When I taught my module on the History and Theory of Animation to my final year undergrads at the University of Surrey last semester I was really looking forward to the week on representation of gender. I’ve taught this class several times before and the week’s scheduled student presentation on Disney princesses usually leads to a lively discussion. I wasn’t disappointed in terms of the level of participation in the discussion, but I was really disappointed for other reasons, and this is why…
The presentation sessions in my module are entirely student-led. I try to stay out of it as much as possible, sometimes chipping in something to the discussion at the end so long as I feel I won’t railroad things or disempower the student-as-teacher model of these sessions. But this week I could barely contain myself from exploding. For the most part, the discussion had taken the predictable route – students had talked about their own childhood experiences of watching Disney and their love (or loathing) of the princess character. Some interesting avenues had been explored, including the evolution of the princess and whether or not the (in many cases equally as stereotyped) male characters were as problematic. The class has a relatively equal number of male and female students in a small cohort who have known each other for three or four years, so discussion was relaxed, supportive and productive.
But, things took a strange turn as students talked further about the negative aspects of the gender stereotyping of the princesses. The female students in particular seemed to be grappling with their brain vs. their heart. They all agreed that the princess was a negative stereotype, particularly in the older films. However, they then began to question whether that was problematic. They had all grown up watching Disney movies, loving Disney movies and loving Disney princesses. These characters are deeply nostalgic for them. And they were clearly finding this hard to reconcile with their intellectual recognition of issues of gender representation. It was when (a female) student said something along the lines of ‘but what does it matter? These films are just for children! What harm can it do?’ that I could no longer contain myself. ‘Have we taught you nothing?!?’ I yelled, to my students’ apparent surprise, before launching into an impassioned rant about exactly why it matters, and matters very much, what young girls are taught to aspire to by popular culture.
*Sigh* My students are a smart, articulate and energetic. The female students are confident. But it seems that while they may fully appreciate the profound insight of the cartoon below, they can’t shed that nostalgic princess dream. I love Snow White for so many reasons, but I’m already wondering about when, and how, I’ll show it to my little daughter. Maybe I’ll just make sure I have one of the brilliantly-sloganned ‘This princess saves herself’, or ‘Why be a princess when you can be a president?’ A Mighty Girl t-shirts to hand when I do.
Bella Honess Roe is film scholar and lecturer who specialises in documentary and animation. In 2013 her book Animated Documentary, the first book-length study of the animated documentary, was published by Palgrave. She has published articles and chapters on topics in animation, documentary and film studies more broadly in publications including the Journal of British Film and Television and Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal.
She is co-editing a collection of essays with Maria Pramaggiore on ‘documentary and the voice’, which will also be the focus of a symposium in September 2014 at the University of Surrey. She is working on various other research projects, including factual play in the collaborative work of Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan, a project on Aardman animation and another one on the visual culture of the invisible. She teaches in the Film Studies programme at the University of Surrey, UK, and blogs occasionally about her research at http://bellahonessroe.wordpress.com.
The contradiction between students’ intellects and personal experiences and their feelings of warmth and nostalgia for Disney animated films played out in an interesting and heated way at The Evergreen State College last spring, where a group calling themselves The Quisney Project presented a 3 hour piece of musical theater (“The Quisney Project Presents O.U. T. (“Once Upon A Time”)) about the struggles of growing up queer in eastern Washington State. The original script appropriated songs from Disney films of the 1990s (ones these students had grown up with), parodied and recontextualized them with different lyrics and different scenarios. In the story a range of characters try to navigate their way through the conservative, hetero-normative social structure of “St. Liberty High School” while still being true to their individual, emerging senses of themselves as gendered and sexual beings. The script surfaced issues of shaming, bullying and suicide as well as young people’s abilities to work across significant differences, support each other and create positive learning environments. For many faculty and staff, it epitomized our pedagogy and made us very proud of what Evergreen students are able to do. The Quisney Project crew worked hard to analyze the subtexts of the Disney material, extricating themselves from its ideological hold while still expressing their love for it. My favorite image from the performance was of a young woman sitting in her bedroom, wrapped in a fleece blanket decorated with Disney princesses, and reading Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Outside, her new girlfriend startles her by tossing pebbles at the window. Unfortunately, and in spite of strong faculty advocacy and support, our risk averse college administration determined that the students’ appropriation of Disney music in this way was not a clear enough case of fair use for it to support the production. The show went on anyway. The controversy ensured capacity audiences for 4 nights (in a little theater that only sat 50), and provided many teachable moments and the most lively discussion in a faculty meeting I’ve witnessed in 17 years. The point of telling this story is to say that it’s our duty as educators (and parents, if I was one!) to equip young people with intellectual skills to analyze the cultures in which they are steeped, set up frequent opportunities for self-reflection on how various ideas and assumptions have influenced their own lives, and give them permission and the creative tools with which to respond on their own terms. Young people do want to be free, so if we create the right conditions and trust them, they will find their way.
Thanks for a very thought provoking post Bella. As a father of a 6 year old daughter I equally have a heart/mind split on this topic, treading a line between making her aware of the opportunities available to her, sharing my love of animation and allowing her to make her own choices (even if they are choices shaped by her friends and wider culture). The cartoon you post is a pretty good skewering of the Disney Princess brand – it uses the character models from that consumer product range and I’ve been appalled at the Disney Princess magazines in the way the stories almost always revolve around being ‘pretty’, along with the plastic gifts generally being jewellery (although even here there are exceptions – ecological themes often creep in).
Yet, I don’t find this range expresses the complex meanings I find in the Disney animated features upon which they are supposedly based. The films are multifaceted works of art that can’t be reduced to a single meaning. One of the major criticisms of ‘postmodern’ theories is that in emphasising polysemy they negate ideology and the power relations it maintains. I don’t want to do that. Let me be clear: I am in no way offering an apologia for those films and it is important we draw attention to their reproduction of gender stereotypes, especially to our students and children. Nevertheless, when I watch Snow White I see an intricate (contradictory?) representation of femininity that reflects a specific historical moment, something to which I can’t hope to do justice here, as well as a whole host of other pleasures besides. I feel sure this is at the root of mine, your’s and your students’ continued attraction to these films and also what allows alternative readings and appropriation of the kind Ruth describes. We need more work that is able to encompass this complexity while bringing attention to the ideological construction therein. A great place to start is Kirsten Thompson’s ‘“Quick–Like a Bunny!” The Ink and Paint Machine, Female Labor and Color Production’ in the Animation Studies journal: http://journal.animationstudies.org/kirsten-thompson-quick-like-a-bunny/
That student production sounds fantastic Ruth – I wish I could have seen it. And it makes me very happy to hear about young women so actively and creatively questioning the social and gender norms of Disney.
And thanks for the great link Malcolm and the analysis of why Disney manages to pull us in so many directions
Excellent post and comments…I had lots of thoughts on this last week but didnt get a chance to post…saw this article in the UK Guardian newspaper today though – seems we are indeed timely! http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/aug/12/former-eastenders-star-tamzin-outhwaite-disney-unrealistic-depiction-women
Well if Tamzin Outhwaite says it, then it must be true 😉
[…] figure from childhood. Such complexities are considered by Bella Honess Roe who recently posted a similar discussion on this topic. Yet, despite conflicting opinion in the group about the possible lasting effects, most people […]
With Ariel, the implications are there. But she had been curious about the human world beforehand and falling in love with and saving Eric was the catalyst of all that.
Snow White does very well for surviving in the world on her own, and it’s when she’s at the dwarfs’ cottage that she plays the most active role in the movie. Even when she receives the apple she’s trying to win one of them over.
In ‘Aladdin: The Series’, Aladdin and Jasmine aren’t even married yet. They go on adventures together. They visit all sorts of places, battling evil. That’s a healthy relationship. They don’t even get married until the end of the third movie.
‘Why be a princess when you can be a president?’ Vanellope von Schweetz certainly does.
[…] From Animation Studies 2.0, I found this article called: “Disney Princesses… What harm can they do? by Bella Honess Roe” particularly interesting. (https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=843) […]
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