goodness.  Do we want a Disney Princess to be relatable or to be a good role model for young girls?  In my opinion, these three new Princess are more relatable than good role models while the Princesses previous are genuinely good role models while also still relatable.  I believe that Disney doesn't reflect our outer reality in terms of their stories because we know no one can create ice with their hands and people don't turn into bears but Disney reflects our inner reality and that should be what matters because it is good fiction.
That concludes my Part 2 post of Why Disney Princesses are Good Role Models.  Do you have anything to add?  Do you feel the newer Princesses are better or worse role models than their predecessors?  Why or why not?  Do you see the Christian symbolism that I mentioned?  Was there some I left out?  What do you think of the newest Princesses movies?  Did they exceed your expectations or do you think Disney is losing it's touch?  I would love to hear your feedback and what you have to say!

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