Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Disney's Last Princess - Why Tangled's Rapunzel Is the Studio's Farewell to Fairy Tales

I'm looking at my bookshelf and counting the fairy tales.

A Little Princess
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (this would be there had my sister not heisted it)
The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
The Classic Fairy Tales
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
The Book of Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland

A month ago, twenty glossy children's books on loan from the library stacked tall next to my own fairy tales. In the spirit of conducting research for my own children's book I wish to write, I checked out all of what I could find in the princess genre at one of the local libraries.

I can say with confidence that there are a few more decorating the corners of my childhood bedroom, now stripped nearly bare. Save for two beds, two nightstands, a dresser, and books.

Twenty years ago, and that room would have been filled with much more magic, like shimmering cobwebs of imagination: fairy wands, and wings; princess hats, and petticoats; whispers of dragon's breath and princes.

But in young girl's rooms across our land, fairytale magic has become as flickering a hope as Tinkerbell's last light. For as Disney's "Tangled" - a take on Rapunzel - plays merrily down the street, the animation studio makes plans to abandon the princess and fairy tales motifs.
But across the pond - and throughout the world - all eyes keep watch on a new fairytale princess story: that of Kate Middleton, and her Prince William.

And yet, already it is different.

True, Kate is not of royal blood, marrying a royal - a common theme in the Cinderella, or Bluebeard, tale types.

But she is something that even Lady Di was not: college-educated.

As recently recounted in Time Magazine's feature, "Marriage: What's It Good For," this will be the first royal coupling in England in which the betrothed are equal in education, a high-profile representative of a current trend in Western marriages:

"Modern brides and grooms tend to be older and more similar. In particular, Americans are increasingly marrying people who are on the same socioeconomic and educational level."
Certainly a far cry from princesses waiting around for Prince Charming to rescue them from dire situations. We are no longer locked in towers; "since more women than men have graduated from college for several decades, it's more likely than it used to be that a male college graduate will meet, fall in love with, wed and share the salary of a woman with a degree. Women's advances in education have roughly paralleled the growth of the knowledge economy, so the slice of the family bacon she brings home will be substantial."

What's even more of a change is that we're rescuing ourselves, in a sense:
"Well-off women don't need to stay in a marriage that doesn't make them happy; two-thirds of all divorces, it's estimated, are initiated by wives."
In the past 25 years or so, Disney's princesses have made the move from sweet, trilling pretty faces to strong, independent characters, but the bottom line hasn't changed: these princesses have all needed to be rescued. What has changed, however, is that the men in their lives all required a bit of rescuing as well, somewhat equaling out the dynamic.

Take Ariel, for example: defiant, independent, imaginative girl with dreams and a voice all her own defies her father not simply for the love of the human world, but the love of a man. She becomes mute in order to meet him, and relies on her love to save her from the sea witch, and to elevate her to the world of her dreams.

However, we must not forget that it was Ariel who saved Prince Eric from drowning.

Then there was Jasmine: a fiercely defiant princess, confined by the laws of the land which mandated an arranged marriage, longs to escape palace life. When she does, she meets a pauper boy, who pretends to be a prince, then must defeat the evil Jafar in order to save the princess and her father, so that she can have her happy ending: a love match. This may be a triumph, yes, as she is allowed to choose her husband, something her predecessors have not been able to do, but ultimately, she is still being saved by her man.

Curiously though, Aladdin - the peasant boy and "street rat" is equally saved from his economic situation by Jasmine.

And in the latest princess installment, there was Tiana, of "The Princess and the Frog," whose father always told her that with hard work, her dream of opening a restaurant would someday come true. She meets Naveen as the Frog Prince, a lazy prince whose fortunes are out of reach until he learns to sustain himself, but who is also in danger of being kept a frog forever by the voodoo man.

Tiana teaches Naveen love, patience, and pride in independence, and together, they save each other: they find happiness in love, which turns them human again, and Naveen's fortunes are restored, and Tiana is able to open the restaurant of her dreams (One could even argue that Tiana needed less rescuing than Naveen).

But, "although critically acclaimed, last year's "The Princess and the Frog" was the most poorly performing of Disney's recent fairy tales. In the age of mega-franchises when movies need to appeal to a broad audience to justify a sizable investment, Disney discovered too late the "Princess and the Frog" appealed to too narrow an audience: little girls. This prompted the studio to change the name of its Rapunzel movie to the gender-neutral "Tangled" and shift the lens of its marketing to the film's swashbuckling male costar, Flynn Rider."

But it's not just about attracting boys to the theatres. Apparently, girls' interests have shifted: 
" 'By the time they're 5 or 6, they're not interested in being princesses,' said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children's lives. 'They're interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.' (LA Times)."
It is true that the fairy tale was born to another world entirely. When the Grimm brothers collected their tales, "they were intent on using the tales to document basic truths about the customs and practices of the German people and on preserving their authentic ties to the oral tradition" (Zipes). And while the brothers employed their own Disney-like editing - "eliminat[ing] erotic and sexual elements that might be offensive to middle-class morality, add[ing] numerous Christian expressions and references, emphasiz[ing] specific role models for male and female protagonists according to the dominant patriarchal code of that time," their belief was that the collection "should be, namely, an Erzeihungsbuch, an educational manual" (Zipes).

These tales - which, while fantastical, where primarily teaching tools - appeared in cultures throughout the world, beyond the realm of the Grimms', but "there is a basic plot structure (what folklorist refer to as a 'tale type') that appears despite rich cultural variation. 'Beauty and the Beast,' for example...has the following episodic structure:

I. The monster as husband
II. Disenchantment of the monster
III. Loss of the husband
IV. Search for the husband
V. Recovery of the husband " (Tatar).

And while a tale such as this may, in these modern days, be "deemed of marginal cultural importance...they must be addressing issues that have a significant social function...In a study of mass-produced fantasies for women, Tania Modleski points out that genres such as the soap-opera, the Gothic novel, and the Harlequin romance 'speak to very real problems and tensions in women's lives. The narrative strategies which have evolved for smoothing over these tensions can tell us much about how women have managed not only to live in oppressive circumstances but to invest their situations with some degree of dignity.' " (Tatar).

These days, it is far less likely for a woman to enter a marriage not knowing her husband, and the relevance of the "Husband as Monster" at first meeting has certainly diminished.

But when you look at Snow White, the existence of jealousy and rivalry among women is still very real to this day. And while "Tangled," has shed it's fairy-tale tropes and trappings, this element still remains:
"The villain, Mother Gothel, isn't the enchantress of the Grimm tale. She's an incarnation of "Mommie Dearest."

In one of the film's musical numbers, "Mother Knows Best," Mother Gothel tells Rapunzel she's "getting kind of chubby" — a line lifted directly from a real-life mother-daughter exchange recounted during a story brainstorming session (LA Times)."
In a world where girls must grow up to hold their own in the world, attractiveness is put in our own hands, not in the family bank hold. There is a new pressure - to be educated, to be successful, to be, yes, "hot," and "cool," and the mean girl dynamic has not left, it has merely shifted. But the face of femininity has indeed changed.

Perhaps it's time, too, to give boys an equal focus in the market, but should we really bid fairy tales adieu, to be redeemed only as classics? Or should we continue to refocus them, so that they are reflective of our culture and time? In my opinion, Disney should continue to make their fairy tale films more like "Tangled," but as the axe has been brought down on projects like "The Snow Queen," and "Jack and the Beanstalk" (a very un-princessy fairy tale), we'll be getting more robots and super heroes for the time being.

In this house, fairy tale princess dresses hang next to commonplace coats, and Tiana, Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Aurora are household names. N is two, going on three in January and doesn't show signs of giving up on princesses anytime soon. She likes to twirl my curls, and brush my hair, and when she's finished, will pat my head and call me a "princess," a word she's associated with being pretty and feminine. Dresses and skirts make one a princess as well, as do painted nails. The girliest of girls - much like me when I was her age - will she grow up out of this as her peers do? If Disney has anything to say about it, yes. 

"Disney: After 'Tangled,' Disney Animation is Closing the Book on Fairy Tales" - Dawn C. Chmielewski and Claudia Eller, Los Angeles Times, November 21, 2010
"Marriage: What's It Good For?" - Belinda Luscombe, Time Magazine, November 29, 2010
The Classic Fairy Tales - a Norton Critical Edition, edited by Maria Tatar
The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes

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