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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