Thursday, January 31, 2013

Princess Marketing Is Insane, But Princess Movies Rock (Part 2)

This is part two. Part one is here.

Princess as Product

The 20th Century ended with the Disney animation legacy dimmed. The animated film was still a global entertainment medium, but Walt would not have recognized the hits rendered photo-realistically by the digital artists of Pixar and DreamWorks. Mickey Mouse's tradition, like a collection of Grimm fairy tales, was musty and out of date.

And Disney princesses? Who are they? Oh, you mean from those old-fashioned fairy tale movies?

It's so easy to forget that, not long ago, Disney Princesses weren't a thing. As Peggy Orenstein recounts,  we owe this entire debate to a Scotsman named Andy Mooney who had an aha moment in line at Disney On Ice.

Mooney was a marketer brought in from Nike to head Disney's Consumer Products division. Taking in an ice-skating show, Orenstein quotes him saying, "I was surrounded by little girls dressed head to toe as princesses. They were generic princess products they’d appended to a Halloween costume. And the light bulb went off."

Sell kids what they were buying for cheap, put the Disney imprimatur on it, and mark up the price. It reminds me of bottled water. Look! The water in these bottles has a picture of a waterfall on it! And it's $2.50! It must be better than what you get IN YOUR SINK! And so: buy the tiara with a tiny picture of Aurora on it, at triple the price of the little cardboard crown you were perfectly happy playing with.

It has been a blockbuster strategy, to put it mildly. Within a decade, under Mooney's leadership, Cinderella and company became one of the biggest brands in the world in and of themselves. Now that Fantasyland has been torn down and rebuilt as the Princess Experience, the brand has been apotheosized.

We are right to be concerned, and to lament marketing cosmetics and luxury lifestyles to kids. We should object to anyone whose business model depends on generating peer pressure among children to manipulate their parents into buying more consumer products that end up in landfills. There are so, so many things to object to.

But the most recent Disney princess movies are not among them.

Third-Wave Princesses: Tiana

While some Disney executives were enriching the bottom line by putting screenshots of the happy endings of 50-year-old movies on plastic wands, that revenue was subsidizing another group of executives who were digging through Grimm again to give "2D animation" another shot.

Pixar's visionary John Lasseter, promoted to head the whole Disney studio, asked the directors of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin to return. Their project was The Princess and the Frog.

If you only read advance media coverage, you'd think the adaptation, the setting and the casting were racially clumsy overreaches. If you only read reviews, you'd think the finished product was sweet and forgettable. If you actually see the movie, you'll experience a risky, earnest  implantation of the princess myth into one of America's healing wounds: the African-American community in the segregated South.


There is a lot to say about this movie. But lumping it in with Snow White and dismissing it as a regressive influence on girls requires willfully ignoring what's on the screen.

Tiana's entire motivation and character arc are based on her outsized work ethic. She is so determined to be financially independent that her romantic foil spends the movie trying to loosen her up. If anything, the emphasis on female strength, especially when repeatedly contrasted with the layabout frog prince, can be strident. She's so mature, so resilient, such a good role model that there's not really anywhere for her to go. She must--what? Learn how to relax?

But if the hero journey of The Princess and the Frog is less than transcendent, the cultural journey is jaw-dropping. The New Orleans setting, especially the bayou voodoo caricatures, must raise eyebrows for people who study exoticism and representations of non-mainstream subcultures. I am not qualified to weigh in on those sensitivities. To these white eyes, the experience of a fairy tale led by a black woman and her loving family in a working-class neighborhood--endorsed by Disney, the West's chief purveyor of wholesome normalcy--felt very new.

This was the first post-Obama Disney princess.


The studio's next--its 50th animated feature, as it happens--was to be Rapunzel. But in a notorious eleventh-hour renaming, it became Tangled. Once again, a discussion of the studio's decision-making drowned out appraisal of the actual film.

Allow me to appraise it for you: it's brilliant.

Like the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s--the last period in Hollywood history where active women could be the center of universal stories--Tangled is about a creative, charismatic woman seeking what she wants. As in the original story, Rapunzel begins as a damsel in a tower.

But she does not long for a prince to rescue her. She longs to satisfy her curiosity about the world (as Ariel and Belle do).

And she does not turn mute, or become a prisoner, so that she can earn the hand of a prince. She goes on an adventure in a strange new world--one worthy of Luke Skywalker. There's a cantina full of thugs, a delirious chase, twists and betrayals, daring rescues, and shocking revelations.

Plus, she's also got the natural leadership of Dorothy, using an arsenal of charm and compassion to build alliances that make everyone's life better.

Like Dorothy (and unlike Tiana in The Princess and the Frog), Rapunzel has growth to do. The ingenious plot allows her to experience both disillusionment and ecstasy, sometimes in the same montage. And in a major step forward for any major animated film--or for that matter any American film--the protagonist grows alongside the romantic interest, as opposed to just growing toward him. The prince, for the first time, is a three-dimensional person as well, whose flaws are not mocked but rather shown to be lacking, and allowed to heal, with Rapunzel's help.

The only constituency who ends up looking pretty bad is stepmothers.


Pixar, now part of Disney but working as a separate studio, finally created a film with a female protagonist in 2012. It too went through a title change (from The Bear and the Bow, which I think would have been awesome), as well as the dismissal of its female director and creator. It too was so surprising and fresh and different that critics seem not to have actually watched the movie they were writing about.

Brave is about a young person born to a ruling clan, and the choices she makes out of youthful rebellion that have consequences for the society at large. It moves from family tensions to (very light) geopolitics, from Miyazaki-style magic to Disney-style cartooning, from well-worn symbolism to striking originality (I'm talking to you, terrifying scene where mom's bear eyes go subtly from human to animal).

And out of all this richness of fable and timelessness of plot and roundedness of relationships, the film somehow inherited the epithet of "princess movie."

The snarky dismissal of such a rich, emotional story, especially in contrast to the oohs and aahs heard over virtually every Pixar film before it--starts to suggest a knee-jerk contempt for the feminine. (Even though Brave comes down pretty clearly against frou-frou femininity.)

Princess Culture Is Not About The Princess Movies

And once again, we read of the angst of progressive parents, wringing their hands over the "princess culture" their daughters are stewing in.

To the extent that princess products are part of the stew of manipulative marketing that all our children soak in, I agree. Princess birthday parties are just dress-up parties that have been monetized, and it's annoying when we see we're being ripped off.

But remember: parents soak in that stew too. It's called consumerism, and capitalism. We are all constantly being sold stuff that's bad for us, and we often buy it because it's been designed to stimulate our pleasure centers. We buy terrible magazines and watch terrible shows and eat terrible food substances. These are no less insidious to our development than princess birthday parties are to our daughters'.

But Disney princess movies? Out of all the stories and messages our children take in?

They're some of the best out there. And they've gotten better and better.