Friday, July 10, 2009

To be a Princess or not to be!?

Here is my latest essay for my English class. The class is about Popular Culture, and our first unit was about Disney. My essay comes off as very critical, but that doesn't mean I don't want a Princess wedding ;) ! Taking the tone I did got me a 98%...woo!

“Ah, princesses, the scourge of feminists everywhere,” Craig Courtice of the Canadian National Post said after viewing Disney’s contemporary princess film Enchanted.
While the film in no way lacks poufy dresses or cheery, working songs, it does update the classic princess story to send the message that women can “win by getting to be both achievers and princesses” (Hornaday). Yet, in a film where the princess, Giselle, ends up bravely rescuing her prince, how can feminists still be in uproar? While it does confront its own traditional female stereotypes, Disney creates a new type of fairytale based in reality with Enchanted, however, still encourages those culturally acceptable stereotypes with the ruse of empowering women to be independent and assertive. Why in a world where career women, like Meg Whitman, former CEO of Ebay, and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, are on the rise, would Disney still cling to the ideals and gender roles of the mid-twentieth century? One word: merchandise. Disney has made a “$4 billion business that’s on its way to becoming the most successful marketing venture ever” after creating the Princess line in 2000. At first, it was marketed to “kids and tweens, but…Disney has begun going after middle-class women” (Setoodeh). It’s no coincidence that Enchanted’s male love interest is played by Patrick Dempsey, one of People’s Sexiest Men of the Year, and 40-something star of Grey’s Anatomy. Or that newly added to Disney’s Fairy Tale Wedding is a line of Giselle wedding gowns.

Disney still promotes the traditional patriarchal values of their “Classics” in Enchanted, implying that a “happily ever after” for women can only be achieved through “True Love’s Kiss”, the heartwarming ballad vocalized by the story’s heroine, Giselle. Played by a thirty-two year old Amy Adams (whom adult women can surely identify themselves with), Giselle’s main life motivation is “true love’s kiss, And a prince she’s hoping comes with this”, because “that’s what brings ever-after-ing so happy”. During this musical number, she and her animal companions are putting together a statue trying to reproduce a Prince Giselle dreamed she was “holding hands” and “dancing” with; her “dream come true”. While slaying a troll, Prince Edward hears Giselle singing and rushes to her, only to have the troll follow and try to eat her. Giselle falls from the forest’s treetops and into Edward’s arms. The prince only asks for her name before firmly declaring that they’ll be married in the morning. They ride off into the sunset on a white steed finishing the song “True Love’s Kiss”.

The magical Queen Narissa, Edward’s stepmother, sees Giselle as a threat to her throne, and banishes her down a wishing well into a world where, as she puts it, “There are no happily ever afters.” Giselle crawls out of a manhole, long longer cartoon animated, and into Times Square to find reality full of unfriendly and non-singing people. Here Giselle is clumsy and in awe of what’s around her.

Meanwhile, Robert, a single father and divorce lawyer, is going home with his daughter. As in other princess tales, “Disney protects the benevolent status of the father” (Wood), by later having him explain the mother’s chosen absence. When first introduced, he is in a taxi and gives his daughter the book Important Women of Our Time, saying, “I know it’s not that fairytale book you wanted, but this is better”. He explains that Madame Curie “was a remarkable woman who dedicated her life to research, until she died…from radiation poisoning”, to which his daughter, Morgan, replies, “She died?” A “remarkable” woman is mentioned, and then casually dismissed because her life didn’t fit the category of “happily ever after”, because a woman being awarded two Nobel prizes and discovering two new elements is not a traditional, patriarchal viewpoint. “Such are the invidious choices that “Enchanted” sets up and eventually resolves for women” (Hornaday), essentially having to chose between something as bad as death, or the traditional happily ever after: getting married, domesticating, and having children.

Before Robert left to pick up his daughter, he was with a client in a divorce settlement. The Banks’ are bickering back and forth, and Mrs. Banks says, “Oh, you’re just afraid I don’t need you!” This comment is easily overlooked, as the proceeding is officially over and Robert is leaving. The next day, while waiting in the lobby of Robert’s law offices, Giselle talks to the Banks. She points out the “sparkle” in Mrs. Banks eye, and that “the man who holds [her] heart is a lucky fellow, indeed”. Robert explains that they are “separating forever” and Giselle becomes emotionally upset. By the end of the movie, the couple has reconciled because of “what that girl said” about Mrs. Banks eyes. When Robert brings up that they had problems, Mrs. Banks replies, “Everybody has problems. Everybody has bad times. Do we sacrifice all of the good times because of them? No.” While this is a positive outlook, it seeks to justify Disney’s classic ideal that “the heart, not the head, is the best guide” (Wood). The film continues to show that the “whimsical romantic follies” that bring couples together are keeping them in “obedience to larger social structures: the institutions of love, marriage, procreation, and of patriarchal order” (Wood). Disney wants couples to be romantic and whimsical because these “follies” encourage certain behaviors, behaviors that will lead to the consumers spending money.

Back in the taxi, while Robert explains to his daughter that he is going to ask his long time girlfriend, Nancy, to marry him; Giselle wanders the streets in the rain. When she sees a billboard for “The Palace Casino”, she painstakingly climbs to the top in her oversized wedding gown. She’s relentlessly knocking on the fake door when Morgan sees her from the taxi cab and runs out into the street. When Giselle notices Robert and Morgan, she loses her balance and falls into Robert’s arms. The princes in the fairy tales never exclaimed, “Ow! Ow!…are you okay?” after catching their Princesses, a subtle hint that Dempsey’s character isn’t the typical Disney prince. Robert asks if falling is a habit of Giselle’s, to which she replies, “Usually someone catches me”. This mindset; the “prince arriving to save said princess from drudgery, and whisking her away” (Cochrane) is the stereotype cleverly broken later on in the film. But while the roles may reverse in the end, Giselle falls many times in the film, and is always caught by a man, be it her Prince Edward or Robert. Also, Robert takes care of Giselle the entire time she is in New York City, letting her stay in his home, offering to pay for her trip “home”, throwing away her garbage for her, and even giving her money out of his pocket.

Giselle’s character is the personification of eternal optimism, playfulness, and hopeless romanticism. For the most part, she still embodies the very stereotype of a Disney princess. She has long, curly hair, a dainty figure, fair, white skin, and big blue eyes. She, like Cinderella, is “the ideal housewife; she’s beautiful; innocently sexy; a loving caregiver” who exemplifies the ideals of “cleanliness, self discipline, control, firm gender boundaries, and the regulation of others” (Wood). Her first morning in the real world, Giselle wakes up before Robert and Morgan, and decides that the apartment needs to be cleaned. She calls in her animal friends, which in reality are obese rats, cockroaches, and park pigeons, to help her. She sings “A Happy Working Song” as they clean together, a nod to the working songs from Snow White and Cinderella. She “controls” and “regulates” her helpers by instructing them on how to “scrub a stubborn mildew stain” and “lug a hairball from the shower drain”. Robert discovers the rodents and insects and quickly shoos them out of his home. He then walks in on Giselle in the shower after she innocently says, “Come in”, though, cleverly, two birds are holding up a towel in front of her. While Robert is the only one a bit stunned from the encounter, in another clumsy moment, Giselle falls on top of him in the hallway, pinning him to the ground, giggling. Robert’s girlfriend, Nancy, walks in at that very moment, and mistakes the situation for exactly what is looks like to the adult eye: sexual. As Robert chases Nancy down to try and explain the situation, Giselle makes herself a new dress…out of his curtains. This will not be the last time Giselle takes it upon herself to make her own clothes.

Where Giselle differs from other Disney princesses is in her discovered sexuality, raw emotion, and bravery. When Robert returns to find Giselle in her newly made dress, he explains that, “Nancy’s got it in her head that you and I—” to which Giselle interrupts, “Kissed?” Robert brushes this off by replying, “Yeah, something like that…”. Giselle, at this point in the movie, has not yet “discovered her true, heretofore repressed, emotional nature” (Hornaday). Later on, when she and Robert fight over her optimistic and romantic view of the world, she, delightfully, feels anger for the first time, and is liberated by it. Here, Giselle differs from one of her counterparts, Cinderella, who “evinces self-control: she contains her anger” (Wood). She absentmindedly touches Robert’s chest through his bathrobe, and instinctively notices him in an adult way. The tension boils over and Robert walks out of the room. Giselle looks after him, realization dawning on her face, and exclaims, “Oh my…”, having just had a “strangely romantic epiphany” (Wloszczyna). None of the other classical Disney princesses have had “adult” moments. As Naomi Woods argues in “Domesticating Dreams in Walt Disney’s Cinderella”, the “adult” situations like touching, being in bedrooms together, and arguing, are left to characters that are more culturally accepted to do these things, like close, same-sex friends.

Another discovery Giselle makes is learning about dating. In previous Disney films, dating is almost nonexistent. The princess meets her prince, is rescued by him, and they marry. Robert finds it baffling that Giselle knew Prince Edward for a day before agreeing to marry him. “How can you talk about loving some guy you don’t even know?” he asks. Giselle replies, “I know what’s in his heart.” Before the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dating, like in classic Disney films, was nonexistent. Courtship was the common way to find a mate. It “involved one man and one woman spending intentional time together in order to get to know each other with the expressed purpose of evaluating the other as a potential husband or wife” (Burzumato). Since Giselle “knows what’s in [Edward’s] heart”, she finds him suitable for a husband. But Robert persists, explaining, “most normal people get to know each other before they get married…they date”. Dating is, of course, a concept completely unknown to Giselle. Robert continues, “You go someplace special, like a restaurant, or a movie, or a museum, or you just hang out and you talk”. Courtship was usually considered “public acts conducted in private spaces” where the couple would interact with supervision in the family parlor, as opposed to dating which was “private or individual acts conducted in public spaces, located primarily in the entertainment world” (Burzumato). As Robert said, dates take couples to restaurants, movies, museums, dances, and other public places, all of which, usually cost money. Here Disney shies away from the traditional, and embraces the modern. But of course, this modern idea of dating is extremely consumer-driven. Just a few moments after Robert and Giselle have this discussion, Giselle makes Robert send Nancy flowers, and invite her to a ball, while singing a catchy song “That’s How You Know”. In it, Giselle sings,

Well does he leave a little note to tell you you are on his mind?
Send you yellow flowers when the sky is grey? Heyy!
He'll find a new way to show you, a little bit everyday
That's how you know, that's how you know!
He's your love...

The entire song is about men finding ways to constantly assure women of their affection, using material things. Disney is encouraging women to expect things from men as signs of affection; flowers, jewelry, chocolates, and other romantic stereotypes, all of which are used as dance choreography, costume, and jest, in the “That’s How You Know” musical number. Eventually, Giselle absorbs the idea of dating and makes Prince Edward take her on a date in NYC, once they’ve reunited. When he is ready to go back to their world, she admits that she wants it to go on longer, explaining, “[dates] can just keep going and going just so long as you keep thinking about activities that you can do”. She suggests the museum, the theater, or the ball, to which Edward agrees to go to because of the music and dancing. Giselle’s suggestion implies that she wasn’t satisfied with what she knew of Edward yet, and that she wasn’t ready to marry him, a concept no other Disney princess has experienced.

Enchanted also differs from the classic Disney princess tales in that the Fairy Godmother magic is essentially missing. Because the second half of the film takes place in the real world, there is no magic for Giselle to use. Since she has decided to go to the ball, she finds herself in a predicament regarding clothing and accessories. She reunites with Robert’s daughter, Morgan, walking in on her trying on princess and fairy costumes in her room. As Giselle explains that she doesn’t “even know where to find a fairy godmother at this late hour”, “Morgan tells Giselle she has the perfect substitute…she steals her dad’s credit card”. She and Giselle go to store after store, purchasing perfume, make up, and getting their hair done, using Robert’s credit card, or “the modern way to conjure goodies out of thin air” (Scottish Daily Record). Here it is evident, that not only will money be spent on the date itself, but it must be spent in preparation for the date. Morgan asks Giselle if “this is like shopping with your mother?” Giselle admits she doesn’t know, but she “likes it”. By insinuating that motherly bonding can be achieved through shopping, Disney “draws unsuspecting little girls into the commercial world” of not only the “Disney Princesses” but all material possessions. “Gone are the days when Disney made lovely family cartoons. Today it’s all about the merchandise,” writes the Scottish Daily Record editorial, and when the camera pans out to reveal over twenty pink, red, and white frilly bags filled with tissue paper, it does appear that Disney is all about retail and less about the heart.

When Giselle has emptied the twenty-some bags and goes to the ball, she has clearly ditched the traditional image of princess. While everyone else at “The King and Queen’s Ball” is dressed in old fashioned, Victorian garb, Giselle wears a slinky pink spaghetti-strapped dress, noticeable eye makeup, and has long, straight hair. She and Robert inevitably dance, and come to the full internal realization that they have feelings for each other. Giselle realizes that he was the “Prince” she had dreamt about holding hands and dancing with, and his wardrobe even mimics the makeshift one Giselle and her animal friends had made. Robert even sings along with the ballad they are dancing to, negating an earlier comment he had made to Giselle about not singing to show affection. When Nancy and Edward step in, Giselle and Robert part ways silently.

As Edward and Giselle are leaving, Giselle runs into Queen Narissa, disguised as an old hag, who promises that she can help Giselle forget Robert if she takes a bite from an apple. Giselle, wanting to suppress her feelings, takes the offer and falls into a deep sleep, like her counterpart Snow White. Only “True Love’s Kiss” can cure her, and when Edward’s kiss fails, everyone agrees it must be Robert. After the kiss, Giselle awakens and exclaims, “I knew it was you!” Narissa, like her counterpart Maleficent, turns into a dragon and vows to kill everyone. Robert steps in and says, “Over my dead body!” She shrugs, “Alright, I’m flexible.”

Narissa/The Dragon grabs Robert and takes him to the top of the skyscraper. Giselle chases after, removing her glass slippers and grabbing a sword, as if shedding her feminine passivity and becoming assertive. Narissa even admits the “twist in the story” that Giselle is coming to Robert’s rescue. While Narissa/The Dragon falls to her death because of her own weight (and the weight of one of Giselle’s animal friends, Pip), Giselle throws the sword and pins Robert to the building, stopping him from falling. When his jacket tears, she catches him, drops him, and then they slide together down the roof, only to be saved by the gutter. Giselle mimics his earlier line, “Is this a habit of yours, falling off of stuff?” to which he replies, “Only when you’re around to catch me.” Giselle does “rescue” Robert, but it’s not as visually idealistic as when he rescued her. She not beat the villain with her own talents but has one of her “domesticated” animal friends help her. And as she catches Robert, it still has a sort of clumsiness about it, and lacks the follow through as they slide down the roof screaming.

As they kiss and the camera pans out, the viewer sees Nancy picking up Giselle’s glass slipper. Edward finds her and they run off together and go back to the cartoon world. Before they get married, Nancy throws away her blackberry (which amazingly gets good reception even when animated), symbolizing the idealistic and traditional notions of women giving up their careers to “settle down” and start a family. Nancy inevitably switches places with Giselle, finding Edward’s simple romantic ideals attractive. She lives the “Classic” Disney ideal.

Next the viewer sees “Andalasia Fashions”, presumably Giselle’s own business, full of fabrics and sewing machines, and little girls in princess dresses. Giselle not only saved the prince but has her own business! Wait? It’s a clothing business, using one of the most stereotypical women’s activities—sewing—and it creates princess dresses for little girls. If that is not irony…The film ends with Robert, Giselle, and Morgan, playing together throughout Robert’s apartment, happy and content as a “normal” and traditional family. The ideal of happy-ever-after.

Enchanted is just the latest vessel for Disney to promote its biggest hit: merchandise. The Princess line has brought overwhelming success, though “Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt, complained bitterly about [its] creation” (Barnes) in 2000. While the line encompasses the classics; Cinderella, Snow White, and Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, it also includes the newer animated princesses; Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and even Giselle. However, “Pocahontas and Mulan are usually kicked off the throne. Disney says that’s because their “qualities” are different from the others, though the only “quality” that seems different is that they don’t wear long, girly dresses” (Setoodeh). While Disney has been cashing in and promoting pink frills, other companies have taken note and followed suit. For example, “Mattel released its first Barbie princess video in 2001, and the series has sold 38 million units” (Setoodeh). But little girls aren’t the only targets of these corporations. Jodie Katz, reviewer for the National Post in Canada, admits after viewing Enchanted, “Even though I am well past the princess-in-training, four-to-seven-year-old market, the inner royal in me was swept away by the poofy dress, the curls aplenty and the glitter. It’s no wonder the wedding industry is experiencing such a boom”. And she’s right. Move over Bridezilla, “Meet a new breed: the Princesszilla” (Setoodeh). Disney’s line of “Princess inspired” wedding gowns “aren’t so tacky as to overtly mimic their cartoon inspirations. Only the bride would likely get the connection, which is as much psychological as it is material” (Setoodeh). From a young age, women have a “desire for true love, especially served with a dollop of princess power”, the ideal which is probably instilled in them through society and other notable influences, like Disney. A woman can grow up pretending to be a princess, with princess accessories and birthday parties. She can dream of marrying a prince and then have an actual Disney Brand wedding. Disneyland allows weddings in the castle or Snow White’s grotto for a high price ($20,000+). While the director of Enchanted, Kevin Lima, wants the new Disney message to be, “You are responsible for your own happily-ever-after” (qtd. In Princess Power), it seems that Disney’s version of it comes at steep price.

Disney’s stories have great entertainment and moral value. Despite the many different undertones, though, the ramifications of the Princess films are essentially greater than just a female’s view of how her life should be. The marketing of Princess and happily-ever-after will haunt our culture from pre-teen adolescence until the retirement age. The head of Disney’s apparel line, Jim Calhoun, says, “We want women to have a little bit of princess every day” (qtd. Princess Power) and one doesn’t have to look far to find “toys, video games, soundtracks, books, clothes, bedding, party supplies, children’s dishes, jewelry, and (literally) countless other tie-in products and images” (Lacroix) to make that wish a reality. Parents are faced with children demanding The Little Mermaid birthday plates, Belle’s yellow dress from Beauty and the Beast to wear on Halloween, and any number of other products to surround themselves with because “Disney constructs childhood so as to make it entirely compatible with consumerism” (Lacroix). Children buy into the fun of the films they watch and the characters in them, but “also can come very close to, at least materially, recreating” the films, characters, and situations in their own lives, through products (Lacroix). What’s even worse is Disney’s line of wedding gowns, bridesmaid’s dresses, and flower girl outfits, along with jewelry sets and matching tiaras, allowing fully grown adults the same pleasures and fantasies offered to children. And who pays for all of this? Parents. Robert’s credit card, the fairy godmother in the real world. While women can easily achieve their Princess fantasies with merchandise, the age old wish for happily-ever-after, seems to be less attainable. How do Princes and fairytales transfer to modern day? As Ramin Setoodeh notes, “The answer may rest in something far less rarefied: the quest for financial security, class mobility and, in our divorce-ridden, war-pocked world, a few moments of life lived happily ever after.”

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