I know I keep saying it, but from now on I am going to post at a minimum weekly. I am ridiculous when it comes to procrastinating and motivation. I’m trying to become more proactive in my life and creating this thing I’m hilariously calling a career. One step is to actually write for this blog and write something people want to read.
So, hopefully, this is the first post in something actually interesting.
So, this is something that has been percolating in my brain for a while. Ever since Gaga hit the scene, she has been most often compared to Madonna and at a lesser degree to Grace Jones. Both comparisons are fine, but shallow. Her use of dance music of the most mainstream as a way to engage the populace at large reeks of Madonna. Her crazy costumes and never breaking character are closer to Jones in the conception of a dance diva. When they first kind of hit at the same time, Gaga and MIA were placed in a weird lady musician feud. MIA always seemed to take the bait and try to slag Gaga, which honestly wasn’t a good look. (Sidebar: I love MIA’s music and think she is a real talent. However, this feud was dumb and reductive and as it happened on the heels of her NY Times takedown, it appeared less saucy and more desperate.)
Where was I? Gaga has mostly been compared to Madonna. This became an even bigger issue when her hit song “Born this Way” was released and people found it quite musically similar to Madonna’s “Express Yourself”. Personally, I could actually not care less about this debate. All popular music is appropriation of some kind or some other style. So, without the constant copying and mutating of old songs, music would never actually evolve and create new sounds and new artists. But, beyond the “type” of music each artist makes, they are actually not really all that similar. Madonna has always been more of a polymath (whether she’s good at any of them is actually a debate for another time. This post isn’t really about that.) and Gaga is much more about crafting both a highly unique and hugely succesful pop music persona for maximum listener engagement. And, it is expressly her music and persona that make me think of her as closer to the heir to Bruce Springsteen than that of Madonna.
Let’s get the most superficial similarity out of the way. Both Gaga and Springsteen love the way Clarence Clemons played saxophone. He was a member of Bruce’s band from almost the beginning and right before his passing he appeared on two songs on Gaga’s last album and was featured during his sax solo in her “Edge of Glory” music video. But, this love of the Big Man is not the only thing they have in common it’s just the most fun one.
The biggest similarity between Gaga and Bruce is that once they achieved true pop fame, they began on a two-pronged path. The one path features more adventurous music, bigger chances with their style, and general tone of their music. As their music started selling to a smaller group of true believers, they conversely had bigger and more profitable concert tours. Bruce has been around for a very long time now (close to 40 years musically), but his records still sell quite well and his tours sell-out over massive, multiple night stands all over the United States. When he plays a venue like Madison Square Garden in NYC, he is there for almost two weeks of shows and they sell out in no time. Now, Gaga has not done anything similar to that…yet. I think Gaga’s becoming more important than her music. She appears to be working to become one the biggest and most influential acts ever. With the Springsteen template it could possibly work out that way.
Gaga’s The Fame was a similar sensation that Springsteen’s Born in the USA was over 20 years earlier. In both cases, the albums churned hit after hit that made the artist even bigger than when they began. Each album was a phenomenon and united various music fans in a way that few pieces can. We live in a pretty diverse and divisive culture. Very few albums come along that draw fans from different ages, genders, and races, but both Gaga and Springsteen have forged that connection.
All of this is speculative. I obviously do not know Lady Gaga and everything I have just written about is strictly my opinion. But, there is something about the idea of a 60-year-old Gaga doing a 3 hour show of all her songs as a sold out arena of spectators sit enraptured, that makes me a bit giddy.
So, I spent the last two months writing a buttload of material for school, conferences, and on-line sites. I have been learning a lot, reading a lot, and watching a ton of films. But, excluding my Twitter feed, I haven’t been setting the world on fire with this blog. But, for the next two weeks I have time off. I am going to spend the next two weeks using my free (i.e. Sadie at preschool days) to blog about all the pop culture stuff I have been remiss to talk about.
I will also spend this break watching Revenge because I love soap operas.
On that note, get ready for a big bunch of navel gazing!
I went to see the new Muppet movie yesterday. I am already on record for my love of the holy trinity of Muppet films. For a very long time in my life the oldest possession I had was a commemorative glass of Miss Piggy on her motorcycle from The Great Muppet Caper. I think the music from The Muppet Movie is some of the best pure pop music placed in a film. I also believe that without Kermit and the gang and their amazing meta television show, modern comedy doesn’t exist. So, I come at this as a fan. Obviously I’m not a fan at the level of Jason Segel, but I came with a big bucket of love for these characters. I wanted everyone involved to nail it.
Short answer; they did.
Segal and co-writer Nicholas Stoller have a love for these characters and the way they respected their lack of irony and snark was great. I see A LOT of kid’s films. Very few have the balls to be sincere. The animated films of Miyazaki are as close as you can come with a modern release where the characters are fresh and fun and not pop culture quoting irony machines. The creators of the new Muppet film get this. They make sure we understand that they love these characters for who they are and that we should too.
The music is so great and Bret McKenzie is working in a very Paul Williams tableau. The music has pep and life and real heart. Even a silly song like “Am I a Man or Muppet” is done with heart and well tuned. I eagerly await the first gay bar that adds the Miss Piggy and Amy Adams disco duet “Me Party” to their rotation. The direction is crisp and clean and the director never gets in the way of what is happening. That’s what you need in a Muppet director.
Now, what about kids? Well, Sadie has seen all the Muppet films. She loves Miss Piggy and Kermit and every holiday watches Muppets Letters to Santa about one million times. She loved it. The only part she was not happy with was when Kermit was singing his song “Picture in my Head”. She said, “I don’t like when Kermit is sad.” And really, do any of us?
I think most kids will like the film. New Muppet Walter is there to usher in new fans and these characters can make new fans on their own. Miss Piggy is the original Miss Put a Ring on It and she still rules. All the characters are themselves. There isn’t any retconning or trying to change them. They all bring what they always have to the party.
Get out and see this flick. We need more happiness and optimism in our lives. If it takes Marshall Erickson and his comedy buddies to do it, then that’s fine with me.
So, here’s the paper I recently presented at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association. It focuses on the revenge narrtive in Tarantino’s Kill Bill. I hope you enjoy.
Kill Bill: The Revenge Film as Feminist Fantasy
In Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” the main character of The Bride (played by Uma Thurman) spends two films seeking and getting revenge on people who have wronged her. The idea of revenge is not gender specific. However, a woman fighting a variety of enemies to be reunited with her child is a decidedly female story. Female warrior characters can be found throughout the arts. A small sample include; Diana the Huntress of Greek literature, Wonder Woman in comic books, Arwen of “The Lord of the Rings” series, and various female warriors of Chinese folklore. But, these characters are usually seen as saviors and protectors of oppressed people. The Bride, however, is a different case. She is in the line of the Avenging Angel. The Avenger is a character that seeks justice and retribution. This is a more modern and cinematic character. In films like “I Spit on Your Grave” and “Ms. 45” and the character of Catwoman in comics and film, the characters are raped and beaten by thuggish male characters. These women go about killing and torturing male oppressors who have hurt them and others. The Bride in “Kill Bill” falls more in line with the avengers. She has been robbed of her child, raped, and her family killed. This all leads to seek retribution, ending with the Bill of the title.
All of this is exciting cinema. But, is it feminist? Many people believe that having a female character that is assaulted and humiliated effectively negates any empowering that the act of revenge garners. The brutality that the female characters endure is another form of the abuse that men inflict on women. But, this ignores an important aspect of the work. There is much brutality and violence inflicted on the women but, in the case of “Kill Bill” specifically, the revenge segments of the film are 90% of the film and the brutality is only 10%. The female revenge film gives female viewers a character to cheer on and many times has men cheering for the woman to engage in her vengeance. This aspect is as important as the revenge. By having men cheer the murder of other men; the female character becomes the stand-in for all who have been victimized. This feminization of the male viewer works to radicalize the male viewer and gain his empathy.
The attitude of revenge films falls in the realm of feminism called post-feminism. “Constructed as a response against the notion of women as victims, post-feminism argues instead for a return to the tenets of feminism that view women as politically equal to and even sexually dominant over men.” (Hua, 66) Although in many revenge films the characters are brutalized, in the end they become dominant over many of the people who have exploited them. In “Kill Bill”, The Bride aka Black Mamba aka Beatrix Kiddo is a member of the DiVAS (Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) this group is a multi-ethnic and gendered group of assassins who work for master killer Bill. The group, at the time of the films, have gone in various directions and have vastly different lives. During this time, the bride has been in a coma because of their attack on her wedding day. She is raped repeatedly while in her coma. When she awakens her first act of revenge is to slit the tendons of the orderly and proceed to smash his head with a steel door. Her first act of vengeance completed, she begins on her list of ex-coworkers and current enemies. The character of The Bride is physically weak from her coma state but can still avenge her abuse. This is a post-feminist look at the damsel in distress. The Bride is physically atrophied but her skills and intelligence are intact. Women are more powerful than the abuse they suffer. The Bride is a mirror opposite of the character of Ms. 45 in Abel Ferrera’s film of the same name. Ms. 45 is mute and is raped because she does not have a literal voice. By the end of the film she has killed her rapists, her lecherous boss, and a group of sexists with her gun. Ms. 45 uses the fact that men never expect her confront their abuse to exact her revenge. The Bride has the opposite situation. She must get her body back to gain the revenge she needs to exact.
The Bride’s main goal is two-fold. She wants to kill her ex-lover and boss Bill and she wants to become a mother to her daughter. The avenger has a dual role. The killing and revenge are in the service of her true role as mother. The mother/warrior is an ancient symbol that is found with Goddesses like net (mother of Ra), Artemis (huntress and patron of Childbirth), or the symbol Mother Earth. The role of mother is of the utmost importance and the mother must be strong both physically and mentally. Beatrix works her way through her list, trains extensively, and travels to Japan to obtain the almost mystical Hantoro Hanzai sword. She is on a mission to achieve her role as mother and take care of her daughter while leaving the bodies of her enemies in her wake. “The mother goddess gives life but takes it away. Lucretius says, ‘the universal mother is also the common grave.’ She is morally ambivalent, violent as well as benevolent. The sanitized pacifist goddess promoted by feminism is wishful thinking.” (Paglia, 43) Camille Paglia’s concept of the mother goddess is personified by Beatrix. She wants to nurture her daughter that has been kept from her, but she must also find revenge for the abuses done to her. Her ex-friends and co-workers were a part of the circle of support that most women have in their lives and it has been perverted. The support became a group of enemies that worked to destroy her. She must come back from this betrayal to achieve her ultimate goal. “The Bride, or the Woman with No Name, seeks to enter the world of normalcy and domesticity with her unborn child but it is savagely cut down by Bill, the personification of violence and capital, at her wedding. In getting her revenge against all of those who partook in the massacre, she systematically destroys her identity in order to become ‘Mommy’.” (White, 63) This goal is one that places the woman at the top of the pyramid. She is the goddess and those below her must feel her wrath for trying to rob her of her heir.
As The Bride dispatches her enemies, she uses a sword. In most, revenge fantasy the woman does not use her own hands. She is given a replacement phallus. Ms. 45 uses a gun, Catwoman has a whip, and The Bride obtains the strongest samurai blade known to man, the Hantoro Hanzai sword. In fiction, women typically must add an appendage to channel their aggression. The Bride’s use of the sword is her appendage, or phallus, that she can wield to ultimately kill her male oppressor. The influence of the male in every aspect of life mutates into the female. To obtain power and become the dominant figure the woman must take a phallus and use it before gaining her ultimate goal. “We see the notion that we live in a phallocentric society, in which men’s sexuality and power are dominant, can be understood in both Freudian and Marxist terms. (And Gaines points out it is the male spectator who must be the focus of the analysis.)” (Berger, 31) The Bride must defeat her male oppressor. But, what makes her final battle with Bill so interesting is that she does not use her sword. She ends up killing Bill by engaging in hand to hand combat. Unlike other avengers, she drops her weapon and fights him with her hands. She sheds the phallus and overcomes him with her body. Unlike the stereotype of the female who must exact revenge through the use of a body extension. Their knives, guns, and whips become the power they have to use to overcome their oppressors. They must become more male to gain their vengeance. The Bride, conversely, must shed the phallus to become the victor. To kill Bill she lays down her sword and uses her hands. She loses her extension and fully becomes the female warrior to defeat her enemy.
Before she battles Bill she must engage in combat with her ex-friends. The three that she fights alone are all female. In each battle both women engage in a mixture of sword play and hand to hand combat. It creates a mixture of male and female forces at work in their battles. “The grace and composure of Uma Thurman (The Bride), Lucy Liu (O-ren Ishii), Daryl Hannah (Elle Driver) and Viveka A. Fox (Vernita Green) are really what make this movie work. Regal in appearance and amazingly deft in their physically demanding roles, the women also succeed in imparting a genuine sense of humor to their characters. This stroke is pivotal, for it suggests that the violence they perpetuate is less a sign of moral reprehensibility than a gesture of self-actualization.” (Morales, 35) In these battles the women fight as brutally as any male characters and use a variety of tools in their arsenal. The women fight each other in a way typically reserved for male combat in cinema. The women that Beatrix battles are obstacles in her way to fighting her ultimate betrayer Bill. Like much of life, the women engage in the hard work of life while the patriarchy is behind the scenes. Her first two battles are with Vernita and O-ren. Both women have taken roles outside of the system. Vernita is now a mother and O-ren is the head of the male dominated Yakuza. Like The Bride they are outside of the patriarchy that Bill dominates. Her last battle before Bill is with Elle Driver. Elle is the only female still working in the service of Bill and she is the most stereotypically female of the assassins. She is petty, jealous, and uses stereotypically female fighting moves (biting, hair pulling, etc.). Her fight with The Bride is the most personal and brutal. The Bride must defeat Elle by attacking her in the most brutal way possible. Beatrix pulls out Elle’s one eye; the other was already dispatched by her kung-fu trainer, and leaves her flailing around near the highly poisonous Black Mamba snake. Elle is left alone, blind and wandering waiting for her death. This is highly symbolic of a woman who is still tethered to the patriarchy. The anti-feminist woman is left flailing and alone waiting to be devoured by the patriarchy. She is literally blinded but it is a symbol of femininity that is blinded to the destructive power of the patriarchy. Elle has given her whole life to Bill only to die alone and without his support. She is left alone to suffer while Bill is safe because of her actions. By defeating all her enemies The Bride is able to have the control and autonomy to defeat her true enemy, Bill. The Bride has to finish her battle by defeating the patriarchy’s female ideal. She has defeated traditional femininity to achieve her goal of destroying the male power structure.
The film “Kill Bill” represents a changing in female representations in the media. More and more television shows, films, books, and even musical acts are taking the idea of female and going back to ancient, feral roots. “Women are becoming more like men. This is what a collection of cultural happenings circulating our media might suggest. It is a mood in representation that comes with the false claim that the trend of women-acting-like-men is a feminist expression. As if feminism was only ever about playing with the toys just like the big boys.” (Young, 1) This idea is only one aspect. Yes, The Bride does use samurai swords to defeat her enemies. But, there is much more to her story than just violence. She is a female warrior who is looking to resume her rightful place as the mother to her child. She must defeat female barriers and her male oppressor. She is violated and abused by the patriarchal system that views women as objects to use for their pleasure and bidding. The Bride must confront all of those who placed her in the vulnerable position of coma to be abused. She must also work to destroy the corrupting influence that Bill has placed over the females in his life. The Bride works to save her daughter and end the cycle of the destructive patriarchy.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films are a response to the patriarchal culture. Beatrix, as a character, is an avenger. Her ultimate goal is to destroy the corruption that the male brings into female relationships. She must use her skills, physicality, and training to defeat Bill. By battling other females to save her daughter, Beatrix is the mother bear protecting her cub. She uses all her skills and her true power as a woman to defeat her oppressor. Post-feminist thought creates the character of The Bride. Her skills and ultimate goal of motherhood place her in the classical tradition of the Greek and Roman goddesses. She strives to obtain the goal of freedom from the patriarchy. She succeeds by using her powers as a woman. She is a true feminist representation of power.
Berger, Arthur Asa. Cultural Criticism: A Primer of Key Concepts. Vol. 4. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1995.
Hua, Julietta. “Gucci Geishas and Post-Feminism.” Women’s Studies in Communication 32.1 (2009): 63-88.
Morales, Xavier. “Kill Bill: Beauty and Violence.” The Harvard Law Record (2003): 34-35.
Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
White, Eileen. “From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western (Book Review).” Journal of Film and Video 61.3 (2006): 61-63.
Young, Emma. “Sticks and Stones may Break Bones but Not Stereotypes.” The Sydney Morning Herald October 27, 2003 2003, sec. Arts:.
So, below is the paper I presented at the Empire State College Student Academic Conference. I personally think the paper only scratches the surface of the issues of feminism and capitalism that are out there. And, I do think I only focus on one aspect of the issues. I have always believed that feminism is about choices and we are not always going to agree on those choices. The easy condemnation of Barbie, princesses, and other girly accents doesn’t actually change anything. Questioning and discussing makes it much harder than just saying “No” to any and all things we find offensive.
That’s the end of the rant. Please read, comment, and debate. I hope it at least makes people think about the issues I’m bringing up.
“Standard of Beauty” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in discussions of girls and women and their self esteem. Magazines, television, music, and almost all fine arts are looked at by feminist scholars and cultural critics. One of the most pervasive and influential standards of beauty is the phenomenon of the Disney Princess. The Disney Princess is an all encompassing idea that includes, body type, ethnicity, and personality. The total package creates an archetype of feminine behavior and stereotypes. The princess, her prince and their bodies, faces, and minds have become the standard of acceptable femininity and hetero-normative societal attitudes.
The Disney Princesses; Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Mulan, Pocahontas, Jasmine (Aladdin), and Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), cover a wide variety of ages, ethnicities, and even social status (some start as princesses and others become princesses) but two things about them stay quite similar. All of the princesses have body types that conform to Western standards of beauty and the endings of their stories end in typically “happily ever after” narratives. All of this, when taken as a whole, creates an idea of ethnic diversity with a highly standardized view of beauty.
The Disney Princesses as merchandising juggernaut is also an issue. From the time a young girl is born, there is a wide variety of merchandise. Bedding, clothes, toys, house wares, and even furniture are all things that can be purchased. The sheer volume of Princess items creates a saturation of images that inundate a young girl. The images project a standard of beauty that a girl begins experiencing at almost their moment of cognitive awareness. Disney’s idea of beauty permeates all “types” of girls and surrounds them with merchandise that creates an enclosed world of the Princess where “good” is pretty and “bad” is ugly and the idea of beauty transcends all.
What does all of this mean? By looking at the Disney Princesses and the standard of beauty, the Disney Princesses and ethnicity, and the Disney Princess and marketing, there becomes a pattern of Western-ized beauty that permeates the consciousness of young girls and creates an illusion of perfection that the majority of females will never reach. And, beyond the physical, the idea of the ideal man and what he can give a woman is just as damaging. “Children’s self-image is affected by the ways in which they see themselves in texts both verbal and visual, and that fairy tales play an important role in shaping self-image and the belief system of children” (Hurley, 221). The idea of a perfect life, where you are beautiful, wealthy, and married is the dream that Disney profiteers in. By looking at how it homogenizes standards and experience, we can see how women are influenced by these ideas.
Disney Princesses & Standard of Beauty
To call someone or something “beautiful” is a loaded term. The cliché is “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But, the real phrase should be “attraction is in the eye of the beholder”. What a person is attracted to is what and what is considered beautiful by the consensus can be quite different. Disney animation style of the Princesses and other animated characters in their films are drawn in a proportion that either makes them beautiful or unattractive. The animation works to create a visual way for the viewer to understand who is “good and who is “bad”. The idea of proportion creates visually shorthand of acceptableness within the animated world. The sheer volume of Princess films and their dominance within merchandising has created a world where their standards have become de rigueur. “Combined with Disney’s popular and global profile, this makes the Disney princess in effect the ‘princess of all princesses,’ and, although she was born into the paternal world of Walt Disney, she is, especially in the latter decades, putting her own stamp on the kingdom” (De Rozario, 34). Because of this amount of influence, what the Walt Disney Company perceives as beautiful becomes what is beautiful.
In the world of the Disney Princess the standard of idealized beauty is drawn in a very similar way. Looking at animator Glen Keane’s book detailing the animation of the princesses and also in a children’s “how to draw” book, both explain and feature very homogenous body types. The Princesses have long, thin legs and arms, small waists, neutral sized hands and feet, long hair, and symmetrical facial features. All of the physical features are markers of beauty. The proportions are not caricatures like Barbie or the Bratz (both more exaggerated and stylized female forms), but still fall well into the thin, Caucasian model of beauty. These feminized standards are quite traditional, but so are the other characters that orbit their universe. The Princes and love interests in the Disney films are also drawn in a Western standard of beauty for the male form. The men are tall, muscular but not animalistic, narrow waist, strong jaws, firm features, and wavy hair. This male ideal becomes much more in focus when looking at the film Beauty and the Beast. Before his transformation, the prince is a beast of indeterminate origin but obviously mutated while the villain Gaston has large quantities of chest hair and an exaggerated male physique. In both cases, the forms on display are to be mocked or pitied and not accepted like the form the Beast takes when he finds true love. Both genders conform to the Western standard. By presenting both male and female forms as ideal, young female viewers gain opinions about what is acceptable for them and what they should find beautiful in others.
The ideas of beauty that are part of the Princess phenomenon creates an idea of what is acceptably female and therefore correct for the gender. The idea that something is truly “female” or truly “male” is part of a heterosexual society and an ingrained patriarchal structure. The animation in the films work in tandem with the stories to create what is a societal correct and acceptable form of gender roles. With a few minor tweaks, the stories are interchangeable with a hetero-normative ending and gender roles firmly in place. “The gender expectations are repeated across all the Disney films, even in the films with more independent heroines: Belle fends off a mach suitor with her passion for reading but eventually falls for the Beast and becomes mistress of the castle and its singing housewares. Ariel, an inquisitive mermaid who defies her father, becomes demure and silent on land in her prince’s world” (Wohlwend, 65). The princess must sublimate her true self to achieve happiness and to become a “true” princess. Her beauty overtakes any distinctive personality and helps her achieve “happiness”.
In many, if not most, of the Disney films that feature a princess, the plot revolves around the gaining of a rightful throne. This dynamic works to create dramatic tension while also creating delineation between who is good and who is bad in Disney’s moral universe. “While the hero and heroine are always noble and attractive by birth, villains are privileged and titled due only to the misplaced magnanimity or whim of a legitimate superior” (Artz, 130). Many times, the jealous/unscrupulous ruler is drawn one of two ways; they are either short, squat, and feature bulbous features or they are overly tall and angular with arched eyebrows and insect-like appendages. In both cases, the villains and villainesses are out of anatomical proportion. The extreme roundness or extreme lankiness of the figures places them out of the “correct” physical proportion. The distinction is especially pronounced when the Princess is taking on a female adversary.
Gender and age play parts in the good/bad dynamic but the most important battle is the female dynamic in Disney’s Princess films. The dynamic between the beautiful and the unattractive works in the relationship of the heroines to the villainesses and helps the viewer understand who to root for. In many of the Disney Princess narratives, the female heroine must battle an “evil” stepmother or witch. “It is in the Disney features where male power is reduced or erased however, that the greatest tension is created between women” (De Rozario, 42) In the stories the villainesses can typically shape shift into something or someone else. In Snow White, the evil queen makes herself into a crone. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent turns herself into a large dragon from the pits of Hell. And, in The Little Mermaid, Ursula the Sea Witch turns herself into a beautiful femme fatale to steal Prince Eric from Ariel. The villainess is older and more powerful than her princess counterpart. But, she is also ugly, venal, and easily defeated by pure intentions. As in many narratives, not just within Disney, virtuous femininity must battle the forces of age and ugliness. Like Glinda in The Wizard of Oz tells Dorothy, “only bad witches are ugly.”
Beauty is a huge part of the princess narrative. It confers happiness, love, and virtue on those who have it and quite the opposite on those who do not. “Some moms worry that princess make girls obsessed with beauty. But I think the problem is that popular princesses lack what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control’. This is the belief that you are responsible for making your way in the world” (Vanderkam). Young girls are taught that the body is not just the only part of a girl that needs to be molded into a princess. Girls that do not have symmetrical features, curvy yet thin bodies, and docile personalities are outside of what the princess accepts.
Disney Princesses & Ethnicity
As a company, Disney has always (Song of the South excluded) to always worked to create films that are culturally sensitive. Many times, when a film features ethnic characters, Disney works hard with interest groups to make sure that their scripts are not insensitive to the cultures they are based in. The body types and many of the facial features of the Princesses are quite anglicized and Caucasian in appearance. The smoothing of the features creates a homogenous sheen to their female royalty. Disney makes all of the Princesses in the mold that began with their first Princess, Snow White. “Disney retained what the brothers Grimm insist is the essence of Snow White’s appeal, the colors red (lips), white (skin), and black (hair)” (Brode, 186). But, Snow White is also the premiere archetype for the latter princesses and her animation style is continued today. Jasmine (Middle-Eastern), Mulan (Asian), Pocahontas (Native-American), and Tiana (African-American) are drawn in almost complete symmetry with their European and American sisters. The homogenization of these images works to create a commonality while also denying inherent differences in female forms and facial features from various ethnic groups.
By working to create animation that is sensitive to the requests of various ethnic groups is common practice within Disney. But, changing the style of the Disney Princess is off limits. Much like anamorphic animals, the Princesses are ambassadors and created by the company to make money. By creating Princesses that conform to what is a societal expression of beauty, Disney stifles much of ethnicity. Customs, beliefs, and geography are huge parts of ethnic identity, but so is physical being. Eye, nose, and mouth shape, body types, and even hands and feet are shaped by genetics. All ethnic groups have differences in their body types. A young woman from Jamaica is going to look physically different from a woman in Nigeria even though they have the same skin color. A young woman of Irish descent will have many unique features to that of a woman of Serbian descent. Although both have a similar skin tone, they look more different than alike. Disney Princesses have similar features and body types regardless of their actual differences. Disney creates images that conform to the popular notions of beauty and femaleness regardless of geography.
In the beginning, all the Disney Princesses were Caucasian and hailed from somewhere in Europe. This slowly changed with Ariel in The Little Mermaid, where the character was from the ocean floor. The Princesses started coming from various walks of life on land beginning with Jasmine in Aladdin. “In particular, the representation of gender and race and a pattern of increasing orientalization reveal themselves in the characters’ characteristics and this series of films’ iconography in the personality traits of each heroine, and in the development, and in the development of each character’s love relationships in the films” (Lacroix, 217). The addition of characters from more exotic locales created animation that respected the culture without actually changing what was successful for Disney. The Princesses were still drawn the way they had been since their conception and the love interests and villains/villainesses were still drawn the way they had been in films involving European descended characters.
The lack of secondary ethnic characteristics creates a uniformity to the Princesses. Although there are concessions to certain markers of ethnicity (i.e. the almond eye shape of the characters in Mulan), the general feeling is that of a character that shares most of her beauty with her Western counterparts. In all the cases, the Princesses share more similarities than they are differentiated. Almost all of the characters fall within the same age range as well. In the classic Disney fairy tales and even the more modern adaptations, the Princesses fall in the age range of 18-25. This uniformity of age also creates a marker of what is acceptable as old age is typically a sign of imperfection.
There is one rare exception to this and it is Pocahontas. Ironically, the Native-American Princess was actually quite young when she met John Smith and her journey to England after her time with him. This storyline would be quite complicated and tricky for the Disney brand. So, for the sake of cleaning up murky moral waters, Pocahontas became closer in age to the John Smith character. “In many ways, particularly when compared to Ariel and Belle, Pocahontas appears to be almost an Amazon. She is tall, has long, strong legs, and a developed bust. She retains, however, the slender waist like the others, which adds to the overall mature and voluptuous look of the characters” (Lacroix, 222). In the Disney film her story is quite simple and told as a traditional love story with john Smith. The fact that the story is based in some form of history as opposed to fairy tales, creates some tension for keeping her story within the Princess paradigm. But, by changing her age and ignoring some of the trickier aspects of the story, she stays well within the Disney Princess standard. Pocahontas is still very similar to the other Disney Princesses. She has long hair, a small waist, and long, well proportioned limbs. The similarities are still pronounced, even with the dramatic and physical license Disney took with the character.
The idea that beauty is standard without any concessions to ethnic difference creates a smaller world, for lack of a better term. These “ethnic” Princesses are created with the goal of attracting a larger share of the female audience. Young Asian, Native-American, Middle-Eastern, and African-American females have seen their skin color and many cultural avatars represented by the characters in these films, without Disney sacrificing their collective idea of beauty. The young girls engaging with the films see their culture respected but they also learn to critique their bodies based on the larger society’s standards. These young girls begin to question their own bodies because of the style of animation of the Princesses.“For children, animation pierces the consciousness and physical existence with experiential meaning, accessing a realm of understanding unavailable via literate or non-cinematic physical activity” (Artz, 119). Disney treats the stories of minority groups with respect and consults with many people to understand cultures they might be ignorant of. But, the physical attributes of the females stay quite Anglo.
The Disney Princess Industry
The Walt Disney Corporation is a huge multi-faceted organization which includes television networks, cruise lines, resorts, and merchandising. Although the Disney Princesses are a relatively narrowly focused phenomenon, it is hugely successful on a global scale. In Europe, the Disney Princess products are currently a huge hit among pre-adolescent girls. The brand is now worth $3 billion (British pounds) and its UK growth amounted to 25% last year (Cochrane, 22). While in the United States, princesses are everywhere, and they seem recession proof. Disney racked up $4 billion last year marketing the heroines of films from Snow White to Aladdin to preschoolers and their parents (Vanderkam). The sheer volume of material sold ensures that the images Disney animators have created reach the largest market share that they can. The majority of children engaging in the princess merchandise are female. Therefore, the Disney Princess becomes an integral part of the female experience and shapes female image through its saturation of imagery and their aggressive merchandising.
Beginning at very young age, Disney merchandising of their animated princesses begins in earnest. Before a young girl has even seen a film or is making her own choices, there are Princess crib sheets, onesies, bibs, and a variety of bottles and other newborn accessories. The marketing of the idealized female begins at birth. Beyond birth, the market share of merchandise grows to fit all the needs of the young female customer. After the age of three it is quite possible that Disney’s female consumer is immersed into the world of her favorite princess or all of the princesses. “During play with Disney Princess toys, children reenact film scripts and expectations for each princess character, quoting memorized dialogue or singing songs…The pervasive availability of consumer products associated with the Disney Princess films blurs the line between play and reality…one can be Cinderella all day long, sleeping in pink princess sheets, eating from lavender Tupperware with Cinderella decals and dressing head to to in licensed apparel, from plastic jewel-encrusted tiara to fuzzy slipper-socks” (Wohlwend, 57-58). At the Walt Disney parks there are Princess Beauty Salons. At these salons, young girls can get the dress, hair, and make-up of their favorite princess. They are wardrobed and beautified in large windows so that other park-goers may watch and want to be a part of. This concept is offered to girls and women of all ages. The breadth and depth of the amount of merchandise related to approximately nine Disney Princesses makes sure that every girl can be covered physically and mentally in the concept of “princess” and the dreams and expectations of that term.
One of the main ideas of marketing is to embrace the largest amount of the market that is available. Disney has aggressively worked to create Princesses that appeal to every girl and can be ensconced in every part of the globe. By working to create so many “types” of Princess, Disney has a goal of ensnaring a wide variety of young girls. Disney even focuses on class to show girls that they call all become Princesses. “Many Disney heroines at times wear the princess mask, for the appealation of princess is not exclusively tied to social status. For example, Disney heroines with inventors and soldiers as fathers- Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Mulan (1998), respectively- have been called ‘princess’” (De Rozario, 46). These two characters come from humble beginnings like many, if not all, of the young girls engaging with the films and other products. On the other hand, many Disney Princesses must drop their title and work menial labor or engage with the proletariat which also creates a princess who is “relatable”. The fact that most consumers of Princess product are lower, working, or middle class, a haughty girl with a title will not sell. So, the princess becomes more “normal” by either becoming a princess after hardship or through sacrifice. Young girls can find a Princess that they feel a kinship to.
After marketing, the merchandising is a key part of the Princess juggernaut. Disney has placed their Princess properties on the following items; sippy cups, pajamas, flatware and tableware, furniture, books, DVDs, CDs, toys, board games, luggage, school supplies, food, and even more products that do not fall into these broad categories. Disney’s merchandising works to saturate the market for young female dollars, so to speak. The products may feature one princesses or an assemblage of princesses. The groupings change with no real unifying concept, except that of Princess. Separating children by gender begins at quite an early age, and much of the products for preschool girls are the Disney Princess merchandise. The Disney Company has many products that appeal or are commonly made for children under the age of three. Young girls begin consuming the images of the princess from infancy and are inundated with the products for several key years.
With the capitalistic twins of merchandising and marketing, The Walt Disney Corporation is able to influence female thought from birth until adolescence. Girls are inundated with the female ideals of Disney’s animated princesses and have very few choices for gendered products to use in their daily lives. The volume of Disney product makes it hard for young girls to have choice in their consumer behaviors. For all of the problematic imagery that the princesses encompass, there are those who find Disney’s work almost feminist. “Disney’s attitude toward women emphasizes strength of character in pursuit of excellence and self-fulfillment” (Brode, 181). But, the excellence and self-fulfillment that Disney pursues through marketing and merchandising is one of acquiescence. The American dream of having everything you need and the happiness that things provide is part of the dream Disney sells to its young fans and their parents.
Wthe Disney Princesses, their influence extends like tentacles across the female experience. The animated films, merchandising, and character interactions at the various parks all work to create a fully integrated “female” experience. This female experience is a heterosexual and classically beautiful one. The Princesses are all drawn with small shoulders and waists, long limbs, and small, well-proportioned heads. The difference between the animated drawing and an advertisement in Vogue is marginal. The Princesses help begin the process of homogenizing beauty. Their looks and stories are ones where the markers of good and bad are easily visible unlike those in the “real world.”
The standard of beauty that the Princess represents crosses ethnic and class lines. Disney works hard to create a princess for every girl. Their ethnicities and family backgrounds create a diverse group of women. The idea of the princess expands with these changes. Disney works to promote ethnic and class difference, however, the body is essentially the same. There are no especially tall princesses, overweight princesses, or princesses in pants. The villains and the princes themselves tend to fall into very standard appearances. The delineation of “pretty” (good) versus “ugly” (bad) creates prejudices and opinions that stretch beyond the viewing of the product and permeates the consciousness of the culture, especially for girls and women. Judgment begins with the physical and it takes much to overcome the first impression.
All of the materials featuring the Disney Princesses work to underscore the search for a mate and a happy ending. The Disney films show women a world where the ultimate goal is one of happiness, stability, and heterosexual union. “Underlying the courtship is the princess’s struggle for autonomy and her function representing that autonomy” (De Rozario, 50) By the end of every story, the young woman is happily ensconced in a world of lavish homes, material wealth, and attractive people. Although the Princess may have a hobby, with the notable exception of the recent Princess Tiana, the hobby is forgotten with marriage.
The “look” of the Disney Princess is one that envelops the female experience in the 20th century. As the global community becomes smaller through popular culture and the information superhighway, Disney is a huge part of the global community. There are Disney parks on several continents, their films play across the globe, and their licensed properties can be found in almost every store in the world. With this influence, Disney’s idea of the “perfect” life is what the world sees as the perfect life. The ideas of marriage, wealth, and beauty as the goals of every woman become what is seen as normal. Disney’s view of women creates a world where jobs and hobbies are just the means to the picket fence end. Even if Disney has no agenda, and they have never stated one, their influence on the female experience is vast and must be looked at critically.
Arzt, Lee. “The Righteousness of Self-Centred Royals: The World According to Disney Animation.” Critical Arts: A North/South Journal of Critical and Media Studies 18.1 (2004): 116-146. Print.
Brode, Douglas. Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005. Print.
Cochrane, Kira. “The Dangerous World of the Princess.” New Statesmen 7/3/2006: 22-23. Print.
De Rozario, Rebecca-Anne. “The Princess and the Magic Kingdom: Beyond Nostalgia, the Function of the Disney Princess.” Women’s Studies in Communication 27.1 (Spring 2004): 34-59. Print.
Hurley, Dorothy. “Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess.” Journal of Negro Education 74.3 : 221-232. Print.
Keane, Glen. The Art of the Disney Princess. New York, NY: Disney Editions, 2009. Print.
Lacroix, Celeste. “Images of Animated Others: The Orientalization of Disney’s Cartoon Heroines from the Little Mermaid to the Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Popular Communication 2.4 (2004): 213-229. Print.
McCafferty, Catherine. Learn to Draw Princesses. New York, NY: Disney Enterprises, 2006. Print.
Vanderkam, Laura. “The Princess Problem.” USA Today 8/12/2009 , sec. Life:Print.
Wohlwend, Karen E. “Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts through Disney Princess Play.” Reading Research Quarterly 44.1 (2009): 57-84. Print.
So, I’m going to give my first real public presentation in my academic career. I’ve done public speaking as a librarian and with my short stint in the world of stand-up comedy. But, this is kind of a big deal. I’m trying to actually become a college professor/lecturer and this is the first step. And, I’m nervous. Not only that, I’m stressed and it has been making my class work and house cleaning and other stuff fall by the wayside. When I get stressed I go into shut down mode. All I want to do is sit and look at Facebook and try not to deal with the overwhelming feeling I have.
Why do I bring this up? Because I want to know how public intellectuals do it. How is there a balance to life and work and not feeling completely stressed? I need to know the answers because I’m a big stress ball right now.
This rant provided by a donation from professional academia.