I was born in the 1990s, which, yes, sort of indicates that a lot of my childhood entertainment was animated and put out by Disney. But because my parents are awesome and weird, they were sort of picky about which ones they showed us and why. For instance, I am eighteen years old and I have still not seen The Lion King because my parents didn’t like all its messages. And frankly, I think I’d prefer Hamlet anyway.
That being said, analyzing the social messages of Disney movies (including the ones I’ve only seen once or twice) is basically one of the more fun things I can think of to do, and having recently seen Frozen with my mom and sisters for the second time, I’ve been in that mode lately, and I noticed something.
In the canon of what are commonly recognized as the “princess” movies, which includes some of the more recent adjectival ones like Tangled, Brave and Frozen (all of which I love), the male lead (if there is one) is an interesting scope for analysis because (a) these movies are about the girls, and (b) these movies are directed to girls, making the portrayal of the males in them very interesting and relevant to how we see men and our relationships to them, particularly as a generation. Let’s begin at the beginning.
#1. Snow White
It has been many years since I watched Disney’s version of her story, but I’ll go on what I can remember. She sings until a random handsome guy climbs the wall to see what her face looks like and then runs away in terror (reason unknown). She flees her evil stepmother, courtesy of the kindhearted huntsman assigned to execute her. After a sequence in the forest which used to terrify the living pants off me when I was a kid, she finds her way to an idyllic little hut, cleans it from top to bottom, and makes the acquaintance of its seven diminutive tenants, who agree to let her stay because they like her food. Her stepmother discovers that she is alive, makes efforts to amend that, and eventually they both die in the process. So the dwarves set her up in a coffin and wait until the same guy who noticed her singing earlier in the film comes along to kiss her awake. (She wasn’t actually dead. Surprise!) And then they both ride off into the sunset – I believe literally.
Aside from the obvious weirdness of this story (wait till you read the original Grimm version!) and the fact that you should probably save the sunset rides with dramatic music for someone you know a bit more about, we know very little about this guy. I think his name is Prince Charming.
This is disconcerting. Why do we not have a bit more depth to the character that the HEROINE SPENDS THE REST OF HER LIFE WITH? I mean, what if he’s a total jerk to her?
This is also disconcerting because even if he weren’t the character with whom our heroine spends the rest of her life, he is still a character of his own, and I’d like to know a bit more about him whether she ended up with him or not.
Maybe that’s true love, in a weird world, where you go off with someone knowing nothing about them, deciding to stick with them regardless of what you discover later. That may be pretty noble, but it sounds a bit dangerous to me.
But what is that saying to the little girls of 1937? That the man of your dreams is a face who kisses you and nothing more? Maybe the roots of modern-day anti-male sexism go back further than I realized. Yikes.
I seem to remember that my younger sister was quite fond of Cinderella. And it is dreamy. But what does it say about our perception of men? (Am I becoming an andrist? Yikes.) What do we see of the Prince Charming figure in this story? I have vague recollections of him running after her as she leaves the palace, yelling that he didn’t know her name. That’s nice of him, to want to know the name of the girl he seems to be so enamored of. Points to Cinderella’s Prince Charming. Serious deduction from Cinderella’s writers: what’s his name?
The other item of characterization we find is that his father is kind of a nutjob. So obviously this guy (name??) has some baggage from his crazy father, but do we know anything else?
I also want to point out that in the scene in which it is discovered that Cinderella’s foot fits the slipper, the Prince is not there. I think I’m right about this (I’m drawing off very vague memories and the Wikipedia article). Somebody else makes this discovery for him. I am oh so impressed by his dedication to finding his love. Hah. And as we see the slipper slide onto her foot, the next thing we hear is the Carillon Bells or whatever that tune is called, and she comes running down the stairs of the castle with him. Again, yikes.
So what does this say to the little girls of 1950? That the man of your dreams will take you at face value, with your best magical clothes on, and be madly smitten, and try to find out a bit more about you, but not care enough to come discover you for himself? Ack. I’m not sure I like that one, even as an antifeminist. No wonder those little girls led the Women’s Lib movement. That is kinda gross.
(Mildly hilarious note from Wikipedia: Prince Charming’s speaking voice and singing voice are provided by two different people.)
Mildly relevant note from Wikipedia: “In earlier drafts of the screenplay, the Prince originally played a larger role and had more character development than what he ultimately received in the final version of the film…In an abandoned alternate ending, after the Duke discovered Cinderella’s identity, she was shown being brought to the castle to be reintroduced to the Prince, who is surprised to learn that Cinderella was actually a modest servant girl instead of the princess he thought she was, but the Prince’s feelings for her were too strong to be bothered by this and he embraced her; the Fairy Godmother was to reappear and restore Cinderella’s ball gown for the closing shot.”
That’s actually quite encouraging, even with the godmother ex machina to properly dress the girl at the end. He discovers who she really is and loves her anyway? Sorry, Cinderella writers, you get your points back. Dear studio executive who wanted a different ending, you suck.
LIVE: I feel pretty weird, because my tabs right now include the List of Official Disney Princesses.
LIVE: I have discovered that apparently there is also a List of Official Disney Princes. That could be very interesting. All right. Moving on.
#3. Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
I think I have seen this movie maybe once. It was probably not on the list of ones my parents thought acceptable to show their kids. Anyway, I’m not very familiar with it, so please forgive any glaring errors. (Cool thing: based on Tchaikovsky’s work. I’m a big Tchaikovsky fan.) For the record, I do not like her tacky name.
Synopsis: It seems to be much the same as the fairy tales I remember reading. The baby is born, promised to the son of the neighboring kingdom, blessed by good fairies, and then cursed by one evil fairy who slips past everyone’s watchful eye. Her parents pack her off to the good fairies to keep her safe; she grows up lovely and lost to the world until the same prince to whom she is still technically engaged hears her singing in the forest and they run into each other and fall in love. (I’m seeing some threads of Cinderella’s story here as well.) After some thumps and bumps in which the evil fairy manages to (a) send the girl to sleep after all and (b) keep the prince from waking her up with his true love’s kiss (which, hold on a cotton-picking minute, but says who?), he finally reaches her tower, kisses her awake (again, yikes) and they run to her parents, dress her up (again, clothes!) and get married. Ta-da.
I’m not sure how I feel about this one. Arranged marriages are an abused form of – well, arranging marriages – think of the child marriages you read about in National Geographic. But this seems to be at least relatively safe, if not somewhat mercenary (it was a political move to unite the two kingdoms). I mean, they are about the same age. And they do fall in love eventually by accident, making any arguments about whether or not they should have been matched from (her) birth at least a bit moot. And we know his name in this film! Yay! And his parents seem relatively normal! Again, yay! So good for the Sleeping Beauty prince (his name is Philip). And he actually puts in a good amount of effort to help his lady-love, which, after knowing her for one afternoon, speaks to his character. Good for him. Not so good for her, in that she marries a guy she hasn’t known very long, but (a) her parents told her to and (b) he did help her out of a good fix. Not that you should ever marry a man because you feel like you owe him something.
#4. Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
This film I did see more than once, as it was the only kids’ movie that my parents’ friends the Birds kept from their daughter’s childhood. When my parents spent their social time there, and I was two or three, they’d put on The Little Mermaid for me and go drink beer in the backyard. I’m generalizing; that’s not exactly what happened. But anyway, that is where I watched The Little Mermaid.
So Ariel is the youngest sister of a big mermaid family (apparently with no mother) who dreams about living on land, and one night she swims to the surface and observes a ship which is having a birthday party for a prince. Funny place to have your birthday, but whatever. Anyway, he’s got a name too! Yay! (It’s Eric. Which is a nice, albeit misspelled, nod to the original story’s Danish roots.) And she falls in love with him, just like that, saves him from drowning, sells her soul to an undersea devil of sorts to gain legs (giving up her voice to do so, and on the condition that she must receive a true love’s kiss from the prince before three days are up or the disguise falls away). Sea devil changes herself into an equally beautiful lady to lure the prince away from Ariel. Disaster ensues, she saves him again, this time he decides to repay her with a kiss but it is too late, the three days are up and away she swims. And then they kill the sea devil, rescue Ariel’s father, get married on the ship and sail away.
I am a bit concerned about the character of the prince in this one. Yes, he is given a name, so that is encouraging. But she just falls in love with him after having seen him for ten seconds of his life? Also, he’s partying during those ten seconds. I’d want to see a person in a few more situations before deciding I was in love with him. However, he does help her save her father later, so that’s points.
What does this one say to the little girls of 1989? Hm. If you don’t hurry up and kiss him before three days you’ll never get him and your life is over? Yuck. Change yourself to be with a man? Not so nice. Men can be lured to bad things when tempted by what they want? Yes. But so can women. Case in point: Ariel going to the undersea devil to aid her on her quest for a man.
#5. Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
I have to say first off that this is my particular favorite Disney film, so of course I am very biased about it.
So. Belle is a bookish young girl (How I Relate #1) living with her goofy father whom she loves very dearly (#2) in a very small, sort of backward town (#3), pursued by a very handsome, adored-by-all-the-other-girls type who is no match for her intellectually (a bit of #4 though I can’t cite a specific experience or person). Her dad gets lost on his way to an inventors’ fair and wanders into a castle inhabited by a very prickly (both literally and figuratively) beast. No, literally, he’s an animal – made to look on the outside like he is on the inside by a wily and perceptive enchantress who visited him before the story began. She goes to the castle, volunteers to take her dad’s place as the beast’s prisoner, and slowly begins to both engineer and witness a change of heart in said beast, until the point where he rescues her from her now-demented admirer, nearly killing himself in the process. He then, amid a certain amount of fireworks, turns into a human. And they live happily ever after.
What does this say to the little girls of 1991 (and to me)?
The discouraging thing that it says is that just being around someone and being nice to them is enough to change them from a major grump to a relatively nice, albeit still flawed, person. Which is not always true. But what this film says that I find highly encouraging is that love can change a person (not necessarily that it will, but it can) and that everyone needs it – including Belle, who has to warm up to the Beast as well before she can see him for what he is – which is not a hopeless case. And this movie is quite good because for the first time the prince (who, interestingly, is never named on screen or in the credits but who apparently has a name – and it’s Adam, and I don’t like it) has some real, in-just-about-every-sense-of-the-word character development. YAY DISNEY. I mean, I love this film, but it is beautiful and transformative nevertheless. Also, it has Angela Lansbury in it. I am fond of Angela Lansbury.
#6. Jasmine (Aladdin)
According to the very embarrassing list in my third tab, the sixth chronological princess is Jasmine, the female lead of Aladdin. I think I have seen Aladdin a maximum of three times in my life, but we’ll roll with this. I do remember being terrified by the tiger-face cave. Apparently it is based on the story from the Arabian Nights, so that’s cool.
Jasmine’s role in the film appears (from Wikipedia’s interpretation) to be minimal compared to the previous five. She meets Aladdin when both are in the marketplace (she, I think, disguised) and meets him again later when he is disguised as a prince. Then when he eventually throws off his disguise she loves him anyway (good for her!) and they live happily ever after.
This is the second film in my list which seems to have at least an adequate, if not exactly equal, amount of characterization for each half of the romantic duo. Admittedly, the film is about Aladdin, and so it is no surprise that Jasmine does not take center stage – and it is totally okay, as well. But for not being a main character, I feel like she is well drawn – she takes initiative in the climactic events, she rebels against the standards set her by her overbearing father, etc. And she prefers the authentic man to the persona, which says much for her judgment. Actually, this is quite a positive film. It even manages to say that men can be insecure about how a potential love interest will view them. Which (I hope) is true.
I can’t remember if I have ever seen this film or just the preview moments which accompany Beauty and the Beast. I think the latter is probably true.
Anyway, Pocahontas is a Native American girl, daughter of a chief, living in Virginia. A bunch of English settlers show up and she falls in love with one of them. Apparently they run to the edge of a cliff together or something. Then the man from her tribe to whom she is supposed to be married gets wind of the goings-on and fights the English guy. After some other stuff the intended fiance dies, her dad gets mad and decides he’s going to execute the English guy, and then she throws herself in front of her father to save him, hostilities abate, and he goes back to England to recuperate. He does ask her to come with him, but she says not now, thanks.
Apart from major historical inaccuracy and some wifty destiny talk that I never feel very sure about, this doesn’t seem to be too bad. She loves a guy and she evidently spends a great deal of time getting to know him, and then she is willing to sacrifice herself for him. Personally, I wouldn’t try to force my father to kill me, but then again my father is not the type to kill people anyway. And she doesn’t decide that he is her life, either. She prefers to stick to her roots. I can appreciate that, as well. In all honesty, she is probably one of the better human beings in this canon – love someone, but not to the extent that you lose yourself. Very impressive.
As for the characterization of John Smith, he is, I think, also well done. He’s a bit careless, in that it doesn’t seem to bother him that he nearly gets himself and several other people killed because he can’t keep away from his lady-love, but he respects her choice, he saves a kid from drowning and he takes time to get to know the lady he purports to be in love with. I can live with this.
I initially disliked this film when I first saw it at the age of 17 during off-weekend in Bemidji because one of the counselors said, “Yay for strong female role models!” I thought that it was silly to find your strong female role models in cartoons. Mine are all around me. Also, I don’t necessarily need my strong role models to be female, by which I have no problem with the fact that Mulan has to dress up as a man in order to do anything of consequence.
What I remember is that after an utter failure at Being a Girl in Everyday Life (which, much as it pained me to admit it at the time, is something I can relate to), she dresses up as a boy and goes off to fight in the war. Which has its hiccups, among them that she doesn’t necessarily rock everyone’s socks off at Being a Guy in Everyday Life, either. After she manages some impressive warfare and gets a cut across her chest, the men around her learn her secret and kick her out of the army, including the one she was starting to fall in love with. She goes back to her father’s house, but not before noticing that some of the enemies may have survived. Of course, no one listens to her say that, because she is a girl. Anyway, they defeat the enemy and her previous love interest comes over for dinner. Happy ending.
As I remember, the characterization in this one is pretty satisfactory. Mulan is well-developed as someone who doesn’t quite know where her role in society is, but who finds grounding in her achievements and in a seemingly solid love, and the soldier she falls in love with (and he with her) is well developed as someone who knows what’s what, but eventually comes around to a different perspective of things (yay for transformative love, again! Go Disney!).
#9. Tiana (The Princess and the Frog)
I know almost literally nothing about this film except that she is apparently the “first black princess.” I have never seen it.
According to Wikipedia, Tiana is a waitress who dreams about owning her own restaurant one day, inspired by her father. Later, she is hired by a childhood friend, daughter of the mayor, to cater a banquet or something for the arrival of a princely suitor (for the mayor’s daughter, that is). She is happy about this mainly because it is the job which will garner her the money to start her restaurant. The prince in question, however, is apparently just looking to marry rich because Daddy cut him off or something, and after going to a witch doctor he thinks will help him, is transformed into a frog. His valet is transformed into him. (Vaguely reminiscent of The Goose Girl.) He bribes Tiana to kiss him for money, and she does so, fearing that she may not be able to start her restaurant after all, but then she turns into a frog. The valet, appearing as the prince, proposes to the mayor’s daughter, but then appears as himself. The two frogs make their way to a voodoo priestess who tells them that the Frog Prince must kiss a princess to become human, and then he can kiss the Frog Princess out of her Frog State. After some more antics with transferring voodoo charms about, the two think they are stuck as frogs, get married, and then realize that now that she has married a prince, she qualifies as a princess to kiss the Frog Prince out of his Frog State. So they do. And they get married and open her restaurant.
I think I like it. Her characterization carries significant family ties; she also willingly agrees to be a frog because the man she loves is a frog. His characterization is less obvious, but he has a name, and he does appear to move from doofus to gentleman. I would like to know more about how, but, given that some of his predecessors don’t even get names, he’s not doing so bad. I may have to watch this film before I can say anything else on it.
I quite like this movie. Basically, the baby princess with the magical glowing golden hair is stolen from her parents by a witch who uses said hair to keep herself young. Rapunzel lives in the tower her entire life until Flynn Rider, who is basically an outlaw, climbs up to it, thinking to use it as a getaway. She knocks him out and hides him in her closet long enough to trick the witch into leaving them for three days, at which point she bargains with Flynn to take her out to see “the floating lanterns,” released by her parents on her birthday, unbeknownst to her. They go, and after bumping ridiculously along, they finally have their romantic evening under the lantern light. More mishaps lead to Rapunzel’s returning to her tower with a very grumpy with, realizing that she is the princess the king and queen are looking for, and then a dramatic denouement in which she loses all her hair but does manage to save the recently arrived Flynn from knife wounds to the stomach. And they live happily ever after.
Frankly this is another great example of transformative love. Yes, Flynn is an outlaw, but before the end – indeed, before the climax we see that his heart has changed and that he intends to lead a different and better life, one which Rapunzel has inspired him towards. And I quite like that he shows her everything she’s been missing by living in a tower without stripping her totally of her charming innocence and happy-go-lucky wonder attitude. In other words, he can teach a person and simultaneously preserve their sense of self. Go Flynn. Rapunzel is less of a dynamic character; her main development is learning how to defy the witch, but that’s an accomplishment in itself when you consider that she thought the witch was her mother. And anyway, this post was supposed to be about the men.
#11. Merida (Brave)
I can’t really talk about this princess, though she’s positively fabulous, because, as stated, I’m writing about the men, and she doesn’t have a love interest. And I applaud Disney for that. Yay to tell stories which don’t even have the teeniest bit of romance.
#12. Anna (Frozen)
I love this movie too. And it is true that there are two princesses involved, but Elsa, the older sister, doesn’t have a love interest. WHICH IS TOTALLY FINE AND AWESOME, by the way. So we only have one man to talk about, which is, again, fine.
His name is Kristof (spelling?) and he is a very humble, hunky Scandinavian mountain man of sorts whom I positively adore. And he has a name, and intrapersonal conflict (as acted out in “conversation” with his reindeer), and he loves, and he is embarrassed by his ridiculous family, and he works hard for what he has, and just ah. (I’d marry him, for the record.) And honestly he is probably the most complete human being we’ve seen so far; he’s even more mature than the heroine he accompanies. It takes her a while to see his value, and that’s okay, because he’s patient and loving and just ah, again. AH.
Okay, maybe I’ll have some more perspective on that film after I let it percolate a bit more. I just adore it.
Right. There you have it – characterization of male leads in the canon of Disney princess movies. Now I can finally close that embarrassing tab.