Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Disney Princesses

(So I wrote this way back in Jan and forgot it was on my computer waiting to be uploaded to my blog. Enjoy.)

I’m getting caught up on some blog ideas I wanted to post during Christmas when I was just too busy to do so. Over the season I read three different blogs on how horrible Disney princesses were as role models for our daughters to watch/enjoy/look up to. (I’m guessing someone was getting too many princess gifts from relatives) First I want to note that I’m not a ‘pink’ girl. I don’t do princess. My mother used to complain that, even as a young child, I refused to let her dress me in “cute girl clothes”. I never had a roomful of Barbies, never dressed up like Cinderella, Belle, or Sleeping Beauty. And I preferred to watch National Geographic’s and the Discovery Channel to cartoons, Disney or otherwise, when I was a child. So this isn’t from someone who is just overlooking faults because I like them.
It’s no surprise feminists dislike Disney princesses, and their reasons seem fairly consistent: the females need a man to complete them, they fall in love too quickly, they are ‘loved’ for their looks, they are weak, submissive, painfully willing to overlook negatives in their men folk, etc. They all get it, Sleeping Beauty falls in love after a single short interlude and needs a man to kiss her to save her (Snow White ditto), Ariel gives up everything to chase a man she’s only seen before and he falls in love with her because she’s beautiful, Cinderella likewise falls in love in a few hours, needing a man to save her from her abusive situation, and Belle stays with a man despite the fact that he’s abusive….
Which is, I suppose, all well and good if your knowledge on human behavior doesn’t extend past the 1970’s.
But, no offense to both friends and family who share such views (okay, maybe some teasing, but no offense meant) I’d rather my children recognize social interactions didn’t spring into existence fully formed as they are in our current generation. I think it’s good and proper to teach children history, even in the passive sense of books and movies. I think all works need to be looked at in the sense of the time they are placed or written. I don’t think Huckleberry Finn should be edited to say ‘slave’ or ‘African American’ instead of the ‘N’ word for the modern audience, or that The Whipping Boy should be banned because it depicts child abuse. And I don’t think children are too stupid to understand complex concepts such as societal changes if they are explained to them. In fact I think they can and will find great enrichment in considering not only other cultures but other times.
Let’s take Beauty and the Beast, it seems to be the Disney heroine that gets picked on the most because the modern feminist sees Belle as staying with an abusive partner.
Given the guns and clothing Beauty and the Beast is probably set in the mid 1700’s in France. A time and place where peasants still had few legal rights, and even fewer consistently enforced, especially when they were up against a noble. There was no standardized legal system and nobles taxed their towns and farmers into poverty while they indulged in excess at Versailles. Women were under the lordship of their fathers or husbands, and arranged marriages were still common, although the lower classes did sometimes marry for love (considered trite by the upper class, which arranged marriages for money and social power). Books were becoming more popular but literacy among the lower class was still rare. War was common and the kings of France were generally considered to be more interested in their mistresses and parties than ruling.
So here we have Belle, daughter of a struggling inventor. They appear to own their own farm, but they are clearly peasants, not aristocrats. Belle is a wonderfully brave, progressive, and strong woman given this. She reads for one, a rarity for the time and place. She shuns the advances of the catch of the town, a brutish man who is only interested in her for her looks.
Meanwhile her father trespasses onto a royal’s property and gets tossed in his dungeon. Neither a harsh nor unexpected punishment, the Beast would have been within his rights to mount her father’s head on the spike of his gate. Then Belle, instead of staying home worrying while a group of the local men go looking for her father, goes out to seek for him herself. She then trespasses onto the property as well, finding her father in the dungeon.
Now at this point in time the Prince would be just as within his rights to toss her in there with her father. Instead he graciously, if somewhat moodily, allows her to take her father’s place. Allows her to serve her father’s sentence, also, not a horribly unusual concept for the time. Children could be sold to pay off debts, servants sent to prison in their master’s steed, peasants conscripted by their lords to fill their needs as servants or vassals. It’s an odd concept now, because our legal system is based on personal responsibility, the person who does the crime does the time, but even now the concept of a loved one confessing to try to save another isn’t unheard of.
So now, instead of making Belle stay in the dungeon the Beast gives to her a private chamber, says the servants will see to her, and tells her to come to dinner, in essence marking her more of a guest held in ransom than a jailed prisoner. A very noble and gentle gesture when, at the time, no one would have said boo if he’d taken her forcibly to his bed.
She then turns down his dinner invite and, instead of breaking down her door and having her beat for insubordination he asks, repeatedly, for her to reconsider. Later that same night he finds her trespassing in his private chambers and, again instead of striking her or having her beat for disobeying his one direct order to her, he shouts at her to get out.
Belle, “promise or no promise” then steals a horse (a death penalty offense at the time) and runs away. Legally it’s no different than a prisoner escaping jail or a legal indentured servant/slave running away. Yet, even after this grievous sin the Prince protects her from the wolves, not only putting his royal person in danger for her safety but actually acquiring injury. She get’s scolded, rightfully so, for his injury and her transgression and she bravely, if somewhat disrespectfully, sticks up for herself and calls him on his temper (something that historically would have gotten her in a lot of trouble, you didn’t speak to royalty like that!)
Just a few days later the Beast, after seeing that Belle’s father is sick and lost in the woods, releases her from her own bond and let’s her go, despite his growing attachment for her. Then we see the local stud trying to coheres her into marriage by threatening her father with commitment to a sanitarium, which, given his current sickly condition would certainly be a death sentence. She refuses again his marriage proposal, showing that while she may be willing to serve an indefinite jail term for her father, she’s distinctly not willing to enter into a likely abusive marriage even to save her father’s life (see that as good or ill it certainly counters feminist’s primary objection to Belle).
When the villagers attack his castle the Prince finds himself in a fight with Gaston, Belle’s would be suitor. Of course the Beast overpowers him easily, after being roused from his depression by Belle’s arrival, but, when the killing blow is ready to fall, the Prince hears Gaston’s cries for mercy and leaves him alive (until the craven gets unintentionally knocked off the tower after stabbing the Beast in the back). Put that largess against the rule of Louis XV, who rarely pardoned criminals destined to die, and whose courts put even petty criminals to death in gruesome, torturous, public means.
Finally we see the happy couple in a celebratory dance, with the understanding that they married (Belle is wearing a crown in the last picture). So let’s talk about that for a moment. We consider marriage to be the end, the culmination of a relationship. You met, get to know each other, flirt, fall in love, get married. But then marriage was very much the beginning of the relationship (with the exception of some lower class that did marry for love). We say ‘we’re just as in love as the day we wed’, but in a society that arranges marriages one may be meeting one’s spouse for the first time day of (or only know them a short time previously) the marriage. You are expected to fall into love after the marriage as you get to know each other. Belle and the Prince share an immediate ‘spark’, completely in line with the time the Prince likes the way Belle looks and acts on first blush, enough to build a lifelong marriage on. While we have this abysmal divorce rate, history and other cultures teach us that almost any two reasonable people can make a marriage work. Love is a choice and an action, we choose to love after we’ve seen abundant evidence that there is physical attraction, mutual interest, and common ground, which leads, unfortunately, to the notion that, if those prerequisites fade or change, then love (and therefore marriage which in this culture is the culmination of love) can be lost. But in most of history something else was considered a prerequisite for marriage, good breeding, a dowry, social standing, or just the relative ages of the two to be married, then the choice to love and its subsequent actions, were based on the prerequisite of marriage and the social requirement to remain in that marriage. People made it work.
So, let’s recap: Belle is hardly a simpering example of feminine weakness. Instead she displays courage and strength, intelligence beyond normal, deep respect and empathy for her father, she’s disrespectful of royalty, but then the peasants of France were, despite the consequences, prone to riot and disrespect. And finally she’s willing to happily base a marriage on more than most women of the time would have obtained, a previously known mutual attraction to a wealthy, kind, and merciful Prince.
So, let’s recap: the Beast/Prince is anything but abusive, showing remarkable restraint, grace, and mercy. For royalty he’s remarkable sympathetic and lacks the violent, self-indulgent, ego-centric character of most upper class at the time (characteristics, ironically, that the at-best-middle-class Gaston that Belle rejects portrays), and is prone to listening and taking the advice of his servants.
I don’t like Disney in general for several reasons, and strongly prefer their older work to most of their newer stuff, but (with the exception of Ariel who is a bad role model regardless of how you look at it, runs away from home, makes deals with evil sorcerers, seeks a romantic interest outside of her own species, etc) how is this a bad role model for young girls?
For goodness sakes people, ultimately it’s fantasy but they’re set in what? Snow White’s about the 1100’s, Sleeping Beauty is a bit later, maybe 12-1300’s given the armor of the knights we see, Cinderella is maybe 1500’s, Beauty and the Beast is in the 1700’s, Hercules (Meg counts as the ‘princess’ in that movie) is in maybe 800-500 B.C., Aladdin is probably set in the 1100-1300 era, Robin Hood is in the late 12th century, you get the point. Use it as a good teaching moment on history and multiculturalism and let the kids enjoy their princesses and princes, Disney or otherwise.
But then maybe I’m just old fashioned.


Anonymous Tracy said...

I love it though I have to admit I never had a problem with Beauty and the Beast, mainly for many of the reasons you cite. I would love to see you try to justify Snow White or Cinderella though :) But of course, I don't have a problem with viewing them in context, I just HATE the whole wimpering, fall in love after ten seconds falsity because I think it's the start of how messed up the media portrays love (which continues into the rom coms for adults which I also take issue with). So I guess I really don't have much of a feminist issue as one of how relationships are portrayed because I think it sows the seeds of the belief that love is easy and doesn't require any work!

11:43 AM  

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