Kate Harrold on Disney’s ongoing fight to be feminist…
The Disney Princess is an iconic film archetype and one that has been around since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves premiered in 1938 and it doesn’t seem to be a figure fading from our cultural canon anytime soon. With reinvention being a continuous process, the Disney Princess still dominates Disney’s slates of both original, animated films and the more divisive series of live-action remakes. As might be expected, traits of the Disney Princess have developed alongside those in society but recently, Disney seem to be struggling. Remakes have become an opportunity to redesign iconic princesses for a modern audience yet Disney is stuck in a paradox of criticisms.
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Feminism isn’t new for Disney. It’s been thrown around since the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999). Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle turned down the advances of the hyper-masculine, Gaston. The Little Mermaid’s Ariel went against the path set for her by her father. Both Pocahontas and Mulan literally prevented wars from happening yet it seems to be post-2010 when feminism becomes a major concern for Disney. It’s no accident that Moana and Frozen‘s Elsa have no love interests. In fact, both films include jokes that humour Disney Princess stereotypes: the animal sidekick and love at first sight, respectively.
Both Moana and Frozen were warmly received so why has the live-action series of Disney Princess remakes proved to be so divisive in comparison? In a recent appearance on The Ellen Show, Keira Knightley publicly criticised Cinderella for, “wait[ing] around for a rich guy to rescue her.” She further advised The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel, “do not give up your voice for a man.” Disney wants to uphold it’s wholesome reputation but such comments pose a challenge. That’s where the live-action series seemed like a sound solution.
The live-action remake seemed to provide Disney with the opportunity to reimagine ‘outdated’ Disney princesses and they were hardly subtle in their bid to do so. 2019’s Aladdin notably added a subplot which saw Jasmine determined to become the first female Sultan. This was accompanied by new girl-power anthem ‘Speechless,’ which quite literally states, “I won’t be silent. You can’t keep me quiet” – a topical concept in the #MeToo era. Early trailers seem to suggest that 2020’s Mulan has eradicated many of the typical princess traits including the film’s songs, dragon sidekick Mushu and even Mulan’s love-interest, Li-Shang.
The casting of Halle Bailey in the upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid seeks to extend Disney’s interest in progressivism into the realm of intersectional feminism by casting an African-American actress in a previously Caucasian role. On paper, Disney is making the right decisions. They’re attempting to champion diversity and female agency and the live-action format thus modernises the legacy of the Disney Princess whilst preserving the magic of the original animation. Little girls meeting Jasmine at Disneyland aren’t going to differentiate between the two incarnations.
That being said, you don’t have to delve very far into the depths of the internet to find criticisms of 2019’s Jasmine. Silver Screen Riot’s Matt Oakes deems the film an “opportunistic carbon copy,” with Jasmine’s song ‘Speechless,’ “painfully forklifted into the middle of a section it has no business invading.” Likewise, The Wrap’s William Bibbiani praises the notion of the song but criticises it’s placement in a “fantasy sequence. Nobody else hears it.” Whether feminism is welcomed or not, Disney can’t seem to get it right either way.
Disney seems to be fighting a battle they can’t win and the live-action remake is showing signs of fatigue. Amidst the controversary surrounding Bailey’s casting and the recent campaigns to Boycott Mulan, the upcoming Lady and the Tramp remake appears to be unproblematic. However, it’s November release on new streaming service, Disney+ as opposed to traditional theatrical release could signify a declining interest in rehashing perfectly good films. The recent D23 Expo lacked any significant announcements regarding upcoming live-action remakes. Clearly, the success of Moana and Frozen prove that audiences want to see a 21st century princess but taking their childhood heroes and trying to modify them to contemporary standards just doesn’t seem to be the way to do it.
And so whilst Disney may have all the right intentions, hopes for the next well-received Disney heroine lie in the tried and true format of animation. 2020’s Raya and the Last Dragon will see Disney return to creating an original heroine and hopefully, she will be one we can all champion.