Friday, 15 November 2013

In Defence of the Disney Princess

I've written about Disney princesses before but I'm writing about them again because the vitriol they seem to inspire in people annoys me. People are often incredulous that I both love Disney and consider myself a feminist. But Disney and feminism are not mutually exclusive! Of course there is a lot to find objectionable in Disney, particularly the classic films from the 40s and 50s: the princesses are far too passive in their stories; they spend too much time pining after men; and older women are portrayed as evil, manipulative witches. But there is also a lot to commend. 

The fact that Disney has been championing female leads since the '30s is itself commendable. I have come across many statistical analyses of female characters in films (most recently, here) and none of them have been encouraging. Films with female main characters are still depressingly rare. In fact, films are woefully devoid of female characters altogether, whether they are in the lead role or not. The fact that Disney is repeatedly showcasing female stories is laudable. It's important to show that women's stories and women's lives are important enough to be put into film. 

The most well-known method for determining whether a film is feminist is the Bechdel test. To pass the Bechdel test, a film must feature two or more female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Off the top of my head, most Disney films do not pass this test (although Sleeping Beauty does despite being frequently lambasted as the most anti-feminist of the Disney opus). In fact, depressingly, most films fail this test so it would be unfair to pick on Disney specifically for this failing. But there are other ways of determining how pro-women a film is. For example, a character can be feminist while the film is not. Like the Bechdel test, there is also the Mako Mori test, which asks whether a film has at least one female character who has a narrative arc that does not support a man's story. A female character with an independent narrative arc is the subject rather than the object of the story, capable of having her own thoughts and desires. In this regard, Disney princesses fare much better. Mulan, Cinderella, Ariel, Snow White (perhaps surprisingly) and Brave's Merida all pass the Mako Mori test.

However it is pretty widely recognised that these tests are flawed when it comes to determining whether or not a film is feminist or sexist. Beauty and the Beast fails both the Bechdel test and the Mako Mori test and yet Belle is often championed as a feminist role model. I adored Belle as a child because I was incredibly nerdy (and, obviously, still am) and loved to read; to watch a heroine who unabashedly loves books and mocks men for being ignorant tosspots was incredibly liberating for me. Belle taught me that it was ok to go against other people's expectations.

Of course I also desperately wanted Belle's magnificently puffy ballgown. But wanting to flounce around in a flamboyantly impractical dress is not anti-feminist! There seems to be the pervasive attitude that overtly feminine clothing (floral, fluffy, sparkly) somehow undermines a woman's strength or achievements. David Trumble recently posted several pictures to his Tumblr depicting famous female role-models in poofy, glittery dresses. His intention was to show that strong, inspiring role models don't need to be princesses and that putting them in ultra-girly princess attire trivialises them. I find this incredibly patronising. I like wearing skirts, I like sparkly jewellery and my love of floral print is bordering on the obsessive. But my fashion choices do not negate the fact that I am also an intelligent, argumentative and opinionated young woman. I am not trivial, shallow or stupid because I like to wear the occasional ballgown.

It's not feminist to attack those things traditionally considered feminine - like pink, glitter, flowers or kittens. We need to stop seeing femininity as silly or frivolous in contrast to the strong and stoic masculinity. Both are equally valid.

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