Monday, March 26, 2012

#28: The Not So Modern Princess

The Little Mermaid, 1989
watched March 18, 2012

(c) Disney
The Little Mermaid holds importance in the Disney canon for so many reasons that it is difficult to narrow in on just one thing to write about. One notable aspect of this film is that it was Disney’s return to fairy tales. The last fairy tale to be brought to the big screen was Sleeping Beauty in 1959. Although this return was timely and effective, the gap of 30 years brought a lot of interesting changes in the way these tales were interpreted. What I find most intriguing is the shift in the portrayal of young women.

Past female characters were known not only for their propriety but also their relative passivity in regard to their situation. (Two of them sleep during the entire climax!) As culture has changed our ideals of women, this kind of heroine just doesn’t appeal to audiences anymore. Instead,we see the emergence of a ‘liberated’ woman, independent, and unwilling to wait on the sidelines while the boys get all the action, beginning with the fiesty redheaded Ariel. And this is the kind of woman all subsequent Disney films has featured ever since The Little Mermaid.

And I’ll admit--I do relate more closely to Ariel than Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. Yes, she's a trouble maker, but she’s also smart and curious about the world, she has a vivid imagination, and she seeks to live life to the fullest. This seems a great deal more interesting and admirable than the well-behaved, modest princesses of the past, who are so poised and perfect that it's hard to imagine myself in their shoes.

But isn’t it interesting that whether or not a princess is passive or rebellious, that we always end with the same happily ever after? Ariel does little that could be considered selfless or virtuous, and yet she reaps the rewards of all of our previous Disney heroines: the love of a handsome prince.

And so we see the irony in the so-called "modern" Disney princess. No matter what kind of girl you are, according to Disney, the ultimate "fairy tale" reward is still romantic love, marrying the prince, and living happily ever after. Ariel could have channeled her curiosity about the human world to become a merfolk-human relations ambassador, an archaeologist, or maybe an art history teacher. And perhaps with better guidance, she could have been encouraged to pursue these things. But choosing to depict Ariel with such a vibrant, adventurous spirit, only to have her end up as the wife of yet another "prince charming" seems unoriginal and kind of disappointing.

As I reflect on growing up with TLM, I can’t help but wonder how it and other similar stories have shaped my ideals. While these independent, strong female characters give a sense of empowerment, under the surface their fairy tale romances often tempt me to believe that I'm incomplete without a man by my side. It's an age old myth, perpetuated through even these modern Disney films.

Let me clarify one thing: I still love The Little Mermaid. As a movie, it's entertaining, engaging and timeless. Not insignificantly, it began a period of artistically and musically groundbreaking Disney films, with lovable characters and stories with heart. But as I work through this blog project and reflect on the narratives that have shaped my childhood, lots of questions are being raised, and I'm merely exploring possible answers. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the "modern" princesses and how they may have influenced you as children.

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