Tuesday, January 21, 2014

White Disney Princesses, From the Perspective of a White Girl

When my friend Abby and I were discussing the movie Frozen, the subject came up about how the newest Disney Princesses, Elsa and Anna, are yet again white. I pointed out from something I had read that a reason why a majority of them are white depends on their stories' origins, such as Merida from Brave being Scottish. Then Abby retaliated with the fact that they could just make these characters from anywhere. For example, Elsa doesn't have to be white in order for the whole Ice Queen concept to work, unless they were going for a "white as snow" thing with her and wanted the setting to stay true to the Danish source. Disney actually did this already with The Princess and the Frog, making a story with German origins take place in New Orleans.

We talked about how the lack of diversity in the Disney Princesses is a problem. There is also the matter that little girls of all walks of life should have a Disney Princess to relate to.

I've been thinking about this subject for a while because it is a hot topic, especially trying to consider how fortunate I was growing up as a white girl with all of these white princesses at my disposal. But looking back at it now, let me tell you something: these white girls aren't all that.

Here is a rundown of white Disney Princesses that were supposedly my intended role models. There is the very first, Snow White (Eww. Never liked her much.), Cinderella, and Aurora. Well, Cinderella is somewhat redeemable because her main song is "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" and from what I recall she isn't necessarily specific about what her dreams are. Maybe she dreamt about being the CEO of a company. Or maybe she dreamt about having a better life in general, which is more likely and still honorable. Who knows? Snow White wishes for something as well with her song, "Wishing for the One I Love". She's straight forward about what she wants, but should she really be chastised for being a girl wanting to fall in love? Feminism goes in any direction.

Anyway, the only one I am able to relate to physically is Aurora, given that she has long blonde hair like myself. But that's where the similarities end. She does nothing to make me admire her, other than be pretty. Well, I do like to sleep too...

When compared to other Disney Princesses, the early white ones are pretty bland and boring. Plenty of people dislike them because they all need a man to save them and lack personality. In addition, they all kind of resemble each other. It is the ethnically diverse ones that are more active and unique, such as Jasmine from Aladdin and Kida from Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

You know who my favorite Disney Princess was growing up? Pocahontas. Not your conventional white Disney Princess, but I liked her cultural look (especially her blue necklace and long black hair flowing in the wind), love for nature and life, strong will and strength, and now I noticed that she's pretty much the only Disney Princess that doesn't get her guy at the end, making her more realistic. Like Pocahontas, I too have Native American roots, so that's another reason. In fact, I played with my Pocahontas and Jasmine dolls the most because I liked their outfits better and loved brushing their long black hair. As a child I had this phase of cutting all of my dolls' hair, but I spared these two of my beautician skills (Pocahontas's friend Nakoma wasn't so lucky). I have a Cinderella doll too, dressed up in her ballroom attire, but I never paid that much attention to her. I think it is because of how "dolled" up she is (no pun intended). You remember how she looked. Her hair is in a bun and she is dressed in a large blue gown. Maybe I felt that she looked too formal for playtime so I just didn't bother as much.

Badass white Disney Princesses wasn't really a thing until lately. I think it started with the Disney Renaissance Era opening up with Ariel in The Little Mermaid to kick things off. If you think about it, she was the character intended for girls in my age group. The movie came out in 1989 and I was born in 1990.

Okay, so I did make fun of her in the past, but she does have her own dreams of visiting land before laying eyes on Eric and makes mistakes like any other teenage girl, so I respect her for that. I like my Ariel doll more than my Cinderella one and played with it more, appreciating her shortness in contrast to my other dolls (maybe I was able to relate to her in this way), but this doll has its own annoyances. Her fin is all worn out now, her legs don't move and never did, and worst of all, her bra keeps falling off. And now she's reminding me too much of Rachel Tice from "The Most Popular Girls in School". As for Belle from Beauty and the Beast, another white Disney Princess designated for my generation made popular in 1991, though her movie has its own flaws with an abusive relationship undertone, she's more developed. She is educated through her love for books, doesn't take nonsense from anyone, and saves her father from the Beast.

It seems to me though that the strongest white Disney Princesses were born through the CGI-animated films. Meaning very, VERY recently. We were given Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010), Merida (Brave, 2012), and now Elsa and Anna (Frozen, 2013). These all came out in my adulthood, so it's kind of late for me to look up to these characters now as a little girl, but it's so great to see them existing now. The white Disney Princess just keeps evolving and Anna is actually a combination of them all. She is eager to fall in love like the earlier models, but her main focus in the movie is to find her sister and bring her back home and she stands up to the film's male characters in order to do so. Unlike Ariel, whose life goals change shape when she is inspired to make Eric love her and sacrifice herself to do it, these four girls never really include a boyfriend in their goals. For Rapunzel and Anna, it just happens for them.

I never really connected to a white Disney Princess until Elsa and Anna, which is why I felt inspired to write this post. Maybe it has something to do with the movie being a musical going to Broadway and the people who voiced them. Also, any person can relate to Elsa, suffering from the age old story of not being accepted because of differences and ultimately finding the courage and freedom to openly be yourself. "The cold never bothered me anyway," either. I watched Tangled for the first time on TV like a few weeks or months ago and though it entertained me with its charm and Rapunzel herself proves her worth, I didn't really think it was THAT special. That movie didn't seem to get the reaction Frozen has.

Although she came into the franchise later on, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, known as Disney's first black Princess, is a role model for young girls right off the bat as a hard worker aspiring to open up her own restaurant whereas we had to go through numerous white Disney Princesses to get it right. For awhile there the black girl community was under-represented by Disney Princesses while the white girl community wasn't really represented by Disney Princesses in the best positive way.

Just because white Disney Princesses existed for me as a child, it doesn't mean that I was very proud of them or that they were amazing characters for me to like. As a kid you don't really think about whether or not these characters are good role models. They're just...there. Even now as an adult I'm not that crazy about them. I mean, I like them enough and I did pose for a picture and chatted with Cinderella and Prince Charming for a good hour in Disney World back when I was four, but they do lack substance. I don't recall ever being in awe of them or modeling myself after them, but they are still part of my Disney childhood memories of which I am well fond.

I still grew up to be a strong, independent woman even after watching these movies as a kid, let's just say that. They didn't influence me otherwise.

If we want to branch out a little bit and look beyond the Disney Princesses, we can check out the whiteness that are Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Wendy from Peter Pan, Megara from Hercules, Jane from Tarzan, and Jessie from A Toy Story. These characters are nice and their main focus isn't fully romance, at least not at first. I especially appreciate Alice for never getting involved with a guy at all in her movie and Jessie provides a nice foil to Bo Peep in hers. But I'm starting to think that the one I like the most is Tinker Bell from Peter Pan. She is a spunky, jealous little bitch and I love it. She is REAL (well, as real as a flying mute fairy can get). Chances are we all know a woman that fits the Tink criteria. But then again her jealousy and realness is instigated because of a guy (well, boy), so in this respect her attachment to a dude makes her not that much different from past Disney Princesses.

Then there's Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She's not white or a princess, so she just might be the most diverse of them all. Her motivation isn't as much romance as it is love for her people. I love her look and style and my Esmeralda dolls are some of my favorites. One of them actually has flexible elbows and knees and gyrating hips, making her body a lot more human-like. Hear that, Ariel?

Quite possibly the best one of them all is Mulan. I've always been a fan. Once again, not white or a princess (though she is in the Disney Princess lineup), but she fights in a war disguised as a guy and single-handedly saves China. Her motivation is not love for a man, but rather to protect her aging father, much like Belle actually. And I loved playing with my Mulan doll. Enough said.

I think I like these non-white ladies because they are so different from me. Even their doll counterparts stand out next to my white, blonde Barbies. The Disney Princess industry has made strides, but there is still so much more that can be done. I enjoy seeing the variety. Every single one of them, including the original white princesses and unofficial princesses, brings something to the table and the Disney family wouldn't be complete without them. It's nice to see them all together as this sisterhood.

Found this on Facebook back in November and thought it appropriate to include in this.

Hey, at least women ARE being represented. There's another argument I can make that men aren't very well represented at all or as popular as Disney's female characters. There are movies that come to mind with a human guy as the title main character, such as Aladdin, The Hunchback of Notre DameHercules, Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove, and now there is Wreck-It Ralph, but the Disney Princes are often overshadowed by their leading ladies because the Disney Princess franchise is such a hit. Even The Disney Wiki just defines these guys as "an official line-up of male leads who're the love interests of the Disney Princesses." It's actually refreshing to see this change of pace and the only way the original three, Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, can be considered feminist films. Now that I think about it, what's also somewhat feminist about these three movies is that they teach and recognize that there's nothing wrong with sometimes accepting help from a man if need be and if a man is willing to help you, why refuse it? Even Quasimodo swoops in to save Esmeralda, regardless of how tough she is, and earlier in the film she comes to his defense and saves him from humiliation. Flynn Rider/Eugene lends Rapunzel a hand, even though at first through a deal, and in turn Rapunzel comes to his aid as well, perhaps more often. It's all about partnership between the two sexes.

I'll tell you what I'm waiting for. I'm waiting for an Italian Disney Princess, or better yet, heroine. All we have is that goofy marionette film Pinocchio to represent us, and that movie scarred me for life with that awful donkey scene.

Plus, there's no powerful women in it. What? That white, blonde Blue Fairy? Nah. Not memorable enough.

Get on it! :)

And since I talked a great deal about them throughout this piece, here are my Disney lady dolls from childhood! :)

From left to right: Nakoma, Pocahontas, Jasmine, Esmeralda 1, Esmeralda 2, Mulan, Ariel, and Cinderella. Like Nakoma, Mulan and Ariel were also victims of my doll hair-cutting stage. I feel like I had a Snow White doll as a child too but I think like I may have given her away HAHA. Also, Jasmine came with a flower in her hair, but I didn't want to go crazy looking for it for this. They all look pretty happy to be in the shot except for Cinderella. She was giving me trouble not looking at the camera. It's like she thinks she's a princess or something. :P