Sunday, March 13, 2011

Disney: Actually Empowering Girls?

I've been on a Disney kick lately, ever since ABCFamily showed Snow White and Aladdin back to back. It's been a really long time since I've watched any of the Princess Franchise movies, and watching Snow White (1937) and Aladdin (1992) together was incredibly....eye-opening. Ever since declaring myself a feminist a few years back, Disney has been sort of the enemy, the culmination of a society that thinks women should do nothing but find love, get married, and stay in the kitchen. Also be well-behaved and serve her husband. And certainly at one point in time that's exactly how women were portrayed to young girls in these movies.

But not anymore.

In Aladdin, Jasmine is a very aggressive, out-spoken young woman. She has dreams of seeing far off places beyond the palace and declares that "IF she gets married, it will be for love." She rejects her father's commands and tells men off for treating her like a "prize to be won." A far cry from Snow White, a bland, pretty woman with a sing-songy voice who doesn't seem to actually have any intelligent thoughts. Of course, the evil, cunning witch is a woman, but I suppose that's the price you pay for intelligence when you have a vagina: sin.

The difference was so striking, I went back to some other movies to see what they were like.

Pocahontas follows the beats of her own drum. Her father suggests she marry a warrior, but that doesn't seem right to her. She doesn't know what her path should be, and she's still searching. When she meets John Smith and he seems ignorant to her ways, she teaches him, unafraid of having an opposing view. She stands her ground against her village and the Englishman and opposes their violence, speaking up against literally everybody.

Mulan seems to not be able to do anything right. She'll never make a good bride, she speaks to men when not spoken to, and is overall exactly the opposite of what anyone expects of a well-behaved woman. To protect her father, she goes to war in his place even though she will be killed if they find out she's a woman. She stands up for what's right and stands up for all of China. At the end, the Emperor praises her courage and heroism. Despite having initially hidden her gender, she stood before all of China a woman, and a hero.

Of course, in all of these movies, the woman finds love, but it's secondary, an afterthought to the real goal. Mulan doesn't go to war to find a husband, she goes to protect her father and prove herself. Pocahontas finds love in John Smith, but in this love she finds the power to protect and save her people, and ultimately decides to stay with them, when she could have skipped off merrily with her new boyfriend. Sound a little different from the cliche' waiting for a man to sweep her off her feet kind of story?

I was actually planning on watching these movies and counting the number of times a sexist or anti-feminist ideal was spouted, testing the idea that perhaps these movies aren't as bad as I thought. Halfway through Pocahontas I realized I had nothing bad to say about the movie, and about 20 minutes in to Mulan I was convinced she might be one ofthe strongest female characters written. These are actually good movies, with wonderful female characters for young girls to look up to.

It was a pleasant surprise, and I'm glad I returned to these movies. I'm really starting to think all the amazing animation and story-telling are wasted on the youth, because I did NOT appreciate these movies before now.

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