It’s Not Right for a Woman To Read, or, A Makeover for Belle

If you’ve been following this blog for the last six months or so, you may have noticed that I underwent somewhat of a shift in my attitudes. I started out my research into fairy tales and Disney movies with a decided prejudice against the latter, pretty much convinced that the Disney adaptations of the fairy tales I’m studying (especially the old ones) are a dumbing down, a flattening and trivialization of the stories. But then, when I looked at the Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty movies side-by-side with the Perrault and Grimms versions, and did all those readings about popular culture, about folklore, about folk culture, I started to change my mind. Disney got exonerated; I came to the conclusion that the Disney movies are just as valid a variant of the fairy tales as those of seventeenth-century French Baroque courtiers or nineteenth-century German Romantic philologists, and I rejected the naysayers and snobs who still continue to scorn Disney (CoughZipesCough).

Okay, so far so good. I’m going to keep writing on that track with the second half of my paper; I have yet to see anything about Beauty and the Beast and, to a limited extent, The Princess and the Frog, which would contradict this thesis. So, I think to myself, Disney is fine and dandy after all, and I need to just shelf my anti-Disney snobbery. But then – oh my goodness. I was researching Disney marketing, and I ran across – this: The Disney Princesses. Yes, I had heard about the Disney Princess line before, might even have briefly clicked on that website before. I also just read Peggy Orenstein’s very pithy Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which is all about little girls and the Princess culture. So I was aware of the phenomenon. But I had never really looked at it before, hadn’t paid attention.

Now, this may sound melodramatic, and it most likely is, but taking a close look at that website, I actually felt faintly nauseated. No, I don’t think it was the piece of toast I just ate. It was the sight of the utter pap they’re serving up to little girls on that web page. They’ve taken the heroines of the Disney movies, put them through a food mill, added artificial colouring, flavouring, and lots of high-fructose corn syrup, and extruded them back out into cookie-cutter-indentical pieces of sticky sweet blandness. Here I had just come to the conclusion that Disney did create some strong female role models little girls could aspire to, had just spent days musing over what a great heroine Belle is, and then this.

I mean, here, take a look at their “Belle” page. It starts right with her looks. In fact, most of the girls on the Princess page are indistinguishable from each other – change the colour of their skin, eyes, hair and gown, and you can’t tell one from the other. Disney has taken their own characters, and changed them from the way they were in their movies to a completely uniform look. The only one who mercifully escaped that process was Brave‘s Merida, and that only because an online petition against changing her looks garnered over 200,000 signatures (I think one of them may have been mine) and Disney bowed to the pressure. Too bad they couldn’t have done the same for Belle, but I guess she’s old news, so nobody cares that much.

Well, now Belle sports a Farah Fawcett hairdo; her hair has also grown about a foot since she hooked up with the Beast, and her dress is identical to most of the other girls’, except yellow. But that’s not the worst of it. What really, really gets my goat is the “activities” that are associated with her. If you remember the movie, what’s the first thing you learn about Belle? That she likes books. How does the Beast win her heart? By giving her a library. And what can you do on the website? You can play a game where she teaches the Beast to dance. You can play “Belle Dress Up”. Or you can read an article on “Fashion Tips From Belle”. The last one is the one that really has me fuming. Because, you see, the whole point of the character of Belle in the movie is that she doesn’t give a rip about looks; she wants books and adventure. You see the Beast having a bath and getting dressed, but unlike Cinderella, where the first view the reader gets of her is preening in her garret, and the movie spends quite a lot of time watching her get dressed and fussing over clothing, the only time Belle is seen even thinking about clothes is when her lady’s maid, the big enchanted wardrobe, tries to get her to put on a nice dress to go dine with the Beast – and Belle flat-out refuses. Gaston, the movie’s bad guy, is the one who’s concerned with looks, Belle is drawn as purposely opposite. Looks, and clothing, do not matter to her. Yes, of course she does eventually don the pretty dresses from the wardrobe, but you never see her doing so; her looks are unconscious. Belle does not think about clothes. But now that she’s a ‘Disney Princess’, apparently her brains have leaked out her ears and she’s become a fashionista. What a role model for little girls to aspire to. “Fashion Tips From Belle”, my foot! How about “Reader’s Advisory From Belle”? How about “Help Belle Choose Her Favourite Books” by way of a game, or “Help Belle to Organize Her Library”?

Oh, at least you can read about Belle’s story on her page; some of the other princesses only have an audio option. I’m sure that’s a big concession to Belle’s ruling passion. And we wouldn’t want to think that Disney makes no effort to support learning in little girls. After all, they have to be able to read, or how else will they be able to understand the product descriptions on the merchandise page? There’s gold-coloured slippers, a tiara, a light-up wand (wand? Uh, it was the enchantress cast the spell… But, whatever.), a iPhone 5 case… What, you’re looking for a book? Or even a bookmark? Or a nice, warm cloak to wear when you play outside with your horse or have a snowball fight with your friend? I’m sorry, Disney Princesses don’t need those. They’re too busy hanging out in their walk-in closets, trying on dresses. Which they can freely exchange with each other – all Disney Princesses are the same size and shape.

Looking at that Disney Princess website, you might almost think they’re sharing Gaston’s opinion: “It’s not right for a woman to read! Soon she gets ideas, and thinking…” I’m sure he’d fully approve of what Belle gets to do on her page. People’s looks are something he understands.

 

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The Things You Can Find

I’m digging into the Disney Beauty and the Beast right now. And looking it up online, I found an interesting bit of trivia: the screenplay writer was Linda Woolverton, which made her the first woman to write a Disney animated feature (which definitely shows in the movie, especially contrasted with previous Disney movies). Now, the interesting thing? She also wrote the screenplay for Maleficent.

I found an old article from the Los Angeles Times from January 1992, just after the release of Beauty and the Beast. (I remember standing around waiting to be seated in a restaurant right about that time, and seeing the poster for the movie. The person I was with jokingly suggested we go see it, which I had no interest in as I had never heard the story and wasn’t really into cinema movies – I could count on one hand the number of films I’d seen in the theatre at that point. Later I watched the B&B movie on VHS, and absolutely fell in love with it; and later still I discovered that going to the movies is one of my most favourite things to do, ever. Ancient history… and entirely beside the point.) Anyway, that article: it’s called “Ms. Beauty and the Beast: Writer of Disney Hit Explains Her ‘Woman of the ’90s'”. What had me crowing out loud in triumph was this line: “Woolverton, fearful of being influenced by the imagery of the Jean Cocteau film version, decided not to watch it.” See, I just finished copying a line from Zipes where he calls Disney’s accrediting the de Beaumont version of the story as hypotext for the movie “outrageous”, as, he claims, most of the plot and characters of the Disney film are ripped off lock, stock and barrel from Cocteau. Haha. Of course, the fact that the scriptwriter purposely hadn’t watched Cocteau doesn’t mean that others who were involved in the making of the film hadn’t done so – the article quotes Woolverton as saying “‘Beauty and the Beast’ was a group effort, one in which 500 people wore pencils down to their nubs” – so, sure, the influence of Cocteau is in there. But as for the plot and characters being “copied” from Cocteau, nope.

Anyway, it’s all very interesting about Linda Woolverton. Now I’m going to look up who the screenplay writers for the other newer Disney movies were; it’ll be interesting to do a quick comparison of the ones written by men with those written by women (I certainly hope that Woolverton wasn’t also the last female Disney screenplay writer). I know the old Disney movies were solidly staffed by men; I remember watching an old “making of” featurette for Snow White from 1938 which proudly showed all the animators and technical people and storytellers and so on, and then at the end of the process the ‘girls’ in the colouring department – all women had to do with the making of those quintessential princess movies was to neatly colour inside the lines on the celluloid. It absolutely stuck in my craw. And what was most eye-opening about it was the tone of the featurette’s narrator – he seemed to think that was perfectly normal, the natural order of things. No wonder the movies are what they are, with their paternalistic attitudes and featherwitted princesses who can only pine for a man – that’s the world they were created in, and the people they were created by. We’ve come a long ways today – hurrah for Linda Woolverton!

Magnum Opus Part I

And there it is, I just hit “send” on my first paper. Magnum Opus Part I has been submitted. It’s called “Once Upon a Movie Screen: ‘Cinderella’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, and Their Disney Film Adaptations”. It’s the first part of a longer paper; once I’ve written and been marked on both parts, they’ll be combined into one big piece which is going to be my thesis.

Onwards to Beasts and Frogs…

Dreams and Wishes

“A dream is a wish your heart makes / when you’re fast asleep…” the Disney Cinderella assures her mouse friends. Uh, okay. So by that standard, I’m wishing for spinning out on icy roads, and then sinking into snow up to my waist. At least, that’s what I dreamt last night, or perhaps it was night before last. I guess I have a seriously confused heart.

Or maybe the Disney lyrics writers were the ones a little confused. I mean, according to Cinderella, dreams are wishes, and you just need to believe in them and they’ll come true. It reminds me of the scene in Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the ship is caught in a dark space and picks up one of the lost lords they’re searching for. The poor man is utterly terrified, a complete nervous wreck, and when they ask him what’s the matter, he says the island behind him is the place where dreams come true. The crew is thrilled, and they all want to go to this place, when he shouts “No, you fools! Not your daydreams – your dreams!” Upon which, they frantically fall upon the riggings, and sail out of there as fast as they possibly can, pursued by nasty things such as giant clipping scissors and looming monsters. Needless to say, chirping blonde girls, twittering mice and sparrows, and princely castles are not part of this scenario. (If I’ve got some of the details of this story wrong, I apologise to Lewis; it’s been a while since I actually read Dawn Treader.)

In Cinderella, we don’t actually find out what the girl’s dreams are; she won’t tell because then they don’t come true. But I think we can make a fairly accurate guess about castles, princes, and lack of housework. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty goes a step further yet – she’s very specific what, or rather whom, she’s been dreaming of, and she tells quite readily. In fact, she bases the whole choice of her life partner on her dream, because, after all, “I know you / I’ve walked with you once upon a dream…”

So, according to Disney lyricists, dreams are wishes that come true if you don’t talk about them, but keep believing as hard as you can; and they’re also good foundations upon which to build lifelong relationships. To be honest, I don’t think those songwriters were acquainted with real dreams – not everyone is, you know. Maybe a stint on the Island of Dreams Come True would give them a more realistic view of this whole dreaming and wishing business?

What’s In a Name?

“When [the girl] had done her work,” Perrault tells us, “she used to go to the chimney corner, and sit down there in the cinders and ashes, which caused her to be called Cinderwench. Only the younger sister, who was not so rude and uncivil as the older one, called her Cinderella.”

 

From what I understand, “Cinderwench” is actually a rather polite translation. The French says “Culcendron”, which apparently translates to something like “ash arse”. Yup.

So then I put on the Disney Cinderella, the opening credits roll, the violins start up, and the ethereal voices of the choir flute: “Cinderella / You’re as lovely as your name / Cinderella…” Oh yes. It cracks me up every time.