Thursday, September 27, 2012

Disney Princesses: What Does Race Mean?

The Disney princesses started out as the usual white, European, medieval stories. But attempts at expanding that out brought, in particular, three movies: Pocahontas, Mulan, and The Princess and the Frog. And did any of those receive near as good a reception as, say, Tangled did? Or stay in people's memories as fondly as did Beauty and the Beast? The reason I find this an interesting question is that with mixing up the race issue, there were other changes that followed--and could it then be those changes that made these three movies a little less accessible? Being American, I'm usually inclined to think "race" doesn't matter so much, only what culture you were raised with--whatever racial background I have I usually don't think has had much bearing on my life since I have only ever lived in the U.S. But it is more complicated than that, isn't it?

Within the last week, I have watched the first two movies in my list for the first time in years. While Pocahontas has inspired some snide comments about "the Disney version" of history, I have something to say about that. The Pocahontas/John Smith story existed as a myth from the very first time it appeared--and I say this having read portions of the journals John Smith published. The scene people go back to as the "true story" (Pocahontas saving John Smith's life) actually wasn't added until a later edition; it's something he went back and added. So the "truth" doesn't matter: it always was a symbolic myth. And while the symbols may be obvious after looking at the story in a literature class, they're perhaps a little more difficult to grasp in an informal look. So I think Disney did a decent job with presenting this story; the problem is just with the structure of the movie. Things take a while to happen, even then very little happens, and we have a non-traditional Disney princess ending. All three of these may very well be the result of the Disney team not wanting to stray too far from the basic makeup of the myth, not wanting to diminish what a culture clash happened when European settlers came to North America. But it's these plot difficulties that I think are the things audiences responded less well to, not necessarily Pocahontas's race.

Usually when watching an animated movie, I find myself remembering more as I go along; things I had thought I had forgotten I end up recognizing. But that wasn't really the case for Mulan, which I only saw once in theatres. I only remember that I saw it with my cousins; I remember nothing of my reaction. This time, though, I thought it was pretty good. Not flawless, but what Disney movie is (except maybe Snow White)? Mulan is a character with depth who develops throughout the movie. She does what needs doing--which is what Disney princesses are supposed to be about (I think they also started out as meek and humble, but those virtues have begun to fade as society begins to consider them more as weakness than virtue). This is why I think more people continue to like Mulan than Pocahontas. The difficulty that initial audiences (especially children?) may have had with the movie was in the culture/setting. Growing up and now, I watch more movies and learn more about the generic, European medieval setting than anything at any time period in China. So there are some things to get used to (if that's the right phrase) in this movie, though I think the plot is in general basic enough to follow along with without any trouble. But it's still an added layer that, while separate from Mulan's race, is still connected to it.

Now for The Princess and the Frog. I really enjoyed this one when I saw it in theatres a couple years ago. Visually, it was sometimes even stunning--probably because I prefer traditional animation and you get so little of that these days. But it didn't do terribly well at the box office--not nearly as well as the hit Tangled the following year. I have heard a lot of comments that the difference may have been in marketing. An early trailer for The Princess and the Frog was . . . weird, and it was marketed as having music. I didn't know Tangled had music until the first song started (which was a bad song, I might add--though the whole movie went from  so-so to much better). It was marketed as more of a modern, Medieval thing (almost Shrek-like), whereas The Princess and the Frog takes place in the recent past of New Orleans. There's a lack of separation in this decision about setting: did they just portray New Orleans people as gumbo-eaters? Was there too much emphasis on the voodoo? You can ask so many touchy questions. So many questions that we probably even forget that Tiana herself is black; all the questions are greater than just her. Though to bring her back into focus, she is an interesting combination of the tireless, ever-hopeful Disney princess and a modern, independent, making-plans-for-herself woman. Interesting, but does that take away some of the "fairy tale" of it (as would be the case for all three movies, right?) if she is the one who has to pull herself up to the happy ending?

So when a culture with a history of very white, European art (movies, books, myths, histories) sets out to include all aspects of its people's past, the result is just a step toward better understanding ourselves. If sometimes the effort doesn't go far, it may be because both the people behind the camera and in the theatre may not fully understand yet. One last question: when are they going to retell a Mexican legend? Disney, we know you've been reaching out to the Hispanic community; why not do it with the first Hispanic princess?

(Oh, and I just remembered one glaring absence from my list: Jasmine [unless you also want to count Ariel since she's a redhead, but that's a smaller fact, don't you think?]. But since people of my generation, myself excepted, love Aladdin, that movie would be expand this conversation too much past its already unwieldy state.)

No comments:

Post a Comment