Last month I wrote an article titled, “Disney Princesses Are Sh*tty Storytellers.”
In it, I merely suggested (ranted about) how the classic Disney princess fairytales—along with their spin-offs— lack imagination and substance.
One reader suggested that I watch the movie, Brave, while another recommended Shrek III, to get a different taste of the princess stereotype. (This is one of the main reasons why I love writing for elephant. It is a conversation.)
Brave wasn’t easy to get my hands on. Redbox no longer has it. You can only buy it on iTunes and Netflix doesn’t stream it. (Whatever happened to the days where movie rental places were on every third block? Where you spent inordinate amounts of time perusing the aisles before making the seemingly life-altering decision of what movie to go home with. Where you impulse-bought popcorn, soda, and day-glo colored gummy candies, along with a poster of James Dean, while waiting in line.)
So I did it the archaic way and put the unconventional princess movie on hold at the library.
A week later, Jesse and I found ourselves snuggled on the downstairs couch, me in my fleecy-rose robe and Jesse beneath a decades-old afghan. He made a special stop on the way home for popcorn. This was an event.
I admit that it did feel a little strange to be watching an animated film while Opal was sleeping soundly upstairs in her zebra jammies (listed by Disney as PG, the movie was way too scary for her).
I am someone who will cuss frequently and without prompting when Opal isn’t around just because I can, as my own little act of civil disobedience. I felt like I needed to be doing something acutely adult-like while watching this movie, to keep things in balance. So, I opted for a glass of red wine and some lip gloss. (The wine just made me sleepy.)
In short, the movie was great. Here’s the nutshell summary: Merida is a young princess who, at sixteen, is expected to be married off to one of the first-born sons of one of her father’s allied clans. She despises this idea and would much rather be on her horse, shooting her bow and arrow and out in nature. She wants only freedom and independence, with her wild, kinky, red mane blazing—a character in its own right compared to The Little Mermaid’s seamless locks. She has a round face, a realistic body (as shown in the stunning animation that only Pixar can offer) and exhibits an accurate level of teenage grumpiness.
The movie is really about the unfolding of a relationship between Merida and her mother, Elinor. Any desire to bag a prince comes from Elinor alone. (And the candidates for prince were markedly pathetic.) Merida and her mom clash the way mothers and teenage daughters do. This is a story about family, expectations, destiny (a word that is used often in the film) and the blossoming strength of the female characters.
Nobody is waiting to be rescued.
The part that was the most noteworthy to me was the scene where Merida defeats her suitors for her own hand in an archery contest. She causes each of their jaws to drop with her badass skill and confidence, and—heaven—splits her fancy, form-fitting dress with a grunt as she pulls back on the bow.
I can’t help but to wonder if life would have been any different had I grown up singing songs from Brave instead of The Little Mermaid:
I feel the rise of a heart that can’t be tamed
My spirit flies and the dark clouds melt away
There’s no tears to cry…
I don’t question why when my spirit flies
There is a place worth finding no need to wait…
There is no fear of falling
Now I feel my spirit fly.
The Little Mermaid:
There you see her
Sitting there across the way
She don’t got a lot to say
But there’s something about her
And you don’t know why
But you’re dying to try
You wanna kiss the girl
Yes, you want her
Look at her, you know you do
Possible she wants you too
There is one way to ask her
It don’t take a word
Not a single word
Go on and kiss the girl
No doubt, I didn’t psychoanalyze the lyrics and storyline from The Little Mermaid when I was ten.
I was much more interested in the singing frogs, the crustacean band and the animated water features. But I have a sense, these themes were sinking into my cells on a deeper level, sneaky. The way it only takes a few minutes for me to taste the lotion I have just rubbed on my feet and legs.
(The Mermaid) Ariel’s flirty, anxious smile. The meek shrugging of the shoulders. The batting of the eyelashes, the dopy, vacant eyes. Frankly, now after watching even just this small scene, I noticed my jaw had locked up and my shoulders were nearly brushing my earlobes. I saw so much of myself as a teenager/young adult in Ariel in this scene. Replace her primary-red hair and massive bow with my flat gothic black tresses. Replace Eric with any number of the men whose attention I was using to validate my own worthiness. But the push-pull between them, the empty exchange: bullseye.
Now, I doubt my turmoil and lack of self worth in relation to men during my late teens/early twenties stemmed directly from the Disney Princess movies I devoured. But, alas, that was my experience.
(Author’s note on the present tense: Having married a killer, brilliant, un-Eric-like man seven years ago, I now have very different notions of self-worth, beauty, need for validation from others and the like. Halleljuah for that. Perhaps this is why I’m mining the cultural media for a more adequate perception of female archetypes for my daughter.)
As the credits for Brave rolled, I came to the conclusion that an appropriate amendment to my previous article would be: “Classic Disney Princesses are Sh*tty Storytellers.” But as for the one who was spawned from an affair between Disney and Pixar, I love her, and hope there will be more.
And as a side note, the princesses that come from Dreamworks (as in Shrek) can come into my home by way of any media they choose:
So there it is.
Out with the old (expired, dainty princesses) and in with the new (empowered, self-assured, gritty, imperfect role models for our future generations).
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Ed: Catherine Monkman