Thursday, June 14, 2012

Disney Princesses: New Drawings, New Problems

Fairy tales are in right now. It seems more and more on TV, in books and films, taking these old classics and re-imagining them in the modern world and in modern contexts. While it’s something we like to see, we also do think it has its flaws.

Recently we came across these series of images of Disney Princesses made bad ass. And that’s definitely something we support. We’re beyond tired of heroines whose role in their story is to lie back and wait passively for a prince to rescue them. We much prefer heroines who not only can rescue themselves - but won’t be kidnapped or imprisoned in the first place, not if you know what’s good for you! So these images in fighting poses and weapons looking mean? We like.

Except... why does being bad ass mean a woman has to lose her clothes? They’ve become tough, dangerous, mean fighters - and this involves fish-net stockings (Snow White), a loin cloth (Cinderella, Belle, Rapunzel), and a bared navel (pretty much all of them). And Sleeping Beauty (ye gods). We’ve seen this time and again, when a woman goes to fight she leaves her clothes behind. Can a woman’s clothes and a weapon not exist in the same picture?

This unnecessary sexualisation of women whenever they are pro-active seems to be part of a prevalent message that a woman cannot be powerful or aggressive without it relating to being sexual; she is reduced to sex.

And these images have other flaws when we look at the WOC

 Princess Tiana

The Princess and the Frog is fraught with problems from start to finish. Unlike the majority of the Disney Princesses, Tiana did not get to retire to a castle with her princess charming, she got to run a restaurant. We see her at the end of the movie serving food to people. It is not an accident that the first Black princesses did not get the fairytale ending. If that were not enough, she spends most of the movie as a frog. A frog people. You would think that any kind of revision would be be better than the original but that is not the case.

Tiana goes from being fully clothed in the Disney version to being heavily exposed. Why does sexualizing a character which has already been othered relative to the White princesses equal empowerment? You don’t need to be naked to kick ass. Tiana is also the only princess who was given a gun.  Am I really supposed to ignore the racial implications here because some artist wants to yell rah rah sisterhood of the travelling pantsuits?

Princess Jasmine

In the world of Disney Princesses, Jasmine is without doubt the exotic other.  She is alluring and always sexually tempting while her counterparts like Belle and Snow for example are demure and innocent.  

She is the archetype of white colonial fantasies: the alluring dark-skinned woman, exotically desirable like cinnamon and indigo and other spices that were the corporate backbone of colonialism, a hedonistic indulgence counterpointing the tastes of 'civilized' Europeans. Profitable, but not an equal by any means. Exploitable, and therefore undeserving of respect. In the words of Ursula Rucker: "good enough to fuck but/ not good enough to vote". (source)

Clearly it would not be hard to improve upon Disney’s version but rather than re-imagining the problematic, the image of Jasmine only serves to be an even larger disaster than the original. Though Jasmine is armed her body is far more visible (those trousers covered far too much) and her breasts have clearly been enlarged.  She is both challenging and sexual.  Unfortunately since she is still drawn from the colonizers gaze she is not empowered but once again reduced to an object for pleasure.


The main thing that strikes us about the Mulan is that she is bad ass in the series. She kicks ass on her own and carries a weapon as well - big weapons, swords and staffs. But this? Suddenly her big weapons have been replaced by more subtle War Fan (at least I hope it’s a War Fan) - and while they’ve kept her fully clothed they’ve also put her in something much more excessively stereotypically Chinese.

Then we’re drawn to her face - the other Princesses look angry, furious, challenging (or smug in the case of Sleeping Beauty) snarling or sneering. Mulan looks almost... demure. Which is, alas, another very powerful Asian stereotype. This isn’t bad ass Mulan, they’ve taken her bad assery away for a collection of stereotypes.


War paint, tomahawks, fringed leather and feathers. Someone’s playing bingo here. She has switched from the Noble Savage trope of the movies to the plain Savage trope of this image. Throw in some really skin tight jeans (I’d say at least she got to wear trousers - but it does over-emphasise her crotch) which serves to make it clear this image is supposed to be modern.

And, of course, we couldn’t criticise this image without pointing out the obvious - her skin has been lightened.

We welcome the revisioning and revisiting of Fairy Tales. These stories need re-examing - and retelling with new contexts and new eyes. But if we’re going to review these, if we’re going to address some of the tropes that so dogged them down then let us address all of them. And preferably not add new tropes to the problems list..