From Snow White to Korra ... and Everything in Between

Brendan and I have been watching The Legend of Korra every Saturday (seriously, we never miss it -- the Amazon Instant Video download every Saturday evening is always anticipated). For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, it's a sequel to the Avatar: The Last Airbender series that we both fell in love with a few years ago. It's awesome, but before I digress into why I'm enjoying the show so much, let me get to the point of my post.

Well, wait, no -- I need to backtrack one last time. Right around the time I began watching Korra, some of my theatre friends and acquaintances from Logan, Utah performed in a Disney-themed show called Remember the Magic at The Old Barn Theatre (where Brendan and I performed in winter of 2010). It was basically a compilation of Disney songs thrown together into a show. I recently got to view all of their production photos with a smile, 'cause it looked cute and fun. I started thinking, though, about how much many of these girls love Disney (particularly the princesses). Really, really, really love Disney.

It's not that I don't understand that fascination -- I, myself, went through a rather long phase of Disney obsession earlier in my life. As a child, I made my family members call me Snow White. I watched all of the princess movies, always wanted to dress up like a princess, and idolized every one of them. Disneyland was by far my favorite place to visit, and when I turned 18 I attended a mass cattle call audition in Anaheim so that I could be paid to be a "professional princess" (otherwise known as a "face character") at Disneyland. I'd wager money (really, I would) that some of my friends and family members questioned my sanity at times.

I eventually grew out of my obsession (which was really an escapist fantasy into a world I so desperately wanted to exist, but that's another story), but having lived in Utah for five years opened my eyes to a very interesting phenomenon. Girls in Utah (who mostly identify as very conservative) absolutely love Disney and its court of princess characters. Asking a young woman in Utah if she likes Disney is like asking a young woman in Utah if she likes Twilight -- the answer will usually be an unequivocal, resounding yes.

I'm not going to go out on a huge limb here and suggest that all conservative people really like Disney (especially since I know that some ultra-conservatives like to boycott Disney's support of gay rights), but I am going to speculate on a few things. As most people who know me are aware, I am not conservative. In fact, I'm pretty liberal. And I'm very open about being a feminist. With all of that being said, I'm also pretty disgusted with my former Disney obsession, for a number of reasons. I understand it and what it meant for me, but it's evolved into a love/hate relationship with the company that I often don't know how to balance.

And why, you ask, is there a part of me that hates Disney? There are a few reasons, but for the sake of this post I'm going to focus on the princess characters (with whom the majority of my obsession belonged). I get why so many girls and young woman love the princesses. For starters, they encompass everything our society has projected about the ideal woman. They're beautiful, graceful, kind, and loved by all. They always wind up with a handsome prince (or at least some rendition of a hot guy). Their stories end with the "happily ever after" scenario that every girl dreams of at least once in her life (come on, girls -- admit that you dreamed about it at least once growing up).
But this, in actuality, is entirely why I dislike them. Their extreme beauty sends a questionable message -- Disney doesn't create plain or homely heroines who get happily ever afters, only beautiful ones. When you pair that with the fact that many of the female villains are ugly (think of Cinderella's stepsisters and Ursula from The Little Mermaid), it's easy to equate goodness and female success with beauty, and virulence and female downfall with non-beauty. When you're a young girl idolizing these characters, it's even easier to base your own self-worth on your physical appearance (as if girls need any more of that in our culture and society).

Further, aside from the message this sends to women, we must also consider the message this sends about women. Snow White was considered the fairest in the land, and her stepmother was willing to kill her for it. That is extreme, and supports the notion that women are petty and jealous, and that out-doing each other (particularly when it comes to looks) is, or should be, our first priority. You see a similar situation when Mother Gothel is willing to kidnap Rapunzel and lock her away forever, living alone and isolated with her for years and years, for the sake of staying young and beautiful. I know that these are the villains of the story, but keep in mind that they're usually the only women (not girls) who play a significant role in the story.
And let's not forget that in Sleeping Beauty, the three fairies each bestowed a magical gift upon Princess Aurora. They could have given her any three gifts they wanted -- kindness, power, strength, the mental capacity to actually run a kingdom, or perhaps magical abilities of her own -- but instead, the first and foremost gift they granted her was the gift of beauty (followed by the gift of song, because a singing beauty is apparently more important than any quality that might make her a good monarch someday). What are girls supposed to take from that?

I'll also mention the romance aspect. Girls and women get dreamy-eyed when they watch Disney romances, but if you take a closer look at them, the reality is a bit darker. Notice how all of the princess movies (particularly the first three, Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) all end with a marriage. These movies are supposed to be these girls' stories, and their stories end with a marriage -- that's it, end of story, happily ever after. Cinderella, even, was only able to escape her abusive family through the help of a handsome prince (and it wouldn't have happened had she not been beautiful). I've analyzed the possibility that this idea (and you see it everywhere, even outside of Disney) leads young girls to think that marriage is the key to their happiness and contentment. In our culture, girls are being sent the message that they should be striving for marriage, and once they achieve it, everything else will fall into place. Those of us who have experienced marriage know this isn't really the case, but does Disney bother to show the squabbling, the balance of power, the immense compromise, the learning to live together, the getting to know one another (as some of the Disney princesses married men they knew for about a day)? No. Do they ever allow the princess or heroine to remain single, shining light on the fact that some women prefer it to being married? No. (Update: Remember, please, that this blog post was written long before the days of Elsa and Moana.)

Couple this with the other subtle messages that Disney sends about love and marriage. For instance, Ariel was willing to give up everything -- her family, her friends, her voice (both physically and metaphorically), and basically her entire life -- for the sake of being with a man that she'd never even spoken to. Belle stayed with a physically and emotionally abusive man because she could "change" him. Jasmine chose to be with Aladdin, but let's not forget that she would have otherwise been forced into a different marriage -- the option of just being single, or even taking her time finding a suitable match, wasn't available to her. Even the most recent princess, Rapunzel, can't escape her own story, which was initially about discovering independence, self-determination, and her own autonomy. Her story is eventually dominated by the love story (she goes from being dependent on Mother Gothel to, at the end of the story, returning to her parents and marrying Eugene "Flynn" Rider -- there, in actuality, is no real self discovery other than "Oh, I'm a princess and I'm in love").

I know what some of you are probably thinking at this point (assuming you've made it this far) -- some rendition of "they're just stories," "they're just kid movies," or "you're taking this way too seriously." In some ways, I agree. I over-analyze everything. But remember that Disney Princess has become a franchise in and of itself. For many little girls and young women, these aren't "just" kid movies. Some people idolize and look up to the princesses (I know, because I was one of them). As a liberal feminist, I know that I'd like to see the role models of the next generation of women be a bit more round and less flat. I'd love them to be motivated by something other than jealousy and love. I'd love to see them experience some of the hopes, fears, and dreams that real women have, but are often neglected.

So this brings me to Korra. I think that there are a few great female role models in children's programming today (many more than when I was a child), but the some of the best come from the Avatar: The Last Airbender series (and its sequel). Katara, the story's main female character in the original series, is a strong and powerful water bender who eventually takes down one of the main villains. She's also motherly, kind, and feminine, and the combination of her attributes -- traditionally feminine, and yet also a driven warrior -- are part of what makes her character so likeable and complex. Although she does wind up romantically involved with the main male character in the end of the series, she initially turned him down, deciding to focus first on her role in the worldwide war. She's an intelligent girl who makes intelligent choices (and, sometimes, bad choices). She's more believable than any of Disney's princess characters.

There's also Toph, another main female character, who doesn't embody beauty or grace. She's a 12-year-old blind girl who's more than a bit rough around the edges. And she's also the world's most talented earth bender. One of the series' main villains, Azula, is actually driven by power, greed, and insanity -- she's hardly moved by others' beauty or relationship statuses. Her interactions and history with the other members of her royal family are complex and serve to help us understand Azula as a human being -- more than just the show's main villain. And then there's Suki, the female warrior who softens the formerly sexist Sokka. And finally, in the sequel to the series, we've got Korra, who's doing her best to balance her ambitious nature, brave and wild spirit, and, yes, her romantic feelings for a close friend. She's a dynamic character with an honest self-identity and, as the new Avatar, sense of command.

The main point that I take from these female characters, which I think is wholly important for girls and young women to grasp, is that femininity doesn't have to mean that you give up your power, independence, and autonomy. That beauty doesn't make you worthwhile, and plainness doesn't make you worthless. That romantic relationships are wonderful, but better made when two independent selves come together to work together (rather than one or both parties giving up all or part of themselves for the sake of the other).

So what does this have to do with conservatism and liberalism? I'm not sure, precisely, and I'm not about to make any leaping statements about it. But I do find it wholly interesting that the conservative women I know (who do strive for extreme beauty and do believe that marriage might be the most important things in the world) are awfully fond of the Disney princesses. And it's also interesting that, as a liberal, I reject much of what the princesses personify and seek out better representation of women, girls, and femininity for myself and my young son. Perhaps I find it more fascinating that others because I was that girl who lived and breathed everything Disney.

Perhaps I'm rambling about issues that are non-essential to most, but I think they speak about deeper issues that most women understand and appreciate. And so, ladies, I'll close by offering you a wink -- whether you agree with me or not, you know what I mean. ;)