Sunday, December 4, 2011

Glass Slippers: Empowering or Disabling?

In the New York Times Article, "Mommy I Want to Be a Princess," author Naomi Wolf explains to concerned mothers that the fairy-tale aspirations of young girls need not be disempowering. For Wolf, the "Sleeping Beauty narrative...designed to seduce women into marriage and passivity," doesn't have to be a setback for young girls and their feminist mothers. Wolf believes that "second-wave feminists" have it wrong." Instead of teaching young girls to be domesticated housewives and mothers, or starry eyed dreamers hopelessly waiting for a kiss from Prince Charming, Wolf recharacterizes the experiences of animated and real-life princesses as constructive and heroic role models for young girls to follow. Although I believe that the overarching theme of many fairy-tales revolve around the damsel in distress saved by a handsome prince, I think that Wolf successfully hones in on the positive attributes of princesses that we are familiar with and exposes the underlying "feminist" feature of "princesses." To sum it up, Wolf provides us with a "revisionist" history of Disney princesses, and attempts to frame modern "real life" royalty, such as Kate Middleton, Princess Diana, and other figures that the public is less familiar with in a "feminist" light.

Wolf boldly asserts that the princess worship that young girls engage is less about a vain, distorted, and sexist reality, and more about "power and recognition." Little girls may be obsessed with princesses, but little boys like action heroes just as much. For Wolf, the "princesses" we imagine are more powerful than the world leaders we see today, such as Hillary Clinton, and less drugged out than the popular icons that command our attention in the media today. Furthermore, what other women can control an army or excite the public in the same manner as a princess?

One caveat I would like to add to Wolf's description of the strong and bold princess is her failure to mention physical attributes of these princesses that she exalts. The Disney characters she discusses (which I will address) are all of unrealistic bodily proportions. Cinderella, Mulan, and even the real life princesses, such as Kate and Diana, fit the image of feminine perfection. Dainty, thin, and conventionally pretty, these women or "heroines" that Wolf describes are NOT the average woman. Even though the image factor is peripheral is the heroic capabilities of some of these women (and cartoons) it cannot be conveniently ignored. If princess empowerment is supposed to be a viable motto, then the category has to include girls of all genders, shapes and sizes.

Wolf includes a litany of princesses in her discussion. Princess Diana, revered and internationally known for her charitable disposition and unique background, was according to Wolf, "a pioneer" for defying the restrictions of the British class system. Though Diana was by no means poor, she challenged the British monarchy's conception of "proper marriage." Her much publicized divorce to Prince Charles after 17 years of marriage made global headlines, and in a sense, normalized divorce in the most effective way possible. For if a princess can divorce her prince, surely it must be acceptable for the average woman to leave an unhappy marriage.

Perhaps the best evidence of Diana's legacy is the treatment that Kate Middleton has received as a new member of the royal family. Diana taught the royal family how to behave. Kate Middleton did not come from an aristocratic family. Kate's great grandfather was a coal miner, and while her family achieved great monetary success as business entrepreneurs, it can hardly be argued that Kate Middleton defies the traditional "criteria" and possesses a different "pedigree" than what is typical of the British monarchy. Furthermore, Kate Middleton was an athlete in college and was Captain of the field hockey time. Though this may not sound out of the ordinary, it is quite revolutionary that the potential future Queen of England could potentially beat her husband in field hockey!

In many other respects, Kate Middleton has conformed to the "conventional" gender role expected of her as a new bride to Prince William. The couple has barely been married for 7 months and Kate Middleton is reportedly already pregnant. Her slim physique and manicured appearance never falls short of fashionable, and she can always be found donning the most exquisite attire. I do not find these to be "faults" per se, but I think that Kate Middleton's acceptance by the media AND the royal family is conditioned upon her acting appropriately. If Prince William had chosen to marry (as an extreme example) a "bisexual" who wore overalls and blue hair instead of Kate's prim and proper wardrobe, I have a hunch that the dialogue would be drastically different.

In terms of the Disney "fantasy" world, Wolf explains that the characters we think of as helpless, desperate, and pathetically "female" are actually heroes. In Mulan, the princess helps her family fight off the Huns and saves the kingdom, while Cinderella is rewarded for her compassion to "small creatures." Although I appreciate Wolf's perspective, I think that there is something fundamentally different about the prince/princess dichotomy that appears in real life and in the movies. If history had favored the princess, I would be more inclined to agree with her that the modern day conception of "princess" is really a heroine who happens to prefer a pink tutu to an armored suit with a sword. Even in real life, Kate Middleton was practically "discovered" by William, and Diana was the lucky girl to marry a prince. But I think that "herstory" from a feminist point of view, finds the less favored, and more pessimistic history, to be more in line with reality. It is never the princess riding in to save the dying prince, or rescue him from infinite turmoil. Even if the princess is capable of defeating the main "villain" such as Mulan or Snow White, the small "heroine" battles are always consumed by the larger picture of the princess waiting for the prince. The brave activity is always just a means to an end- finding the prince of her dreams and happily ever after. Until the princess is waging her own battles for her own well-being, I think I have to disagree with Wolf.


KayZee said...

Ringo1985, I'm so glad that you posted about this article. I read it over the weekend and I thought it would be so great for our blog. I think what I like about Wolf is her optimism. As a self-proclaimed optimist feminist, I appreciate her approach. She looks for the bits of positive.

Her discussion real-life princesses was the part that really got me thinking. She talks about the fact that princess-celebrities such as Kate Middleton and Princess Diana had "unique" backgrounds, especially for the British Crown. That's all well and good in my mind, but I think what she overlooked is the very fact that they are celebrities. Yes, a part of us look at them in envy because they're technically "Princesses." But even after Diana divorced Prince Charles, the world was still obsessed with her. At that point, it wasn't her title that people followed, it was her. And what people loved about her was her true and genuine dedication to helping people in need.

As for Kate Middleton, she may come into her own as a philanthropist. But even if she doesn't, I would argue that her popularity has already eclipsed that of her now-husband, Prince William. And when I think of British royalty, the names that always spring to mind are indeed female. The Queen Mum, Queen Elizabeth, and Princess Di are figures that will dominate history. I think that ultimately, this is a positive thing for feminism. Whether it takes a Princess, an author or fictional Disney character to further the feminist movement, I'll take it.

Brown Eyed Girl said...

I, too, appreciate Wolf's optimistic approach to blend feminism and princesses. Looking closely at recent princess stories, both cartoon and real-life, the current princess archetype is about strong, driven personalities. But you raise an interesting point, Ringo: that the "princess-heroine" aspect is a side note to the larger picture of waiting for a prince. I think there may be some validity to that view when one considers recent our stories in relation to the historical treatment of the princess.

However, I don't know that we should be judging the newer princesses against their predecessors. As you say, had history favored the princess, it would be easy to accept the modern day conceptions described by Wolf. Unfortunately, it didn’t. But I still believe that today’s princesses are different from those of the past. In my mind, their bravery is not a means to an end (waiting to find a prince and happiness). Rather, it is pleasant happenstance, secondary to the main story.

Mulan did not set out to meet a man to take care of her. She was focused on saving her father and it is clear that she can take care of herself without the aid of her romantic interest (a captain, not a prince). Jasmine was already a royal princess. And while the Sultan was searching for a prince to “take care of her,” she remained adamant that she would marry for love. Her unwillingness to yield to her father’s suggested rich, snobbish suitors is another rejection of the pre-feminist concept of marriage.

The fact that these two princesses found love seems to be secondary to their personas. But I think this is more related to Disney’s tried-and-true romantic storyline designed to entice families and ticket sales. As for real-life princesses, I agree with KayZee. Diana remained famous even after her separation (1992) and divorce (1996) from Prince Charles. I would hope that Wolf’s observations mark a continuing trend in creating positive role models for young girls.

AMS said...

I tend to agree with Brown Eyed Girl and Wolf. Fairy tales undeniably draw from gender norms. We expect the princess to fall in love with the prince--that's Disney's schtick--but I'm not sure that it's anything for us to worry about. Instead, I think our daughters and nieces might turn out alright if we remember to draw out the feminist lessons.

Some of the tales surely make it more difficult to emphasize those lessons. Mulan, as Brown Eyed Girl mentioned, did not need a man, but Sleeping Beauty needed her prince to wake her up.

Overall, I believe that Disney has created many empowering female princesses. To add to the aforementioned examples in other posts, the recent movie "Tangled"--the modern, Disney version of "Rapunzel"--serves as an example of a woman on a mission.

In Tangled, a princess with magical hair capable of restoring health and beauty, is kidnapped and raised in seclusion. Obsessed with seeing an the annual release of lanterns, she escapes with a thief. The girl is charming, fearless, and focused on those lanterns.

A love story, complete with "betrayal" is interwoven throughout the tale. I'll be first to admit that other aspects of the story are far from representative of an ideal feminist princess (if that's possible), for she's almost too soft, too feminine, and too gullible at times. Yet, once freed from her tower, she uses her own confidence, charm, and hair to do what she wants to do. She even charms a bar full of scary thugs by encouraging them to follow their dreams.

Thus, the way I see it, Disney is inching closer and closer toward the perfect princess. I'm not sure that we'll ever meet her though, because somehow it seems that a Disney princess is never complete without her prince.

Thus, I must wonder, could a princess who loses her prince and chooses to focus purely on her own (very admirable) dreams find a place in the world of Disney? Alternatively, might we embrace the already-married princess who pursues her passion to help women because of the unfair and unequal treatment they're receiving? What other story lines might meet the challenge?

AMS said...

In addition to the Disney princesses, the new ABC Television program "Once Upon a Time" is worth mentioning with respect to this blog. Although it's a show more appropriate for tweens and older, the show retells classic fairy tales in a manner satiable to a modern audience.

Even Snow White has a tough and street savvy side in the program. My favorite part: the main storyline includes a tough female heroine (with a tough past) who holds the power to break a powerful spell cast on all our favorite classic fairy tale characters.

I would imagine that if the show continues to entertain adult audiences, an animated version for the younger kids might just make sense...