There are many eerie things hidden in strange corners of the web. One of my recent discoveries is live footage of Disney’s animated films. Not so much the recent ones, I have no interest in them. But the older ones. The ones based on fairy tales. Grainy, crackly footage in which Mary Costa dances all the steps of Aurora’s role for The Sleeping Beauty. This touches a nerve, watching the film for the first time, I knew Aurora was real. Her voice is real, the Germanic forests are sketches of real places. I have visited those castles. Aurora is the francified incarnation of Brunhilde, who like all myths, can only exist if she is real. Tchaikovsky is most definitely real. The footage of Aurora is the missing link.
As a young girl I was obsessed with Fairy Tales, in books, in films, in ballets, in plays. I think I bought into the Princess brand long before Disney decided to package it as “Disney Princesses”. It tapped into something in my psyche, perhaps our society is still more feudal than we care to admit, and being the princess would solve certain problems. Cinderella becomes a princess to avoid having to do all the housework. Belle marries the prince to escape her boring hick neighbours in her village. The princess always has the best dresses and shoes. As a princess you can chop someone’s head off if they annoy you (this isn’t shown in any of the Disney movies, but it does happen).
The ‘Disney Princesses’ brand is now huge. I first heard about it via the FT, that’s how commercial it is. I have yet to see the phenomenon that is Disney-Princesses-On-Ice, which sounds like it could have been invented by one of the five-year-old girls it is aimed at. But I am perversely fascinated by it. Does Ariel the mermaid appear in this spectacle? And how would she skate if she is half fish? What about Snow White and Aurora who spend most of their time asleep? Maybe they could just lie in the middle and the other girls could skate around them.
The official clique of princesses now consists of -Aurora, Ariel, Snow White, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Cinderella, Tiana and Belle. I have listed them in strict feudal order, highest first, but I’m sure this is open to debate. Aurora and Ariel might be immortal, which would rank them highest. Snow White is a princess (temporarily deposed), Jasmine is a princess, Pocahontas is a princess but as a Native American she doesn’t go in for the whole ownership of land thing, which is the first rule of feudalism, Mulan is the daughter of a warrior, Cinderella is a rich man’s daughter, Tiana is a waitress and Belle is the daughter of a poor inventor.
It is easy to hate Disney, their pre-packaged versions of classical stories, minus the gritty parts and their shameless retailing of spin-off tat is deeply annoying. But the skill involved in making either their early hand drawn movies, or the later computer animated pieces is phenomenal. Disney occupies a bizarre place in our society. Anyone who fancies themselves as intellectual, non-materialist, feminist, politically correct, edgy or counter-cultural loves to hate them. They are an easy target. Yet, in the free market we almost are, we vote with our feet every time they bring out a new movie. Even if you can resist them, will your children be strong enough?
My issue with them is that by watering down the stories, you can lose the main point. In a mediaeval society Cinderella’s step-mother probably would have killed or abandoned her rather than just made her do the washing up. This is why the motif of an orphaned or impoverished girl marrying a nobleman was such a powerful idea, and one which appeared in so many fairy tales. With any Disney storyline, it’s worth looking up their earlier roots in Gothic & Fairy tales, to see just how dark some of them are. There is a parallel universe somewhere where Disney is very grim indeed.
The Disney Princess brand works because there is some small demon in the female psyche which makes us all want to be a princess. Even in this day and age where there are other ways of getting on in life (you don’t have to marry a prince) it latches onto something in us. In feudal times marring a nobleman might have been the difference between starving and not starving. But that’s hardly relevant now. I once babysat a girl who insisted that she was a Disney princess. She screamed all night. I’m not sure which princess she thought she was. maybe just a generic ‘Disney Princess’, is that now a byword for spoilt-brat?
I’m not sure I like the idea of the princesses being hijacked by over-indulged middle class children. Especially as the middle-class and the aristocracy are diametrically opposed, but rest assured the princesses and the fairy tails they came from are immortal and will be around in one form or another long after the nouveau riche are extinct and the Disney corporation is collapsed.