Part two of the post that went up on Tuesday. Part one can be found here.
Lilo & Stitch, and the modern Disney
Lilo & Stitch is without a doubt the most feminist friendly of the Disney stable.
Set in modern-day Hawaii, the plot of Lilo & Stitch concerns a very modern matter: a family struggling in a depressed economy and interacting with a social worker. It’s an adventure in a domestic sphere that suggest to viewers that they don’t have to be princesses to have adventures. As it goes, Lilo doesn’t need adventure, she just needs socialisation, and it is Stitch that provides this. There is a romantic sub-plot, it’s inevitable, but it’s subtle enough to be almost hidden.
The women’s bodies are, *gasp* normal. Lilo, the six-year-old child protagonist both looks and sounds like a little girl. She is prepubescent and a little pudgy. It’s refreshing indeed. Nani has a pelvis and thighs and is shaped in a way you could reasonably expect a person of her approximate age to be. As if to underline the marvelous diversity of attractive body types, her name translates into English as ‘beautiful’.
There’s a nice bit of fat positivity in the movie too. Lilo has been taking photographs of tourists on the beach. She has pinned them up on her wall and wants to show Nani. “My camera’s full again,” she comments, “aren’t they beautiful!”
Nani’s reaction is nonplussed, which I’ll grant you isn’t ideal, but Nani is not the one we are supposed to identify with here, it is Lilo. And Lilo sees these big bodies and sees beauty. And that’s just lovely.
There’s a message of accepting difference that comes with Stitch; it’s fairly standard fayre for a family film, but it’s underlined by the fact that the visual and covert messages of the movie don’t contracdict the overt message. It seems such a small thing, to have these aspects agree, but you’d be surprised how often producers of any media get it wrong.
Spurred on by this discovery, I track down a copy of The Princess and the Frog, a 2009 offering that features Disney’s first African-American heroine. One entirely unnecessary gay joke aside, I’m charmed with The Princess and the Frog even before the title card appears.
The Princess and the Frog
Tiana, the hero of the piece, is chasing her dream. She’s out there doing what she wants to do, working hard and generally being an excellent role model for young viewers. There’s a lot of little touches that make The Princess and the Frog significantly more gender balanced: Tiana learns to cook from her Father, even though her Mother is around; the supporting female cast is fawning and uber-girly (and ridiculed for it), but the main players are badass; where a number of Disney’s heroines are tempted to change their fate with magic (Ariel, Cinderella), this time it is the Prince who toys with the supernatural, and the wicked witch is male (this alone is enough to make me grin from ear to ear).
Tiana is autonomous and almost masochistcally ambitious; her dream to open a restaurant is all she lives for and there’s no way she’s not going to get what she wants. The love interest, Prince Naveen, doesn’t appear to return to his home country of Moldovia (possibly because it’s fictional), and when Tiana has her dream come true, he’s along for the ride. In a nod to Disney’s usual narrative tropes, the restaurant is named ‘Tiana’s Palace’.
There is a flouncy, white, blonde, prince-obsessed character in The Princess and the Frog, but we’re actively encouraged to laugh at her. She falls over, she has hysterics: she’s definitely not who we’re meant to identify with. The Princess and the Frog takes everything we’ve come to expect from a Disney animation, and turns it on its head. It’s a relatively sucessful endevour, but it’s not all good. Disney shoehorns in a little moralising about sexual availability – Tiana and the frog/prince bargain to exchange sexual activity (a kiss) for monetary gain (help in raising capital), an exchange that Tiana agrees to, though she has to psych herself up to fulfil her part of the bargain and, once done, she doesn’t get what she wants. Sexual availability, Disney wants you to know, is bad. BAD. It will be unpleasant and unfulfilling, so keep your legs crossed.
Tiana gets her Happily Ever After, and that includes marriage. Sure, her husband is her equal at home and in business, but why does she have to marry him at all?
Disney’s latest cinematic release, Tangled, is based on the Grimm’s story of Rapunzel, itself a retelling of a story first published in 1698 by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force called Persinette. Given the news that Disney will no longer be making fairy tale movies (because they don’t appeal to boys, and obviously they’re more important) Tangled is an interesting case to look at. Some are calling the film a feminist flick, but given that studio execs have changed the name of the tale from Rapunzel to Tangled, and make a much bigger deal of the male lead than he rightly deserved, I can’t help but think that it’s likely not. I haven’t seen it yet – give me a coupla paragraphs – but frankly I’m not filled with hope.
The original story of Rapunzel/Persinette sees our orphaned heroine shut up in her tower at the age of twelve by a wicked enchantress, Dame Gothel. The enchantress visits Rapunzel by day, climbing up her long hair. By night, and unbeknownst to Gothel, Rapunzel is visited by a Prince who eventually asks her to marry him, and, inevitably, knocks her up. Rapunzel innocently – for no one has told her about the birds and the bees – remarks to Gothel that her frock feels tight around the waist. Gothel is incensed and Rapunzel, her hair cut off, is turned out to fend for herself. The prince, bereft, jumps from the tower and is blinded by the thorns beneath. The pair is eventually reunited, Rapunzel’s tears restoring her lover’s sight, and they get their happily ever after. Not what you’d call a typical Disney narrative. So, what’s it like? Give me 100 minutes, and I’ll tell you.
Okay, first some positives, in bullet point form:
- Male characters are allowed to have typically feminine desires: being a florist, baking cupcakes, falling in love – there’s even a song about it.
- Likewise, Rapunzel has a lot of talents and interests. She likes to paint and sew, but she also likes astronomy.
- Rapunzel’s hair is not a crutch. It’s a weapon, and not in a sex-bomb, look-at-the-shiny kind of way, but in a I-will-use -my-hair-to-tie-you-to-a-chair kind of way.
- Rapunzel rescues the hero, Flynn Rider, more than once.
- When it comes to The Kiss, she dips him to the ground in order to engage in snoggery.
- Rider and Rapunzel do marry. Eventually. After many years of living in sin while Rapunzel gets on with ruling the kingdom.
- I’m not sure what to make of the frying pan as weapon metaphor.
But it’s not all fist-pumping womyn power and the old problem of covert messages overshadowing the overt ones is definitely present here. The expository blather at the start of the film echoes fairly closely the Grimm version, but it’s narrated by Flynn Rider. Why? It’s not his story. Once focus moves over to the real protagonist, things don’t get much better. Rapunzel, who we are told is 18, has an appearance so infantilised that she could pass for a five-year old. A five-year old with a tiny tiny waist and a rack you could balance plates on. When we first meet her she’s singing about cleaning and baking and waiting for her life to start. Which it hasn’t, because of Dame Gothel.
Dame Gothel, renamed Mother Gothel here, is duplicitous and manipulative. This is to be expected, she is, after all, the villian of the piece, but she’s presented as a reflection of all mothers – they are someone from whom we must escape in order to be our true selves. This is compounded by the fact that Rapunzel’s birth parents never speak; they’re not given an opportunity to present a different kind of parenthood. Gothel is, as one feminist reviewer put it
[A] passive-aggressive nightmare — she is the tyrannical single mother that is so overbearing Rapunzel must beg for the opportunity to leave the tower.
Natalie Wilson, Pop Goes Feminism
But she’s more than that. Gothel is an abuser. She’s textbook. She insults Rapunzel, manipulates her, keeps her as a slave to her own whim and presents it all under a veil of caring. It’s super, super creepy.
But back to Rapunzel. Rapunzel dreams of getting out of her tower. She probably could get out, if she tried hard enough – she’s certainly presented as being capable of it – but she doesn’t until the hero turns up. Clearly she needs a Man to guide her.
My biggest problem with Tangled, though, is the ending. We know that all Rapunzel has to do to rid herself of Gothel is cut her hair, but when it comes down to it, it’s Rider that chops her locks. Without, I should point out, asking her first. Who knows best? Men know best! They will save you from yourself! In this moment, all the empowerment is sucked out of the movie.
There are a number of Disney adaptations, and original features, that I haven’t looked at here. The most obvious to my mind are The Aristocats*, Robin Hood and The Black Cauldron, none of which I have been able to track down copies of with the required speed. There are probably more. Whether any of these omissions would dramatically alter my perception of Disney remains to be seen, but given their release dates – 1970, 1973 and 1985 respectively – I cautiously doubt it.
Disney has got better over time. Lilo and Stich represents the most overtly feminist of their output, but the trend started with The Rescuers. It hasn’t been direct journey; there’s been a diversion or two en route, but they’re getting there, slowly. If Disney’s latest movies, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled are not perfect pictures of womanhood, they are still significantly better than the films of the first half of the twentieth century.
Change is what we aim for, and Disney’s slow diversification is proof indelible that it is occurring. Disney, undoubtedly, hates your daughters. But not as much as it used to, and that, at least, is something.
*Not to be confused with The Aristocrats, which is depraved, filthy and absolutely not for children.