Over the holidays, I finally got a chance to see the animated movie Tangled. I not only laughed at the jokes and enjoyed the fairy tale romp, but I left the theatre with the distinct impression that Disney has taken a few more baby steps on the path to feminism.
Just to be clear, I’m suggesting that Disney is getting closer to embracing feminism. They still have quite a long way to go, but it seems that the Disney corporation is warming up to the idea of letting girls have their own adventures.
Indulge me, if you will, in a bit of Disney nostaglia. Snow White, Disney’s first animated feature-length film, was about a princess who, when thrust from her home in the bleak winter and forced to fend for herself, dreams of only one thing — a husband. Not returning home, not reclaiming her good name and place in society. Just a husband. To that end, she practices keeping house with seven dwarfs. And in the end, she does ultimately find a husband.
After a few animated films featuring animals, the next Disney princesses were Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella, a young woman from a privileged family, was forced into servitude after her father passes away. The only thing that could save her from a life of misery was, say it with me now, a prince. Sleeping Beauty was a princess who was cursed by a witch and pricked her finger on a spinning wheel, causing her to sleep for many years. The only thing that could awaken her? A prince.
Don’t even get me started on the evil stepmothers and witches who played prominent roles in these tales, residing on the other end of the spectrum from the innocent young maidens they sought to destroy.
After having either enchanted or enraged two generations of women, Disney decided to see what they could do with the next generation. Enter The Little Mermaid in 1989, part of the “new” Disney. Ariel’s entire adventure started with her desire to be with a young man. Disney followed this success with a slew of animated musicals involving princesses, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pochantas and Hercules.
Then came 1998’s Mulan — one of the first Disney princesses who was also a feminist. Mulan was inventive, could hold her own at the training camp and ultimately saved China. The impetus for her adventure was not to hang out with the boys, but to save her father from having to enlist in the war. Disney followed Mulan with a few more hits, including Tarzan, but none of them created memorable female characters.
Finally in 2009, we met Tiana — Disney’s first African-American “princess” and one whose adventure did not start with a guy. Tiana was on her way to becoming a business owner when a little bit of New Orleans magic turned her into a frog. She then traveled through the bayous and swamps, using her own intuition and skill to keep herself and her companions, including a prince who had also been turned into a frog, out of danger. The story threw a lot of twists and curves her way, but Tiana held her own.
Which brings us to 2010. In Tangled, Rapunzel is perfectly happy just being herself, except for that whole stuck in a tower thing. When she is freed, it is under her own weight, with her own hair and to follow her own urgings. She simply wants to see the “floating lights.” The “prince” character (who isn’t actually royalty this time around) is not even a catalyst, except that he knows where the floating lights are. If a fairy tale GPS had made its way into Rapunzel’s tower, she’d have used that instead. And that is where Disney is starting to get it right.
The adventure that Rapunzel goes on is not in pursuit of any man or to fulfill a stereotype. She’s curious. About things in the sky. Hey, that’s science! Rapunzel can run, swim, outlogic and outthink any of the characters in the movie. She leads the way and saves the male character’s life more than once. When we look back again, years from now, we will view her as one of Disney’s prototypical feminists.
Of course, in all the movies I’ve highlighted, including Tangled, the princess ultimately falls in love with and gets the guy. Some might argue that Disney pulls a lot of its source material from old fairy tales and children’s stories, so it’s not Disney that is anti-feminist but the stories themselves. In answer to that, I contend that there are literally thousands of stories from all the cultures of the world, yet Disney has consistently picked ones where a princess needs saving, and that is not a good message to continually promote.
But if you look at women’s roles throughout these movies, you will see that Disney has been giving them more autonomy and more of an active role — which is progress, however slight.
Disney has a long way to go before they create a truly feminist animated character. But their most recent efforts, with only a few backslides, have exhibited an awareness, faint though it may be, that girls can have adventures, too.