Thursday, 27 March 2014

Never judge a book by its cover

By Janaina Alberquerque

Just like many little girls, I grew up watching Disney movies and wanting to be like the Disney Princesses. As I grew older and I began to understand the movies better, part of the magic surrounding the stories I held so close to my heart disappeared. I was actually disappointed with the princesses I once looked up to. I’m bothered with the idea of young girls growing up thinking that it's okay to give up on their dreams, to run away from home, to live their lives according to someone else’s and to rely only in their beauty. I wish they knew they should become independent, active, conscious women who criticize, speak up and love themselves exactly the way they are.
I love how feminism has been influencing Disney movies and how, in an overall perspective, it's bringing the princesses closer to modern day women, when it comes to gender equality and women's rights. In 1937, when feminism was still on its first wave, Walt Disney was producing his first animation feature in full color. Bill Pete was an illustrator and a story writer for the Disney Studios at that time. He worked in the production of the movie in question, Snow White. In his autobiography, he published a letter of rejection sent by the studio to a woman named Mary Ford, who wanted to become a part of the team. Here is a picture of it:

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She wasn’t selected for the job because "women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men" (paragraph 2). As it wasn’t enough, it had to be explained that "the only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink, and then, filling in the tracing on the reverse side with paint according to directions" (paragraph 3).
So women couldn't compose the creative staff of a movie directed to young women.
That strikes me with no sense at all, because why would men know better? I'm sure that a whole male staff contributed to build such submissive, clueless, impulsive female characters. I perceive three phases of princesses:
The first one begins with Snow White. Apart from the Evil Stepmother and the mother that isn't shown, she's the only other female character. At 14, she's a housekeeper for seven men and she marries a guy who kisses her without her permission.  Then came Cinderella, which is a little better because there are more female characters and Cinderella actually gets to speak to the Prince before marrying him. What saddens me about it is that all characters seem shallow, with no hopes and dreams besides being rich and beautiful. Sleeping Beauty is a shame. Aurora has only 18 lines during the whole movie and she has no personality or proactivity whatsoever. Ariel shows some improvement by helping to save the day, but she decides to sacrifice something she's great at, which is singing, and drastically changes her body to impress a man. Moreover, she has to conquer the prince's heart depending solely on her looks, as she can't say anything due to the trade she made with Ursula.
I see the second phase princesses as transition princesses. Jasmine does use her persuasive powers to seduce Jafar, but! That doesn't take away the credit for stating, and I quote: "I am not a prize to be won". In Beauty and the Beast, Belle rejects the status of being the "most desirable" guy’s girlfriend unlike most girls in the village. I won't get deeper into the Stockholm syndrome interconnection, even though the Prince, as a Beast (and that’s a sensitive spot), is very rude, selfish, possessive and controlling. Let me make an observation by objecting the attribution of the Beast’s bad side to his “ugly” form.  When the Beast breaks the spell and suddenly becomes handsome, he drastically changes his personality as well. There isn’t only a princess stereotype but there’s also a villain’s. It’s clear to notice that they’re usually overweight, old and not very good-looking. In Aladdin and Princess and the Frog, for instance, the villains use magic and they seem very mystical. But aren’t they the ones who follow arabic and african religions? What kind of statement are we accepting with that? Isn’t this a way of encouraging people to pre-judge others?
The following characters compose a third phase of princesses who turned out to be really good role models for young women. Pocahontas is the first princess to be comfortably called a feminist. She doesn’t play the damsel in distress part; she's the one to save the prince and chooses to break up with him so she can follow her path. In Tangled, Rapunzel teaches how to take advantage out of her best features. She wasn't sitting and waiting for a prince to come and save her; he just gave her the extra hand she needed.  There's one important lesson there, which is to be a part of a team. Tiana's dream is to start her own business with the money she worked really hard to earn, and I'd say that's pretty admirable. Mulan is one of the few princesses to wield a weapon. She's the one to reallocate gender roles by making a place for herself, rescuing almost everybody and saving her country. She breaks a paradigm and to do that, she counts with the help of really powerful female role models. In Brave, Merida refuses to adopt the expected girly conduct in order to please an applicant prince. In contrast with the first phase princesses, the idea of getting married is absurd to her because she's a teenager and she's too young. She hasn't even fulfilled her life goals yet. Brave is a story about family relationships. It saddened me when I read critics like "Oh no, I can't believe Pixar has made a princess movie". I'm really glad it did.
“Real life” princess stories do happen! Once upon a time there was an african girl who prayed every night wishing she’d wake up the next and her skin would be a little lighter. She overcame her insecurities and became an Oscar-winning actress. Doesn’t it sound like a fairy-tale with a happy ending to you? Lupita Nyongo gave a speech in the 'Black Beauty Essence, Black Women In Hollywood Awards’ telling a little bit about her trajectory. If you haven't seen it yet, here's a link for it: ( She says how important it was for her to identify herself with a public figure that looked so much like her during the process of learning how beautiful she was. To conclude my reasoning, I’ll borrow and idea introduced by a Nigerian writer called Chimamanda Adichie of the dangers of having a single story. Here's a link to watch her inspirational lecture: ( To sum it up, if we only see one example of anything repeating itself over and over again we'll believe in a single story version of it, but the truth is there is a whole universe of stories to be explored… That's an exercise to help eradicate prejudice by creating acceptance and boosting our self-esteems. To engage in enhancing female representativeness, in all fields, is to, in someway, empower women as well. 

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