I bet you guys thought I forgot about this thing/gave up on it! I wouldn’t blame you if you did. Honestly though, I didn’t forget about it - in fact, I think about what I should write here all the time. Usually while I’m commuting. The thing is it’s hard to decide what to write about, because there are so many options and they are all kind of connected, and I’m afraid if I start writing about one thing then it will lead to another and I’ll end up with a really long rambly post. I’m trying very hard to avoid that!
Also I procrastinate a lot.
Anyways, today I am excited because I am going to Disney World for the first time! I’ve been to Disneyland before and I loved it, so I’m pretty sure I’ll have a blast. But to stay relevant, let’s talk a little bit about Disney.
Disney gets a lot of flack for the whole Princess thing. Lately there’s been that whole issue with the Merida redesign, which I have mixed feelings about. But instead of nitpicking the “redesign” (which was not really a redesign, just ONE image depicting Merida in a different artistic style, and I really don’t think it was meant to represent Disney’s intended direction for her character) I want to talk about something that I think people ignore when they are criticizing Disney for making movies about princesses.
I think that one of the biggest problems with women in media (particularly comics & video games), which often gets overlooked in favor of criticizing female characters for being over-sexualized or not being “strong” enough, is the general lack of stories told from a woman’s perspective. When something is told from a female perspective, it’s generally dismissed as being only for women (see: chick flicks, chick lit). I’m not going to deny that there is a lot of crappy media out there targeted towards women, and I think a lot of it is crappy because it is targeted towards women, but that shouldn’t mean that a story told from a female perspective is automatically any less legitimate than one told from a male perspective.
I want to make something clear: I am not talking about a lack of female characters, or the shoehorning of female characters into specific stereotypes/gender roles. These are obviously issues as well, but I don’t think they can really change until there is an increase in the quantity of popular media/stories told by women. Honestly, you can create as many “token female” characters as you want, and you can make them strong and independent and capable, but it’s not going to help much until there is an actual shift in narrative, because until female characters are given as much of a voice as male characters, they are still going to be “the other”, or just a cool prop.
What do I mean when I say female perspective? It might not be obvious. Here’s a fun test: take any IP that you like, whether it’s a movie or a comic book or a tv show or a video game, and ask yourself “who is this story about?” It could easily be an ensemble, but usually there are one or two characters a story is really about. Meaning they are the characters the audience is meant to empathize with, who really grow emotionally throughout the story — the audience sees the story from their perspective. There is an astonishing imbalance towards male characters, to the point where it’s as if the male perspective is the “default”. This imbalance exists EVERYWHERE. Show me a commercial told from a woman’s point of view that isn’t about weight loss or household cleaning products.
What does this have to do with Disney? Well, they have an entire brand that revolves around female characters, and in that way it is pretty unique. Yes, they are princesses, some of them reinforce negative gender roles and are pretty terrible (I’m looking at you, Snow White & Sleeping Beauty) — but the important point is that Disney princess movies are about women. They give young girls stories of their own, stories where they don’t have to look for that token female character and wish that she was given a little more focus. A lot of these stories get criticized because they involve a woman overcoming some odds “in order to be with a man,” as if because she is doing something for love, she is no longer a legitimate role model. They get criticized because there’s no real love story there anyways, the woman and man fall in love at first sight without getting to know each other, or the characters aren’t “deep” enough. (Can we take a moment to remember that these movies are intended for younger audiences, and consider how much character depth they can really process?) I’m going to be bold for a second and suggest that maybe there isn’t a real love story in Disney movies because the princess is not in love with the prince at all — he only represents a more ideal situation that she wants to strive for.
Let’s try another fun test: imagine a story where there is a male character in a not-ideal situation, he meets a woman who represents a better life for him, and he overcomes odds in order to be with her. Does the man get criticized for changing his life for a woman, or does the woman get criticized for being a non-character? (hint: it’s the woman.) Let’s not forget how entirely unimportant the princes are in Disney movies. How many names of Disney princes do you remember? Maybe consider how important it is just for there to be female role models available to young girls, female characters who are actively making their own decisions and moving the story along, no matter whether they are doing it to “be with a man” or not.
So why is content so important? What about all of the problems with how female characters are marketed, or represented in merchandise (or not represented at all)? The thing is that it’s a self-perpetuating problem. Boys watch action movies and read superhero comics, girls watch romantic comedies and read fashion magazines. So by all means, continue making gendered products targeted to specific genders, because that is how money will get made. But marketing is all based on target audiences, which is based on statistics, and that is never going to change. I think real change has to come from what content is being produced, with less thought given to who it is being produced for. The Avengers was one of the highest grossing movies of all time, and it’s great that they have Black Widow in there, but like I mentioned before, she’s little more than a cool prop — until there is a good, solid movie about a female superhero (Carol Danvers, please!), superheros will continue to be marketed for guys. That’s what I’m talking about.
(A little side note here, I’d like to give a shout out to an awesome woman whose blog I’ve been following & who gives a very real perspective to the whole Princess thing and how the Disney Princess brand actually affects young girls versus how adults think it does: http://www.theprincessforhire.com/ Definitely check her out if you are interested in that subect! Also just as a disclaimer, I am not trying to say that Disney is perfect by any means — it has plenty of issues, but I do think their princesses are more important than people like to think)