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Disney’s Maleficent

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Maleficent is a movie of failed potential. Despite its undeniably feminist bent and some interesting ideas, the overall result is decidedly “meh.” Not a terrible movie, and certainly worthy of discussion, but not all that it should have been.

And the problem, in part, is the very source material that inspired it. Because Maleficent is a highly iconic villain, and the movie never seemed to quite know how to interpret her.

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Why Anastasia Rocks

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Last year, I did a series on the classic Disney princess movies, analyzing them to see whether they are as traditional and anti-feminist as some people believe. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to revive the series with a look at movies from the Disney Renaissance. But first, I want to look at a non-Disney movie from that era that should be counted in the canon, for theme and animation and music and general awesomeness, if not for the studio that produced it.

Because Anastasia is a fantastic movie. Historical accuracy is not its forte, but it’s also not meant to be. It has zombie Rasputin singing about his hatred of the Romanovs from limbo with a backing choir of luminescent bugs. Clearly, some creative license is going on here. At its heart, Anastasia is an animated fairy tale, adding an optimistic, happily-ever-after, zombie-filled spin on one of the most popular romanticized myths of the 20th century: that the Princess Anastasia somehow survived the revolution and would one day reemerge and find happiness after an otherwise traumatic period of history.

And although it’s not a faithful presentation of Anastasia’s tale, I’d argue that it is a wonderful and feminist movie (as well as being just so darn fun and adorable).

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Why Frozen Isn’t “False Feminism”

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Yesterday, I came across this article that was traveling around Tumbr: The Problem with False Feminism (or why “Frozen” left me cold). It’s a very long but interesting read, and one I disagree with on a fundamental level.

Ultimately, the article argues that, instead of actually having a feminist message, Frozen misrepresents previous Disney princess movies so that its false feminism appears like progress in comparison.

I’ve written before about the problem with media claiming that Frozen is the first “feminist” Disney princess movie, the first one without a marriage at the end, the first one where the characters aren’t all about romance, etc etc. The Disney Renaissance movies are full of great characters and great stories, and even the movies from the 1950s are not as problematic as critics might believe. But I strongly disagree that Frozen is actually a step back from these films, or that it manipulates misconceptions of Disney’s past to appear more feminist in comparison. In fact, I’d argue that the criticisms of Frozen are the “false feminist” approach, applying a list of generic requirements and assumptions to the film without taking its actual nature into account. Frozen is not a feminist movie because its female characters are confident and capable and accomplished from the beginning. It’s a feminist movie because they’re not, and because they learn to be so by the movie’s end.

As the article is structured around a list of imagined arguments why Frozen is feminist, followed by takedowns explaining why it’s not, I’ll structure this in the same way. I’ll present the article’s arguments of why Frozen isn’t feminist, and then argue why that’s wrong.

Frozen is not the first Disney movie to end without a wedding or pass the Bechdel test

This is very true. And a good thing, too! Not a point against Frozen, but an important detail to remember when talking about it in comparison to other Disney films.

Anna and Elsa don’t have other supporting female characters around them

While Pocahontas has her best friend Nakoma, Aurora has her fairies and Cinderella’s whole movie is filled with female characters, Anna and Elsa basically only have each other. They never speak to any other female characters for the entire movie. Other articles have similarly talked about the original Snow Queen fairy tale, and complained that Disney threw away its great cast of supporting female characters in favor of male ones. And it is disappointing that Anna and Elsa are the only non-troll female characters we see. But, at the risk of repeating tired anti-feminist arguments, the movie doesn’t have room for other significant female characters.

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An Open Door: Love At First Sight in Disney’s Frozen

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Last Wednesday, I wrote about Disney’s Frozen and how problematic it is to hold it up as a “feminist” Disney princess movie in contrast to all that has come before, and I stand by that post 100%.

But Frozen is Disney’s 53rd animated movie since 1937, and it’s natural that, over those almost 80 years, these movies would change in sentiment and (hopefully) become more in line with modern ideals. So while the older movies from the 30s, 50s and even 80s and early 90s have played many fairy tale tropes straight, it’s definitely time to explore those (often sexist) tropes in a more critical manner. Most recent Disney movies have abandoned the “love at first sight” trope altogether by building the romantic relationship throughout the movie, and even having it develop from something more antagonistic or perfunctory (as in Tangled). But Frozen is unique, as far as I know, in that it directly tackles the “some day my prince will come,” love at first sight trope, not simply changing it but exploring its implications and subverting them.

Because, while it’s easy to dismiss the “one glance and it’s true love forever” narrative of stories like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderellathese tropes have realistic elements that create the potential for much darker tales. It’s not entirely surprising that an abused girl who sees the prince as a ticket to a better life would fall for him immediately, or that a girl who’s never met a single soul outside of her three fairy guardians would be beyond excited to finally meet someone new. So while Anna’s “love at first sight” storyline with Hans is a commentary on past romantic Disney plotlines, it’s not a mockery of them, or in any way implying that Anna is an idiot. Rather, it’s a more complicated, nuanced and believable version of these past romances — and one where, for once, the princess gets burned.

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The Unforgivable Pinkness of Disney Princesses

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It happens every time a new Disney princess movie emerges. An avalanche of articles, reviews and critiques, saying that finally we have a princess worth going to see. Finally we have a Disney character that can be a good role model for girls, because this princess isn’t entirely focussed on romance, this princess has a story and ambitions outside of her prince, this princess actually has character and strength of her own. Unlike all the princesses who came before her, she’s a Strong Female Character and worthy of our time.

What utter nonsense.

Far from being a matter of opinion, these critiques don’t even make factual sense. Mulan and Pocahontas don’t get married, for one thing. For another, every princess since the Disney revival in the late 1980s has had a plot centered on her, and her dreams and ambitions. Ariel has been criticized for giving up her whole life for Prince Eric, but she sings Part of Your World and makes clear that she wants nothing more than to be in the human world before she ever sets eyes on him. He’s just the cherry on top, the final push driving her to take action. Belle and Mulan both put themselves in differing dangerous situations to save their fathers. Jasmine isn’t the protagonist of Aladdin, but her entire story is about how she doesn’t want to be forced into marriage against her will, how she’s struggling to choose her life for herself. Snow White is a rather simpering product of her age, but even if we step back to the 1950s, Cinderella has defiance and determination to her, and while Sleeping Beauty doesn’t do much in her movie, the true protagonists are three older female fairies, who brim with personality, bravery and strength, and whose plots are not even close to being about romance.

Yet whenever a new Disney princess movie emerges and turns out to be an entertaining, enjoyable story with a dynamic and engaging female protagonist, critics are quick to praise her as not like the rest. I don’t really understand how critics can do this for Merida in 2012 and then again for Elsa in 2013 without noticing the contradiction (perhaps Brave being a Pixar movie helped with the cognitive dissonance), yet it’s a definite trend.

And the reason, I think, lies in the “pinkification” of the Disney Princesses as a merchandising line.

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Disney’s Frozen

 

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Frozen has finally come out in UK theaters, which means that I’ve finally been able to see it. I’m a bit of a Disney fangirl, and so I was incredibly excited to see this one, despite the pre-release criticism of some of the animators choices.

Luckily, it didn’t disappoint. It’s wonderful.

This review contains spoilers.

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Disney, Frozen and the (un)Importance of Prettiness

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Disney’s Frozen is turning into a bit of a mess, and it isn’t even released for another month.

First, the movie has been criticized for taking a female-character-dominated fairy tale and removing almost all of those female characters, leaving a female heroine and a villain surrounded by male love interests, helpers and talking snowmen. The one male character who has been removed from the story is the friend that the heroine is supposed to rescue from the Snow Queen, the one that drives the whole plot — an interesting subversion of the “damsel in distress” trope and an opportunity for a Disney love interest wrapped into one, but one that Disney chose not to include.

Then the movie has been criticized for white-washing, partly because it doesn’t include any Inuit or otherwise non-white Scandanavian characters, partly because why should fantasy need everyone to be white anyway, and partly because it sparked a debate about why Disney almost always chooses white-people-centered fairytales and why a “one of each” approach to princess racial diversity is pretty problematic.

And in less serious but still annoying criticism, the film has been accused of looking too similar to Tangled, especially the face of its heroine.

Unfortunately, these threads of criticism exploded in a big way last week, when the head of animation on the movie weighed in on the animation of female characters:

“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.”

Historically speaking, this is nonsense. Disney themselves have proved that, by creating movie after movie of distinct female faces.

Let’s look at some angry Disney princesses, shall we?

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They look fairly distinct to me. Why should female characters’ emotions be more difficult to animate than male ones, if you make the effort to make them distinct? If it’s because there’s only a narrow range of what can be considered “pretty,” then make non-pretty female characters. It’s not a prerequisite. In Tangled, the previous Disney effort, all of the lead characters are attractive… but the male secondary characters are a weird and wonderful bunch, as this one video shows:

Even if you want your leads to be attractive, and even if “attractive” for female characters falls into a very narrow spectrum, this shouldn’t stop female secondary characters, helpers, advisors and sidekicks from having a very distinctive look, just as male ones almost always do.

And if you’re worried about your female characters looking too similar, why not add in some of that dreaded racial diversity? Problem solved.

But the head animator specifically talks about lead characters, and how their expressions can be similar. It’s difficult to draw an angry person prettily in multiple ways. Which makes sense, because anger isn’t usually pretty. Neither is sadness. Or fear. Even happiness can distort your face. So why not just make your pretty female characters like normal characters, and allow their faces to be distorted occasionally? Again, it’s something that Disney has achieved before:

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The interview did help to explain why there are so few female characters in Disney’s adaptation of the Snow Queen, and why the ones we’ve got look so familiar, but not, I think, in the way the animator intended. His words say “technical reasons inherent in animation.” Their implication is “because of sexism in the media.” Because all female characters must be pretty, and because prettiness always looks the same.

love Disney movies, I want Frozen to succeed, and none of this has any bearing on whether it’s going to be a good movie with wonderful female characters when it is finally released. I’ll still go and see it, and hopefully I’ll love it. But I think this pre-release criticism is incredibly important. In the end, the quality of the final product doesn’t really matter in these debates. The quality of the movie itself relies on writing, on animation skill, on the musical score and the ins and outs of the plot and how compelling these characters are. These criticisms address something more fundamental, and far less subjective. The diversity of the cast. The number of female faces that appear on-screen. The animators’ attitudes to creating those faces. And in this realm, Frozen has not only been found wanting, but represents a step back from movies created twenty years ago.

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Sleeping Beauty

This article is part of a series looking at Disney princess movies, from the first to the latest, to see whether they are as “anti-feminist” as some might claim.

  • Bechdel pass: yes
  • Number of female characters: 6
  • Goals: To marry her true love; to protect the princess; to kill the princess
  • Lesson: Don’t leave the evil witch out of your birthday party

As I’m think many many people have discussed before, Sleeping Beauty isn’t really about Sleeping Beauty. It’s difficult to critique the way a Disney Princess is presented when she only has about 10 minutes of screen time and doesn’t say a word for the entire second half. There’s a reason that there’s no Sleeping Beauty 2 — Aurora doesn’t have enough of a character to support it.

Opinions will differ on whether or not this is a bad thing. While there isn’t time for her to show depth and character development, there isn’t really time for her to be “anti-feminist” either. She’s mostly an excuse for the rest of the plot to happen… and that plot, in a first (and possibly last?) for Disney, is driven by three older female characters.

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Peter Pan

This article is part of a series looking at Disney princess movies, from the first to the latest, to see whether they are as “anti-feminist” as some might claim.

Bechdel Pass: Yes
Number of female characters: 4, plus assorted mermaids and a dog.
Female characters’ goals: not to grow up.
Lesson: Mothers are important.

OK, I know that Peter Pan isn’t a Disney princess movie. But I wanted to give this a try, since Tinkerbell is Disney’s other big commercial character aimed at young girls.

Which is odd, since Tinkerbell is probably the most sexualised Disney character I’ve ever seen.

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Cinderella

This article is part of a series looking at Disney princess movies, from the first to the latest, to see whether they are as “anti-feminist” as some might claim.

  • Bechdel pass: Yes
  • Number of female characters: 5, plus mice.
  • Female characters’ goals: to be happy; to marry the prince; to marry her daughters to the prince.
  • Lesson: Believe in your dreams, and they will come true.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed watching Cinderella. It is a traditional fairy tale, made in the early 1950s, and so it is hardly a tale of female rebellion and independence. But not every worthwhile female character has to be Mulan, and despite her traditionalism, Cinderella has many strengths of her own.

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