“Feminism is all about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom. It’s about liberation. It’s about equality. And I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it,” responded Emma Watson in an interview about her Vanity Fair cover.
In a not-surprising but, still-disappointing reaction, the internet pinned an H for hypocrite on Watson during her promotion of the live action Beauty and the Beast remake when she posed in a revealing, high-fashion top. Her feminist path, and the re-inventive path of the film, presented a juxtaposition that feminists, literati, film critics, and conservatives all struggled to compartmentalize from social context. This post explores the dynamics and discussion that have followed this fairytale remake.
Disney Princesses in 2017
To see if Disney Princesses can work in our world, I gave them all modern careers. Details on each at the bottom of the post.
Watson has bloomed into an enigma, defying stereotypes in the best way, yet struggling to garner widespread approval. First, she shot to stardom with her screen-stealing portrayal of the precocious Hermione. Then, she quietly pursued a college degree with nary a scandal. From there, Watson has gracefully stepped into a role as feminist spokesperson, beginning with her presentation to the United Nations several years ago.
Yet, Watson seems plagued by an inability to present with the typical starlet catastrophes. Instead, she focused on creative projects with nary a crash or burnout in sight. This un-called-for diligence and humanity, probably resulting from decent parenting, makes her a troll-able target. Thus, the Beauty and the Beast film, and subsequently Watson, became subject to critique.
To some, she presents a conundrum. She’s progressive and liberal. Yet, partnered with Disney project that hearkens back to anti-progressive tropes that this remake has tried to reinterpret for a modern audience. Throughout promotion, critics have questions what Watson is doing in the film. Watson herself has reviewed the role of the fairytales in our modern culture. The public, in general, seemed generally underwhelmed by both the film and its surrounding controversy. In fact, some bloggers seemed perplexed at the homophobic hype. So, I found myself asking, “Why did all Belle break loose?”
Although each incarnation of this “tale as old as time” attempts to ground the narrative within the current cultural climate, Belle’s journey is problematic for modern viewers. In the original story, a widower merchant raises his six children in a life of luxury. The most beloved daughter, Belle is both the most kind and the most beautiful. These recurring traits present in most European princess stories and typically dominate both the themes and story arcs.
Later, unfortunate circumstances send the merchant home from a business trip with no money, and the family’s lifestyle lessens with time. However, when the merchant finds that his fortune may be recovered, all of his children, except Belle, make lavish requests. Belle requests a single, perfect rose. This request is symbolic for her own purity and beauty.
However, the merchant’s journey is fruitless. He returns home during a storm, seeking shelter in a palace. The home of the titular Beast, the merchant finds inside both coldness and wealth. Disguised, the beast offers, shelter, comfort, and gifts. However, the merchant oversteps and steals the most perfect rose he can find in the Beast’s garden.
This results in a confrontation, wherein, the merchant opts to trade one of his daughters as a wife for the beast in return for the mistake.
When the merchant relays his plight to his children, Belle volunteers to pay her father’s debt and moves into captivity with the beast. From there, the story follows the general relationship arc seen in the modern versions. The Beast starts with aggressive, crass tactics to win over Belle. Then, they eventually form a bond that leads to a deeper relationship.
The original synopsis contains several elements common to princess stories that have questionably returned in the Disney retellings. First, beauty, kindness, submissiveness, and youth are all paramount traits in a fairytale woman. In fact, I have only read one fairytale (The Twelve Dancing Princesses) where the leading man has intentionally chosen the eldest as his mate. Second, daughters are used as tools to barter debts, restore a family’s name, or raise in social class. This is why the stories must often start with a tragic backstory to create the initial conflict. Third, princesses function as ambassadors of comfort, wonder, and beauty. In difficult situations, they make homes, attract magic or magical creatures, grow gardens, and raise attractive offspring. Therefore, the stories often end with a “happily ever after,” signaling that turbulence has been transformed to peace through love, marriage, and homemaking.
The Problem with Princesses
“Everything’s a story – You are a story – I am a story.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess
Capitalizing on our nostalgia, Disney (and other clever studios) are going to continue making fairytale films, live-action or otherwise. And critics will continue to voice skepticism. Yes, the stories have stood the test of time because they communicate universal truths about the human condition. Yes, the plots and many of the themes are oddly rooted in the conventions of the feudal system. No, we don’t need to crap on everything you loved from your childhood. No, we don’t need to just accept something because of tradition.
You see, the problem with fairytales is a problem with princesses as an archetype without modern analog. Currently, our political princesses have not lived fairytale lives. Some are generationally royal, and a few are social-climbers. They fill a political role and function like businesswomen and politicians. The required traits of a modern princess don’t align with the beauty, virginity, and submissiveness valued in the old tales.
Additionally, those traits also don’t lead to success, or even necessarily contentment, in the modern world. Yet, the stories we tell children, and the stories we cling to as young people, shape our view of the world, ourselves, and the future. Wishing for a fairytale ending? Now, that’s wishing for disaster.
The Stories We Need
As a child, I absorbed both the Disney tales and the historical versions. I relished the fantasy and found myself identifying with aspects of the characters. I wanted to be like them, beautiful, kind, loveable, and valued. I wanted to achieve a place in the world, like those heroines build by the end of each book.
But as I matured, those were not the stories I needed. By kindergarten, I needed to identify with the (petite) Luke Skywalker’s battle against the odds. In middle school, I appreciated the pluck of Amelia Earhart, even with her controversial (excluded from history books) relationships. In high school, I journeyed with Samwise Gamgee as he exhibited the courage of servant leadership. In college, I listened as Marya Hornbacher of Wasted told me I was allowed to take up space in the world. I watched as Betty Suarez of Ugly Betty, Camile Saroyan of Bones, and Echo of Dollhouse navigated male-dominated social structures. Each day, I found myself referencing Moses’ path to leadership or Gladys Aylward’s lifetime of sacrifice.
Later, when I found myself choosing a partner for life, I didn’t reference a Disney story. I considered the toxicity of Riley, Angel, Xander, and Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I weighed the dynamic of Clementine and Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I listened to Regina Spektor as she sang Us. I considered Sylvia Plath as she asserted, “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”
Defining my place in the world, so infrequently references the lessons from the Grim brother or Hans Christian Anderson. Instead, I need stories whose value, as humans, is not based in their loveliness or purity, but the actions they take to make the world a better place. As a Christian, I believe this means furthering the Gospel. In our society, I think we can benefit from a mutual care and respect for our fellow humans, even when they are imperfect or damaged.
All Girls are Princesses
I stand by Sarah in A Little Princess as she explains, “I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young. They’re still princesses.” In Sarah’s story, she begins boarding schools as the indulged child of a British officer. With time, she earns a reputation for being dreamy and charming. Later, her fortunes change as her father is reported dead, flipping her from the wealthiest student with the best room to the maid of the school living in the attic.
After the tragedy, the headmistress acts particularly cruel toward Sarah, from lingering jealousy and resentment. Even still, Sarah acts with dignity and treats others with respect. Although, at first, one would assume her princess persona was tied to her wealthy, the reader discovers her wonder and dignity are internalized values that she manifests through her actions in all circumstances. She explains, “Whatever comes cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”
Which leads to the conclusion: If all of us are princesses, then actually, none of us are princesses. We all have equal value and it is our daily actions, not our titles, mates, or appearances, that define us. This understanding allows us to fit fairytales back into their natural place. At their best, fairytales explore admirable character traits such as humility, courage, or optimism. However, at times, their original settings warp deeper messages.
My Princess Project
As I considered whether the classic princesses can be the stories that we need, I reimagined them for the year 2017. With their traits and backgrounds, what would each of these young women do in our world? Below are my suggestions.
During her time living with the little people, Snow White’s eyes were opened to the necessity of oversight and regulation in the energy industry. This led her to a career in health and safety inspecting, to ensure the well-being of workers.
Once she left the Sultan’s palace, Jasmine caught the travel bug. Immersing herself in the stories of the people that populate small towns, she finds herself documenting the world, one article at a time.
As an avid junk collector, Ariel took her hobby to the next level by joining forces with a global eCommerce antiquing platform. Her propensity for exploring the provenance of items has led her to become the chief photographer for the website.
After trials in trying to start a restaurant, Tiana connected with a progressive business incubator. She travels the country, meeting with aspiring entrepreneurs to prepare them for their business pitches.
Her disrupted life as an orphan, and deep connection with animals, led Cinderella to join forces with the local humane society. As the adoption coordinator, she reviews applications and homes animals to ensure appropriate placement.
After retiring from her successful military career, Mulan became engaged several female political candiates that advocate for women’s rights. Her experiences help shape their campaign messages to support working women, as a necessary cornerstone of modern society.
Her dysfunctional relationship with her family of origin exposed Belle to the need for safe havens and intervention. As a social worker, specializing in cases of human trafficking, Belle supports and advocates for the rights of her clients.
What do you think of my princess project? Sound off in the comments.