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Fairy Tale Fest: Is It Really Disney’s Fault?

2011 May 3

Disney princesses have a BadRep with feminists, and let’s face it, it’s easy to see why. Even the recent ones have waists which are about as thick as their wrists, and the individual life lessons from each could be perceived as so warped as to have become an internet meme.

But is this really a case of “Disney-fication”, with the studio taking fairy tales and imposing ruthless mainstream norms on them? There is a huge body of work which looks at folk stories from a feminist perspective, and I’m not so qualified to talk about that. What I do find interesting is how incredibly polarised much of the source material was in the first place.

An illustration of the Wicked Witch of the East as pictured in The Tin Woodman of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Image source from Wikipedia

Witches: warts, not waifs. (Source: Wikipedia.)

In the European fairy tales which made it big in England and the US (mostly Grimm and some French romances), good people are Beautiful and bad people are Ugly. This is true whether you’re a stepsister, a witch or an ogre; physical ugliness goes along with agressive or dangerous behaviour every time. Good = Beautiful, and this is not negotiable. (Try the reverse: try finding anyone ugly who you’re meant to cheer for. You’ve got maybe a 1% chance. Less if they’re female.)

It gets better though, because that “bad” behaviour is very specific: it is always an act against the interests of the Heroine or Hero. Being a female magic-user doesn’t make you a witch; you could be a fairy godmother. No-one asks the Godmothers what they spend the rest of their time doing, they are entirely defined by whether they bless or curse the Heroine. In some tales, it’s only because one out of thirteen of them is not given an invitation that she decides to curse the child – would the others have acted similarly if it had been one or more of them instead? We don’t know. But once the curse is given, that Godmother is fair game for a horrible death and probably had a secret hooked nose all along. The Disney versions of Fairy Godmothers may be tittering clouds of pink benevolence, but they aren’t often described as “kind” in the tales – they are only judged as “Good” or “Bad” by whether they’re currently on our side or not.

It’s also problematical if we use behaviour to judge who the “good girl” is. The modern versions of Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are all very similar: beautiful, virtuous daughters who get into trouble and need rescuing. It might be a fall into poverty, or danger from an outsider (new stepmother, hot men a wolf) but there’s one critical element to being the Good girl and that is passivity. Red Riding Hood doesn’t kill the wolf. Cinderella runs away and is found (hunted down door-to-door, really) by the Prince, without announcing herself even up to the moment that the shoe goes on. He and her fairy Godmother are the ones taking all the action to save her. Snow White / Sleeping Beauty are unconscious/dead.

We already saw in Markgraf’s movie review of Red Riding Hood that a young woman choosing the wrong man could derail society’s plans (in a time when arranged marriages to a virgin were crucial). All these messages are saying that you need to be compliant, dutiful and passive. If you are a woman who is aggressive, demanding, loud, insists on her own needs or has control over her life, chances are you’re a wicked stepmother and only a few days away from the awesome kind of ending Disney oddly decided to leave out:

“That she should be thrown into a cask stuck around with sharp nails, and that two white horses should be put to it, and should drag it from street to street till she is dead.”
The Goose Girl – Brothers Grimm

The destiny of the Hero is often no less automatic. He is invariably given a beautiful Princess as a prize, to be his wife. Winning her hand is sometimes the only reason he takes on the quest in the first place. The task is often set by her father, who expects the Hero to be killed instead of succeeding, and at no time does the woman have any say in this arrangement.

So given the source material for the stories which Disney decided to take on, if they remained roughly true to the spirit of the tale, is it really fair to bash Disney as much as we do?

Oh hell yes.

First of all, they have a choice on which ones to produce. Chrissy Derbyshire in her essay “Toads and Diamonds” for the anthology “Vs” (which looks at Duality in magic, mythology and religion) points out that there are tales where the magic is entirely neutral, such as a Genie granting wishes. If the person making the wish is bad, sucks to be them. If they are altruistic and peaceful, they’ll probably be okay. There are plenty of tales Disney could have gone with which say “a person’s actions define them”, not “poverty and an evil stepmother can only be solved by marrying the right guy”.

Now okay, not all of the stories which deviate from the “good gets rewarded” trope would make great movies. I think it’s a Brothers Grimm tale which reads roughly (and I am not making this up) “Little Erik was a good boy and never did anything wrong, but one he died anyway because that’s just how it goes sometimes.” I can see how choosing your targets for conversion to animation is a valid excuse.

Even within that though, there’s still the question of the famous Disney poetic licence. They have a history of sanitising and whitewashing these stories for maximum profit, and it’s very rarely to inject any feminist ideas. Sure, in the 90s the women such as Belle in Beauty and the Beast became Independent and Argumentative… but only in strictly approved mainstream ways, to entirely fit the current belief of what would be PC. There are no lesbians in Disney, no women who don’t want a lifelong relationship by the end. It may be that the Victorians had already santised the tales by the time Disney picked them up, but that only works as an excuse for so long.

Okay, Sleeping Beauty physically can’t save herself – there’s no way Disney could have got around that – but even when they try to be PC in recent efforts it is only ever in a way which won’t scandalise the lowest common denominator of American audiences. The source material may praise beauty, passivity and rescuing, but Disney have never hesitated to edit other aspects of the stories to something more palatable. Even in recent times when the female characters actually have, well, character, the one aspect which apparently mustn’t change is the straining of credibility that their tiny bodies wouldn’t collapse under the weight of their own organs. (Check the link in the first paragraph. Look at Jasmine’s waist and wrists. Or Ariel’s. Sleeping Beauty is presumably wearing a corset, but I’m not sure if that’s an improvement when you’re marketing at six year-olds.)

Now, I’m a guy who hasn’t seen many of the Disney Princess movies more than a dimly-remembered once, I haven’t read the reconstructed feminist versions of fairy tales, and my love of Angela Carter aside I’m much less qualified to write about this stuff than… well, most of the rest of Team BadRep.

So we’re going to town on this one. Oh yes.

All this week we’re having a Feminist Fairytale Fest here at BadRep. We’ll be looking at the incredibly brutal original versions which became censored, at modern reworkings, and at comment from feminists on how to find amazing nuggets of self-agency and adventuring by women in well-known classics!

5 Responses leave one →
  1. May 3, 2011

    This week sounds awesome! Analysis of the Disney princesses is particularly interesting for people of my age, who grew up on the second-golden-age stuff (Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast, Lion King), so our love for these films is matched only by our fascination with breaking down the moral messages they conveyed into our impressionable young brains.

    Also, is it not rumored that Hailee Steinfeld is to star in a new live-action Sleeping Beauty? I don’t see how you can do a version of Sleeping Beauty that isn’t completely insulting to women (Disney) or utterly squicktastic (hello, original!), but I hope they find something for her to do.

  2. May 3, 2011

    Sounds like a super week! If you can find it, I remember reading Baba Yaga as a child. It’s a Russian fairy tale. There is the usual wicked step-mother and evil witch, but the moral is a bit more: (a) the little girl is not stupid, and so makes sure she’s prepared, and (b) kindness is repaid. No knight in shining armour in sight!

    • Miranda permalink*
      May 3, 2011

      I did a story from Russia called “Vasilisa and the Magic Doll” at school which was awesome. Vasilisa defeated Baga Yaga with advice from her doll, and wandered through the woods being generally badass…

  3. May 4, 2011

    A few years ago I wrote a rant / treatise on Little Red Riding Hood which may be of interest.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    May 6, 2011

    However sexist the conceptions around the fairy tale princess, they seems to retain an appeal to women. I note this, for example:

    “We hope you’ll feel like a beautiful princess in this Fairytale set.”

    The marketing is clearly being pitched at women.

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