Sunday, 3 November 2013

Brave: Princesses and Responsibility

Brave: Disney Princesses and Responsibility

For as long as I can remember I’ve always been fascinated by Disney Films and their wide cast of characters, but there was always one thing I could never wrap my head around…the official Disney Princess line-up.

Now, let me clear things up, this isn’t a rant about Disney Princesses and how they are a “bad influence on young girls”. I don’t believe that. I know the young mind is open to influence and easily moulded, but I don’t think for a single second it’s causing any harm.

I was raised on Disney the moment I came into the world (I was born in 1991, the same year Beauty and the Beast hit theatres); my room was painted pink, I played with Barbie dolls, and I loved ponies. I also played video games with my brother; as we mercilessly beat each other up in Mortal Kombat, competed in Mario Kart Racing, and played the Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy games together. We watched Transformers and Power Rangers, as well as Sailor Moon and Card Captors. As long as it had a good story and likeable characters, we were invested, regardless of who the demographic audience was.

My tastes changed over the years and I grew up to study Engineering at University, and in my final year I joined the Officer Training Corps as a registered solider in the Wales Territorial Army.

And when I was a little girl I also wanted to be a princess.

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Brave, I was not aware the frizzy ginger hair heroine, wielding a bow and arrow, was in fact a Princess. I only learnt about this later on when the media made a big deal about Pixar doing their first princess film, with their first female protagonist. And I have to admit, after watching the second trailer, I was fascinated. Merida wasn’t like any other princess I had seen before. She’s out in the wild, her dress is ripped, something is stalking her, and even though she is terrified, she’s ready to defend herself with an actual weapon. This looked ground breaking. Like Pixar was turning around to Disney and saying. “Ok, you’ve had this princess formula that has worked well for you since the 1960s, but this is the new Princess archetype. This is gonna be the new standard for princess characters. This is going to be how they are portrayed, how they’re gonna act, and how they’re gonna get stuff done.”

And that’s where the problem lies with most people.

Because the film was covered with so much secrecy, because the plot was so vague, we were disappointed that the film didn’t keep a promise, it never made in the first place. Audiences all around the world already had a high expectation when walking into the cinema, so Brave never stood a chance in the first place. If the film had been advertise any other way, people would have enjoyed the experience for what it was, a mother and daughter film. They would have praised it as a good film for tackling a relationship that most media don’t tend to give nearly enough attention to, and left it at that.

In 2013, Brave went on to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year, and everyone agreed it was well deserving, but that didn’t mean there still wasn’t a bitter taste in the mouths of critics and fans who saw the potential in Brave, for what could had been but never was.

But that wasn’t the reason I was so disappointed by the film.

Going back to the release of the second trailer; as the plot and characters were slowly being revealed to the viewer, I found myself drawn to the main theme of the film, about fate and how we choose to act on it, and it was the argument between Merida and her mother that caused me to latch onto the film as strongly as I did.

Merida: I want my freedom!

Elinor: But are you willing to pay the price your freedom will cost?

The moment I heard those two sentences, along with Merida’s final words as the title appeared on screen, “If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?” I thought I knew exactly what this movie was going to be about. I thought this was going to be the Disney film I had been waiting years for, a children’s version of something like, The King’s Speech. A film that really delves into what it means to have this important title and the responsibility and sacrifice that comes along with it. I thought I was gonna see this mystical world, with a tough princess who takes no nonsense, who is training to become Queen, and because of her own selfish actions, her family and Kingdom suffer the price. She takes responsibility for what she has done and in the end proves that she is capable leader.

Which the film kinda delivers, just not in the manner I expected it to.

I suppose my unusual obsession with this aspect of royalty and politics stems from the fact that I, as a citizen of Great Britain, actually have Monarchy, and as I said at the beginning of this essay, I never understood the Disney Princess line-up, because Mulan, Belle, Cinderella, and Tiana are not princesses.

You heard me, not just Mulan, but Belle, Cinderella and Tiana as well.

Let me explain, because this is going to go over some basic knowledge for anyone who lives in the UK, Europe, Asia, and any other nation with a Royal Family.

You cannot become a princess through marriage.

I know for several of you this is common sense, but because of the numerous princess films like the one’s Walt Disney Picture’s produce, many American children in particular are growing up under the misconception that marrying a prince will make you a princess.

So, what does it mean to be one of royalty and/or nobility?

Well, titles like King or Queen, Emperor or Empress, Tsar or Tsaritsa, Raja or Rani, etc., etc. are just that, a title, no different than, Mr or Mrs, and a Prince or Princess is no different. Of course, there are many titles with different meanings depending on which royal family you belong to, but just to keep things simple, I will be using examples from the British Royal family.

The title of Prince or Princess is merely a declaration to the rest of the world you hold a spot on the waiting list to become the next ruler, regardless of whether you are the next in line, or the 100th in line.

For example, Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh is the husband to Queen Elizabeth II, yet he is not the King of England, though he is the King Consort. He possesses the title of Prince Phillip, not through his marriage to Elizabeth, but because he is already a prince to the Greek and Danish Royal families, The House of Scheswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg.

Another example is Catherine nee Middleton, the wife of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and mother of Prince George of Cambridge. However, unlike Prince Phillip who is already from a line of nobility, Catherine is not of royal blood, so she is instead, the Duchess of Cambridge. Any future daughters Catherine may have will be born with the title of Princess, whereas she will never hold such a title herself, because Catherine is not in-line to become the next ruler, her husband and children are.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Clear and simple.

And that’s what bugs me about the Disney Princess line-up, because America does not have its own Monarchy, but an elected Leader, voted by the people, who serves the people, otherwise they will be voted in place for another candidate (for better or for worse). So, regardless that these Monarchs exist all around the world, since America does not have a Monarchy of its own, it’s easy for children to wave off such titles as only existing in fairy tales. They can make up their rules about what it means to be King, what it means to be Queen, what it means to be a Prince or Princess, and no one will correct them. If princesses are portrayed as a pretty damsel to be married off, then that’s what they’ll grow up believing.

Disney Princesses in particular had this strange effect on me as I gradually grew up. As I child, I liked the idea of playing out games of make-believe princesses with my friends, but then there came a time where I took off the dress and tiara, forgot about the tea parties and festivals, and asked myself…what is it a princess actually does? As far as I knew, Kings and Queens ruled together, and Princes go out and train in ways of sword fighting. But until a princess becomes a queen, what are her responsibilities?

Children’s cartoons and books didn’t provide me with any acceptable answers, so in the end I had to come to my own conclusions…and for a short while I became scared of the word princess. As far as I knew, princesses were locked in towers because the outside world was too dangerous for them, they were kidnapped and forced to marry evil kings who want the throne all to themselves.

I was terrified and suddenly very claustrophobic, and in a fit of panic I decided I never wanted to become a princess again. I became the hero of my own stories, I rode the horse and slayed the dragon, I became a wizard who cast magic spells, I became a superhero with a cape, I became a secret agent, I became anything that wouldn’t make me feel trapped and confined ever again.

It wasn’t until years later in history class that I finally found the answers I had been looking for, and I grew to respect princesses again. The Royal Family were heads of numerous charities, they performed many public duties, they traveled to other countries on business, and joined the army. Even though should have been common knowledge, it astounded me how my stories never once told me I could do all of this. I could do something important, I could make a difference. I found the whole experience even more bittersweet, because long after my princess phase had ended, I had finally found my princess role models.

There are no Disney Princess film modeled after real life Queens and Princesses. Again, only using the UK as an example, we have a long line of well-known female rulers. When I was at school, the most discussed member of the Royal family was Queen Elizabeth I, whose reign would surpass her own father’s, King Henry VII. The Elizabethan era (1558-1603) is literally named after her. Elizabeth showed great intelligence at a young age, spoke many languages, and lived a long and successful life.

At age 18, Elizabeth II helped during the final months of WWII, trained as a driver and mechanic, she was a Junior Officer and delivered medical supplies to the troops. Princess Anne is an accomplished horsewoman and competed in the 1976 Olympics. And Diana, Princess of Wales took part in over 100 fund-raising charities and was president of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children.

Keeping in mind this is just in the UK, this is not including the work of all the other Monarchs today and throughout history.

Now, linking this back to Brave, Princess Merida was a lovely breath of fresh air in terms of Disney Princesses. Unlike Rapunzel who didn’t do much in Tangled, Merida at least acknowledged what it means to be a princess, and even though her mother’s lessons and teachings didn’t get nearly enough screen time, Merida still used what she learnt to present herself as a tall and proud figurehead against three other rulers, and used diplomats to prevent a war, as opposed to sheer force, which is what she had been using throughout the film (I’m still waiting for my future princess to take the reigns and lead her army into battle).

Brave wasn’t the Disney film I had been waiting for since I was little, but it is a Princess fantasy I would openly encourage young children to partake in. To become a strong individual who can accept the challenge of leadership and responsibility, and still balance it out with the freedom to be whatever they choose to be.

I think I’ll wrap up this essay by finally correcting the Princess Line-Up that has been tormenting me for the past few years.

Princesses by Birth

Princesses by Marriage


Hero of China

I know which one I wanna a be.

Thanks for reading. ^_^