Two months from today, it’s going to be my birthday. I will be wearing sparkly Minnie Mouse ears with an “It’s My Birthday” button on my chest, eating dinner at Disneyland’s Blue Bayou restaurant. I plan on being deliriously, unapologetically happy.
But right now I feel that I owe a bit of an apology for my brazen love of the Mouse House. Like Şermin wrote in her post ‘Feminist Fairy Tales?’ I feel a twinge of guilt at loving these archaic stories. Disney receives a mountain of flack for its dealings, or ambivalence, toward issues of race, sexuality, and gender. And I do agree that Disney has to develop its playbook in order to be relevant and helpful to our (slowly) evolving culture. Gay culture needs to be celebrated instead of being a punchline (this Salon article makes a profound case for the abhorrent ways Disney has downplayed homosexual relationships) and the racist caricatures Need. To. Die (laugh through the pain with this Cracked piece).
And when it comes to calamitous merchandising, the Disney Princess phenomenon is about as feminist-forward as toy vacuum cleaners and washing machines. The Princess round-up, a collection of Disney heroines from 1937’s original Snow White to 2012’s Princess Merida from Brave. The Disney Princess brand was officially launched in 2001, after a new ex-Nike exec noticed that Disney wasn’t exploiting its female characters to their fullest potential. Each movie release had coincided with a flood of specific character costumes, pencil erasers, lunch boxes, and party napkins. But taking the whole lot of them, upping the Texas beauty queen hair and Scarlett O’Hara skirt factor, and mushing them in a disembodied chorus line amidst a background of pink sparkles? Revolutionary!
The first year of Disney Princess marketing and merchandising garnered $300 million in sales for Disney, while 2012 brought in $3 billion. Fairy tale tropes are an easy sell to little girls and their parents, and there is really nothing being sold that Disney can’t plaster their faces on. From fruit-less HFCS fruit snacks to age-inappropriate eyeshadow quads, every bad and potentially damage decision that can be made for a developing child can be made with the help of the Disney Princess line.
The saccharine pastels and overly-shiny gloss of the Disney Princess line makes my stomach lurch. The renderings of Belle and Cinderella on modern-day incantations seem wholly unfamiliar to the Disney renaissance I remember from my late 80’s/early 90’s childhood. I feel much more nostalgic among the Disney Hipster Princesses.
Since my vacation package is purchased and my time off work request approved, I’ve been brushing up on “the classics” in anticipation. Secretly, alone, with the shades drawn. And while I can’t say that a vintage film like Sleeping Beauty has much in the way of redeeming modern life lessons (although the artwork is heartbreakingly beautiful in a way 21st century CGI can ever hope for), I find that there is more to the movies of my childhood—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King—than commonly gets credit. Rewatching Aladdin, I remember being first introduced to the concept that guys fighting for you wasn’t always so great. “I’m not a prize to be won!” she insists, words that were a puzzling revelation at age 9. We’re not? Belle’s proclamation that she wanted “adventure in the great wide somewhere” rooted miles deeper into my young heart than how cute the beast turned out to be. I love the matriarchy of lions keeping hope together in The Lion King’s pride lands, and Nala rousing Simba’s lame college burnout ass back to his destiny. I can still taste the validation when Ariel described who I wanted to be: “bright young women, sick of swimmin’, ready to stand.”
The truth is, of all the cultural tent poles, Disney movies fucked me up the least. Much less than Barbie. Far less than Sweet Valley High. And a million times less than flipping through any magazine and its ads. These women talked. They had dreams. They had problems. They didn’t look like the perfectly-preened princesses sold to girls today; Cinderella spent 85% of the movie in rags, and Belle was in that unforgettable golden ball gown for five minutes out of 95. Unlike the merchandising downfall, the real movie characters had to wade through a bunch of shit for a few minutes of sparkle, which is a bridge from fairy tale to reality. A few days out of a year, I get an occasion to get my hair did, put on my sparkliest shoes, and wear the coolest dress in my closet. The rest of the time it’s ho-hum jeans and writing day sweatpants. Because that’s the life of a heroine. Not a princess.