Disney girlhood: princess generations and Once Upon a Time.

Author:Heatwole, Alexandra
Position:Youth Culture in Film and Television

The fairy tale as we know it today is a ghost of what it once was. Gone are the bloody Cinderella of Charles Perrault (1697), the Grimm brothers' macabre Snow White (1812) and Hans Christian Andersen's mournful Little Mermaid (1836). The narratives that most people today associate with these princesses are not these, but rather, those of the Disney animated feature films. Uplifting musical scores, inhumanly svelte heroines, and largely bloodless resolutions have replaced the original tales in the public imaginary. And in their Disney forms, these fairy tales--and their associated merchandising--seem especially directed at young girls, and importantly, the nostalgic girl-that-was. Disney markets not simply to the current generation of girls, but to women who came of age watching various Disney princesses do the same. Disney sells visions of youthful girlhood to women of all ages, constructing girl identity as a set of clearly identifiable ideals that operate along the lines of contemporary norms.

First and foremost, Disney girlhood is Western. For many scholars, the now almost ubiquitous canon of Disney princess films represents, more specifically, an Americanization of the fairy tale. The pseudo-medieval kingdoms of the early Princess films, Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), are understood, from this perspective, to represent nostalgia for an uncomplicated, deracialized, edenic prehistory that, of course, erased America's colonial past and its violent national history. The Disney fairy tale, like all speculative fictions, opened a door--but this door was not to a possible alternate present or future, but to a possible alternate history in which the scars of American history, including those of racial genocide and Civil and World Wars, could be washed away, restoring the innocence of a mythical national childhood: "an imaginary time in an imaginary past" (Tavin and Anderson 22). Beyond this, Naomi Wood argues that the eventual victory of the Disney heroine always comes to evoke that of "the morally right over the temporally powerful" (26). And the "morally right" within these early fairy tales is often presented in heavy-handed, gendered terms.

The emphasis on romance as rescue is, according to Wood, a classic marker of Disney Americanization. The most distinctive quality of the Disney fairy tale adaptation is the way in which the domestic sphere is specifically gendered and the cheerful acceptance of such tasks as housekeeping, care of the self, and care of others, along with clearly associated virtues of patience and tolerance, is rewarded. Discussing Cinderella as exemplary, in this respect, of the Disney early princess films. Wood writes:

Mirroring other aspects of American ideology, Disney's Cinderella offers the quasi-religious reassurance that hard work, clean living, self-control, and adherence to the ideal will produce the desired result, in this case, appropriate to the American Dream for Girls: rich and handsome Mr. Right (34). In other words, conforming to a rigid set of patriarchal gender norms--namely passivity and self-regulation--the American girl can construct an image of domesticity desirable to the all-American male. By such adjustments patriarchal gender norms are strictly adhered to in the scope of Disney's conservative, American framework for the fairy tale. The Disney fairy tale thus offers a heteronormative, conservative reconstruction of romance for girls: cultivate yourself in the image of the Disney princess, and you can achieve the ultimate goal--marriageability.

Considering the implications of the longevity of the simplistic 'Princess' storyline, in 1993 Jeanne Dubino alluded to a "Cinderella Complex," which drives young women to cultivate domesticity and beauty above all else, in the hopes of achieving future romantic bliss, and encourages a broad cultural belief that this is a valid life goal for young women. Years earlier, in 1981, Colette Dowling had argued that this complex becomes a problem for a young woman "when--after she has begun to move out, to expand, to raise her sights--she discovers that the rules have changed and she will no longer be rewarded for her compliance, as she has been, systematically, since she was a little girl" (41).

The timing here is important. In the early 1980s, with young women finally able to take advantage of changes put in place by second-wave feminism, some distinct generational differences in terms of opportunity and capacity for lifestyle choices became apparent. Dowling, and the experts she interviewed, saw this as partly responsible for the confusion that seemed to be widely felt by contemporary girls:

I think we underestimate the amount of conflict today's women experience as a result of having mothers who, more often than not, have led far less independent--indeed, quite submissive--lives. For the woman who has ostensibly turned her back on the life her mother represents, there can be true grief, an inner flailing. The dilemma is no less affecting for being largely unconscious. (41) Here Dowling flags the figure of Cinderella--and, as the arguments above have made clear, Disney's Cinderella, specifically--as representing an identity that existed before the advances made by women's rights. She is placing Cinderella (and, thereby, Snow White and Aurora too) in the same cultural space as the foremothers of the second wave. These early Disney princesses, and their cheerful passivity, represent for Dowling the ingrained and continuing glamorization of patriarchal gender roles within her mother's life, and therefore, by default, her own culture. It is important that Dowling rejects these princesses of an earlier age, while at the same time remaining conflicted about what they represent--for her mother, clearly, but also for her, as a woman moving away from this nostalgic promise of domestic bliss. In the early 1980s, Cinderella becomes a name for an anxiety about the lessons handed down to girls of emerging generations--what are we to make of our mother's princesses?

It is worthwhile, then, to consider the nostalgic princesses of today. After second-wave feminism, and after Dowling, a new kind of princess emerged. The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992) offered a narrative that revolved around rebellion, self-knowledge, and choice, seemingly reflecting or responding to a different political climate. In an age of Riot Grrrl, emerging 'third-wave' feminism, and on the verge of 'Girl Power' (noted first in the media as a US Health and Human Services campaign in 1996), the girl was now a point of convergence for conflicting debates about risk and empowerment. The princesses of the past, with their single-facet characterizations and uncomplicated romantic trajectories, would no longer be enough to draw in Disney's target audience. Instead, Disney appears to have drawn on the public imaginary, constructing an image of girlhood appropriate to its time, beginning with Ariel--famously modelled on It Girl of the period, Marisa Tomei. The result was twofold: tremendous financial success, and a burgeoning princess renaissance for Disney. The Little Mermaid launched Disney into a new era of marketing and merchandise centered entirely on the Disney princess "canon," making the brand so popular it has sparked a trend that some, like Rebecca Hains, have labelled "Princess Culture."

Disney Princess products now include paraphernalia that extend from dolls, to games, to clothing: almost every aspect of everyday life can now be colonized by one's favorite princess. And Disney's reach as a media and merchandising conglomerate is more extensive today than at any of the other pinnacles of its popularity: at the height of Mickey Mouse's cinema career (1935-1940), when the original Disneyland opened (1955), or even during the princess film renaissance (1989-1998). Much of today's media production and merchandising is directed particularly at girls. Girls can wear authentic princess dresses licensed by Disney, dream of one day actually being married in Cinderella's castle at Disneyworld (Wood 42), play with princess dolls distributed with McDonald's happy meals, watch princess-themed television programming on the Disney Channel, or play princess games at the Disney website. As Tavin and Anderson point out,

Disney's corporate holdings allow it to wield an enormous amount of power through the construction and regulation of the nation's media-cultural space (Shiller, 1994). Within this space, Disney promotes itself through spirals of referentiality. In this sense, Disney refers back to itself through its own media outlets and subsidiaries in an effort to advertise and advance its own cause. (23) Disney has constructed a media empire, and the princesses are the jewels in its crown. Disney Princesses[R] is now a franchise in and of itself, with new princesses being introduced to its canon with every film.

For Hains and others, the rise of "Princess Culture" means a throwback to the docile, marriage-focused princesses of the past, arguing that it is a continuing and prolific source of "psychologically unhealthy" and "economically detrimental" attitudes. In a political moment now often referred to as 'postfeminist'--a popular term that conveys a sense of achievement misguidedly negating any further need for feminism while referencing a nebulously contemporary era starting around the late 1990s--these narratives seem incongruous. "Stories about princesses," Hains writes, "have long underscored the presumed weakness of females and implied that helplessness is romantically desirable. These tales reflected the way our society encourages girls to learn dependency and helplessness, believing that a man will someday take care of them" (161). The current popularity, then--not only of Ariel and Belle but of Cinderella and Snow White too--is problematic. And the romantic idealization of girlish...

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