Is it wrong to admit that I’m getting bored of strong Disney princesses?
Anna and Elsa, the twin female leads of Disney’s latest, “Frozen,” follow in a line of sassy, self-directed princesses that reach back at least to Ariel, circa 1989. They’re smart, resourceful, culture-friendly, market-vetted, and fully empowered — especially in “Frozen,” a movie that’s quite overtly about not needing to be saved by a prince.
They’re also desperately dull. I think it’s because of the eyes.
You know the ones, enormous, long-lashed, almond-shaped. None of the male characters in “Frozen” have eyes like that — not Prince Hans, who (spoiler!) turns out to be a jerk, or Kristoff, the working-class woodsman who is, metaphorically, a prince. Not even Olaf, the comic-relief snowman come to life. In a movie with stunning artwork, the guys are original creations, with varied shapes and varied personalities to match.
By contrast, the princesses are standard-issue Disney, from their flowing hair to their pinched-in waists to their tiny pug noses (“vestigial at best,” in the words of my friend Rebecca Hains, who teaches media studies at Salem State). Is it any surprise that their personalities feel unoriginal, too? Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate the “Frozen” plot about sisterly love and emotional honesty. But at this point, I’d prefer a disempowered female lead who at least didn’t look like a human version of Bambi.
We’ve all heard the complaints by now, about the dangers of selling princess looks to girls as young as three. But the princess marketing machine — which extends to Barbies, Bratz, and the like — is more complicated than we generally like to admit. We’re not going to wage a war on pretty. We can’t. Even mothers who care about body image want to look nice — and own makeup and interesting shoes, and complain about the frumpy mom in PBS’s “Caillou.”
The problem comes in teaching girls that there’s a specific, single formula to pretty — a trend that has led to a string of unfortunate Hollywood nose jobs, a tendency to stock store aisles with identical frilly dresses, and a way of overshadowing other traits. This is the point the British artist David Trumble was making with an image that went viral earlier this year: a satirical lineup of real-life women of accomplishment, re-made in the shapes and styles of Disney princesses.
Trumble was inspired by Merida, the awkward-teen character from Pixar’s “Brave,” who was inducted into Disney’s official princess lineup last spring — and given a Disney makeover, complete with eye makeup, a blow-out, and an off-the-shoulder dress.
“I wanted to do a cartoon to show just how diverse real-life human role models are, and how ridiculous it is to try to shoehorn them into this one template,” Trumble told me.
He was advised by Lori Day, an educational consultant from Newburyport, whose upcoming book is about navigating cultural landmines through mother-daughter book clubs — and who points out that good looks can be their own limitation. In Disney movies, “male characters tend to be funny and quirky,” Day said, “because they don’t need to remain pretty while they walk, while they talk, while they show emotions on their faces.”
Trumble understands Disney’s resistance to change: “Why would you change a formula that has been incredibly lucrative?” Still, there’s reason to hope that we’re nearing a turning point — a moment when the market rebels against all of this uniformity. There’s a growing backlash against hyper-gendered toys, and the impulse to sell math and science to girls by dressing it up with pink. Hasbro, under pressure, now offers a black Easy Bake oven that looks a little like Darth Vader.
And, of course, there are counterexamples in animated film, female characters who get to be themselves. One of Trumble’s favorite animated characters is Dory from “Finding Nemo,” who is about to star in her own sequel. She’s the platonic-friend-slash-ally of the protagonist, fiercely loyal and plagued with short-term memory problem. She gets most of the movie’s funniest lines and one of its most bracing emotional scenes.
And she doesn’t have to be pretty — at least not in a standard human way. After all, she’s not a princess. She’s a fish.