By Dori Koehler
Some time ago I wrote a guest blog suggesting that Persephone was the first Disney princess. By way of expanding that topic, I thought I’d share a blog I wrote about the princesses themselves.
“Where there is kindness, there is goodness. Where there is goodness, there is magic.”—Cinderella film (2015)
Confession: I love fairy tales in general and Disney fairy tales in particular. My identification with Disney princesses is so deep that it has often become a source of humor among my friends and family. My husband still claims that the fastest he has ever seen me run is after Belle in Fantasyland one night when I was searching for an autograph. I love them. And, I’m very protective of them.
As one would assume, then, it has been bothering me for a long time that there is a general critique of the Disney princesses as antifeminist. I’ve even spoken about it in public academic forums. Some time back, I gave a talk about the Disney princesses and the Jungian anima complex at a meeting of the Popular Culture Association. My thesis was/is that Disney princesses reflect for the Disney studio what Jung suggested was a male projection of femininity. And since the studio (not to mention the animators) has, like the rest of Hollywood, been largely male throughout its history, well, enough said.
I find Jung’s gendered language limiting. I feel that in continuing to align these concepts with biological gender only, the depth psychological, mythological, literary, and film studies communities continue to reinforce the status quo of all kinds of gender inequality. I do, however, agree with Jung’s concept of the anima–the idea that there is feminine archetypal energy in our psychological reality, as well as in myriad feminine archetypal images, all neither entirely positive nor entirely negative. I just happen to think that biological gender assignment has nothing to do with how one experiences them per se.
In 2012, I gave a paper on Merida at a Film and Myth conference in Milwaukee. In it, I suggested that Brave was an American feminist response to the over-masculinized and over-militarized myths of American mythic Scotland. I focused on the concept of the feminine as more than biological gender. To me, there is something about inherently feminine qualities, feminine energy in terms of relationship, and community building that has been undervalued and under-appreciated and is lacking in our culture. This energy is rising, certainly, but in our complicated times, where inequalities of all types remain present, it is difficult to navigate the nuances of it.
Much criticism exists about the princesses regarding their presentation of body image, their insanely perfect hair, and their focus on romance and marriage. I’ve heard the princesses criticized as cogs in the marketing machines whose entire purpose is to create “bling girls” so distracted by stuff they want to acquire that they don’t think critically. While I agree that there is some truth in that, I’ll leave those discussions to friends who are inclined to have them. Instead, I’d like to talk about the kind of positive mytho-psychic impact the Disney princesses have. In order to do that, I suggest that we disentangle these archetypal images from gender, and see them as messages from the archetypal feminine.
Disney princesses often are criticized for being weak and without volition. How can that be true? In every Disney princess tale, the actions of the princesses bring healing to their community. Sometimes they bring it through fighting—Mulan and Merida—and sometimes they bring it through their ability to be a catalyst for change—Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. Why interpret them as weak and without volition? Is it because we see the stories where the princess herself is a catalyst as a sign of weakness? Is this assertion of weakness perhaps because we’ve learned to equate gentleness and kindness with powerlessness? Maybe?
Disney princesses are not shallow, vapid, helpless women who spend all day singing in the forest and looking for a prince. They are brave and tenacious. And none of them acts alone. Animals, dragons, trees, good fairies, brothers, people enchanted into household objects, the world—all of the communities that surround the princess are helpers that one might miss if one was not paying attention or did not have the sensitivity to see them. These stories are not about conquering. They are about finding love and meaning in the world.
Let’s look at a list:
Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora reconnect with humans and animals, offering their creature friends safety, a human who sees them as sentient beings rather than commodities to be harnessed.
Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Merida are, among other things, literal saviors who are willing to fight and even die if necessary for those they love.
Rapunzel and Tiana refuse to give up on their dreams and are able to partner successfully with men who respect them, honor their ambitions, and participate with them.
Each of these characters sacrifices aspects of her own autonomy because she loves, whether it is her kingdom, her family, her animal companions, her dreams, and her lover. Why do we fear vulnerability so much? Is it because we fear the pain of it being unreciprocated? Perhaps. Perhaps we fear losing own power. Perhaps we criticize these characters in the wake of a culture of misogyny. Perhaps we are simply rebelling against a media onslaught of imagery that lacks texture. Perhaps we simply resent what we perceive to be a lack of options for female characters. These are all appropriate reactions to the misogyny so often present in our culture. These characters become problematic, however, only to the extent that they are presented as the exclusive option for female characters. And doesn’t this lack of options also happen to male characters as well?
True vulnerability is powerful. It is our strength. We can know what it is to love and connect with others and ourselves only if we are willing to lay down a bit of our own autonomy. Rather than simply dismiss the Disney princesses, can we not seek to present them as an expression of the soft facet of feminine archetypal imagery? Why not make it OK for human beings to be vulnerable—period. If we think in these terms, perhaps we will begin to understand why these types of images are essential to humanity’s ability to love and empathize. After all, do we really want to risk missing the gentle beauty of goodness, kindness, and magic?
Dori Koehler, holds an MA and a PhD in Mythological Studies with emphasis in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She focuses her research on American popular culture, particularly Disney Studies. Her dissertation considered Disneyland as sacred locale in the American mythic tradition. On the conference circuit, she has presented on the Disney Princesses as a reflection of the anima and on Pixar’s Brave as an American feminist re-visioning of Scotland’s Braveheart myth. She presented at the first ever Discussing Disney conference held in 2014 at the University of Hull in Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire, UK. Her newest article on Walt Disney as a manifestation of the trickster archetype grew out of that presentation and will be published in a collection of essays from that conference this coming autumn through John Libbey Publishing. Her first book, The Mouse and the Myth: The Sacred Art and Secular Ritual of Disneyland will be released through John Libbey Publishing and Indiana University Press in the spring of 2017.