Thursday, December 20, 2018

Simpler Princesses

Amy Alkon has a piece about Disney Princesses and the wisdom of fairy tales over at Quillette. Recommended.  Some of the comments are valuable, but it is surprising that the site does not yet attract a better slate of commenters.

I have long heard the standard criticisms of Disney's princesses, and some have merit.  In particular, the stories often don't have the frightening and uncomfortable bits enough, not compared to older versions of the stories. Folk tales, like folk songs, have lots of homicide and disfigurement, betrayal, uncanny creatures, and powerful figures of evil intent. Disney tamps that down some.  There is also now a standard formula that each one is a friend of animals and a Spunky Gal. Yet the other usual complaints about how terrible this all is for male/female relationships and girls' image of them selves are no longer convincing to me. There's just too much going in all of these movies, all the way back to Snow White, that runs the other way.

Yet there is one bit about princesses in general, even more than the pretty dresses and things to wear in your hair, that doesn't get enough mention.  They get to tell everyone else what to do*. If you listen to actual girls playing, who gets to be the princess and who is relegated to being the prince, or the talking animal, or the magical helper is significant. This is a big part of what girls are playing at, and why they admire princesses so much. I can see why folks might object to the focus on beauty and clothes, but these have always been what poor girls desired. Isn't it more the wealthy and educated girls who can afford to have disdain?  So too with the dolls and coloring, perhaps.  But the movies also focus on courage, cleverness, kindness, and other virtues. I have written similarly on fairy tales before with other branchings - the post includes links to some of the things that Lewis and Tolkien said on the subject.

*Similarly, one of the draws for Barbie was that she gets to do whatever she wants. She buys whatever clothes she wants and no mother tells her not to; she buys sports cars, gets credit for working at any of a dozen jobs without actually doing anything, has a boyfriend that can be picked up and put down at will.


Donna B. said...

This is one area where some people just overthink it. Little girls generally like shiny things -- glitter, sequins, etc. whether there's a princess involved or not. They also like pretty clothes. They'd as soon be Glenda with lovely shoes and a fantastic wand. The story is just a carrier for the sparkly goodies. They don't take it nearly as seriously as adults do.

As for Barbies, today's girls aren't getting the best -- the 60s era Barbies who heads, arms, and legs were easily detached and replaced.

Little boys like shiny things too. You ever run across one who wanted a rusty sword or a dull and dented shield?

The great thing about kids is that they can take a grubby piece of lace and a broken headband and make a princess costume out of it. Or a stick and garbage can lid can become that shiny sword and shield. If we're doing our kids a disservice, it's by denying them the opportunity to imagine the shine. Or worse, telling them the shine isn't real and taking the joy out of play.

The Mad Soprano said...

Why I despise Disney in general (largely due to it being so heavily over-marketed), I have to give credit where credit is due. Their fairy tale adaptions are for the most part well-written, and have been popular for a long time.

I read Chesterton's "The Ethics of Elfland", one of the essays in his "Orthodoxy". Folk/fairy tales have long been used not just as entertainment, but as fables to teach people; maybe even allegories as Chesterton suggested with the case of "The Sleeping Beauty". There;s even a line at the end of Aleksander Puskin's narrative poem "The Golden Cockerel" where he says, "Fairy Tales, though most untrue, teach good lads a thing or two,".
To paraphrase Chesterton, the moral of Cinderella is not that a rich man will solve a woman's problems, but that the humble will be exulted. Cinderella is the humble girl in poverty whose prospects are dim. As soon as she is given the opportunity to go the ball, she acts. And she is chosen by the prince even though she is a poor girl. Also the story originated in Ancient Egypt and was apparently based off of a real life woman. Heck, the story is common all over Europe and Asia.

While we do not have magical produce or fairy godmothers or anything like that, Cinderella-type stories happen all the time. We hear about people living in poverty who rise above their circumstances when given the means to do so.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, the marketing is skillful, and therefore annoying. I have disliked that they are too politically correct, not that they fail in that category. Certainly, one could imagine more current-feminist versions, but I can't imagine them selling much product.

I think people who have daughters - and perhaps sons, who will be in the culture of those girls as they grow to be women - have more skin in the game, and thus more clarity about the issues involved.