Disney v. Game of Thrones

I couldn’t quite believe when I first thought about this post that I would defend Disney. I do not loathe Disney the corporation (well not any more than any other multinational megaconglomerate), although I don’t like Mickey Mouse. I don’t like any of the main Disney characters, actually, but I freely admit I like their animated movies, from Snow White to more recent things like The Princess and the Frog, and of course the movies done by Pixar under the Disney umbrella.

You read quite a bit these days, among all the huff and puff about girls and sexism in society and all of that, about how bad the Disney Princesses are for girls. But are they?

I was never a terribly “girly girl,” as they say, and although I liked movies like Cinderella and Snow White, I never pretended to be either character. I never role-played such things, by myself or with friends. But that’s okay. I didn’t really hold anything against them, it just wasn’t my thing, as they say.

Surely you’ve seen the internet meme images. Like this one, which reduces the princesses to some basics. At this blog page, the author reproduces the text for discussion in her comments.

So let’s look at this. Are these comments accurate? Sure, to a degree. But can they be interpreted another way? Probably. And to be clear, although I know most of the fairy tales have been “Disneyfied,” I’m going with the Disney interpretation because that’s what’s usually causing the issues.

Sleeping Beauty: Pretty girls don’t even need to be alive to get some hot princely action.

This has to be filed a bit under “not her fault.” Someone else held a grudge against Sleeping Beauty’s parents, and as punishment, took it out on her. Few things are crueler to a parent that seeing a child suffer, and certainly suffer for something that isn’t their fault. As far as we know, SB does everything she’s supposed to do, and yet still, she is attacked. Is it her fault that the solution is in someone else’s hands? No; the witch designed it that way. So I give SB a bit of a pass.

Jasmine: As a woman, your political worth is reduced to your marriageability.

Hey, guess what? This was true for a very long time! And still is in many places today, even if politics aren’t involved. A woman’s youth and child-bearing ability were some of her chief assets until fairly recently and for many people, they still are. Some of that is biological, or at least I’m willing to go with that theory, but it doesn’t make it less true. Although it’d be nice to have some revisionist history-type stories, I don’t think we can fault Disney for historical accuracy. Also, as I recall, Jasmine does the best she can with the hand she’s dealt (been a while since I’ve seen this).

Snow White: At first it may seem terrible, being so beautiful that other women get jealous enough to try and kill you. But don’t worry, once your beauty attracts a man, he’ll protect you.

Again, I think a little sympathy is called for here. Snow White (even if you take the more recent version of the tale, Snow White and the Huntsman) is a victim of circumstance. Her mother died, her father remarried, and she got the short end of the stick there because of the old stand-by, jealousy.  How is this her fault? In this somewhat medieval tale — and more medieval in Huntsman — she gets away. In Disney, she is warned by the Queen’s hunter, but she listens (smart girl!) and tries to hide herself. It is the Queen who is so consumed by jealousy.

Plus, let’s be honest, physical attraction plays a part in nearly any relationship. So if a man (or woman) is attracted to someone else at first on looks, why do we condemn them?

Maybe some want to blame Snow for being stupid, for not seeing that the old hag with the apple is the Queen in disguise. Why should she suspect that? It’s a perfect disguise, really — the Queen who is so afraid of others’ beauty, of growing old, uses that knowledge to go after her prey. How many of us have been hurt or deceived by people when they did something we didn’t think they would, because it didn’t fit what we knew of them?

Snow White tried to keep to herself, to be helpful — and if you want to grumble that she went from being a poorly-treated maid to a well-treated one, that’s fine — and again, she is attacked. Someone helps her; why is this so awful?

Belle: Appearances don’t matter; what counts is what’s in your heart. Unless you’re the girl.

I just watched Beauty and the Beast the other day and couldn’t find much fault here. Yes, Belle was pretty. So what? I honestly don’t think that was the point. Also, It’s a movie! People like to watch pretty things in movies. And in truth, I don’t think Belle was quite as gorgeous, if you will, as Cinderella and others. She was certainly pretty, make no mistake, but there were more classically gorgeous women, if you will, in the town, namely the three Gaston groupies. They were much more in the traditional Disney mold of soft hair, big eyes, and tiny waists.

Let’s give Belle some credit. She loves her father, the dotty old inventor, and he loves her. (Like so many Disney movies, there is no biological mom; perhaps that needs more attention than the princesses.) He values her and doesn’t force her to marry for money or position or status. She is educated, and one gathers that he encourages it. When her father turns up missing, she goes and looks for him and offers herself as a hostage in exchange for him, despite his denials.

After some time trying to defy the Beast, to the point of escaping, Belle comes back.  In large part, this is because the Beast saved her after she ran away but I like to think that Belle, being an honorable woman, also realized she’d gone back on her word to stay and was trying to make amends for that.

Belle has faith and courage; after her initial encounter, she refuses to be cowed by the Beast. For his part, although I realize the Beast thinks she’s pretty, he doesn’t let that sway him completely. He’s been lonely enough, long enough that one cute girl isn’t going to suddenly make him swoon, and it is work for him to even be civil.

The Beast forces Belle to look beyond the surface; Belle forces the Beast to try to be a better person. Why is this so bad?

Cinderella: If you’re beautiful enough, you may be able to escape your terrible living conditions by getting a wealthy man to fall for you.

Let’s go back again to some likely rules of society in Cinderella’s world — women are not in power, or at least, very few are. Now here is a girl whose mother has died, father has remarried, and then the father died, presumably leaving anything of value to his wife (I’m guessing that’s how that stuff worked back then, although I could be wrong). She has no other relatives to take her in, at least it’s presented that way, and so she stays in the house she was raised in and is subject to what some might call abuse.

What does Cinderella do? She endures. Abuse is no laughing matter, and I am not trying to belittle it. But I think this is what happens here. She may not be physically abused by being beaten (although she was in Ever After), but she is at least ill-used.

Cinderella dreams, and who wouldn’t, of escaping such a place. Yes, she gets fantastical help — the fairy godmother, the animals, etc. And this is where I say again, it’s a movie! She is fortunate enough to meet and fall in love with a powerful, rich man. (Sigh. Come on, we all want to hit the lottery, right?) So I’ll grant you that here you’re getting into serious wish fulfillment territory, but I’d say that Cinderella is not sitting around waiting for this to happen.

Just what was she supposed to do, anyway? With no money, and no family, where could she go? She stays and endure some more, and then has a happy ending. I don’t begrudge her that.

Ariel: It’s okay to abandon your family, drastically change your body, and give up your strongest talent in order to get your man. Once he sees your pretty face, only a witch’s spell could draw his eyes away from you.

I’ll admit this is a tough one to defend, and I probably won’t try very hard. I will say that nearly everyone has probably undergone a time when they want to break free of family, free of any constraints they feel they are under, and chase someone or something they want, even if it’s dangerous or stupid.

But let’s remember a few things. Ariel was apparently never one to go with traditional mer-behavior. Her father destroyed all the treasures she had collected. Sure, he had a right to be angry — Ariel embarrassed him by not appearing at an event he’d presented in her honor — but what would you do if your mom or dad (and again, where’s Ariel’s mother?) did that to you? You’d be pissed, right? Maybe even run away from home.

Also, Ariel’s pretty face only went so far. When the prince found her, and she couldn’t talk or sing, he didn’t think she was the woman he’d hoped for. So his eyes were still searching. He treated her well, but that was all, until he got to know her. It might be important that he got to know her with as few trappings as possible. Then it wasn’t about her pretty face so much as her spirit.

Still, I can see the argument that basically, if you make stupid choices it will turn out all right. And that is not a good message because that is not true most of the time. It might turn out all right if you have support of family and friends (and Ariel did have friends, albeit the talking animal kind). Mostly, it’s going to be pretty crappy.

At perhaps the other end of the spectrum, we have HBO’s and George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. This has also taken some flak for its portrayal of women, with and without clothing. But Martin has based his story (and it is epic) on many events that have transpired in European history, especially in the Middle Ages, and guess what — not so many big, powerful women there.

The strongest female character is likely Danaerys Targaryen, held by some to be the rightful ruler of Westeros, where the story is set. But the others are no pushovers. They may have less freedom than Dany, but then Dany is almost half a world away and has dragons. Dragons are some serious leverage for respect and influence.

Most of the women chafe at the restraints imposed upon them. Cersei Lannister, mother of the (awful) King Joffrey, laments more than once that she was born with the wrong plumbing. And she’s right; likely if she was a man, the qualities she was vilified for would be praised. Hey, that sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Arya Stark, a much more likable character than Cersei, has that much in common with her. Arya doesn’t want to wear pretty dresses and dance and flirt, as her sister Sansa does; yet Arya is still constrained, both by her age and gender.

Catelyn Stark unfortunately becomes the Cassandra of the show. She knows what her son, Robb Stark, is doing will have dire consequences, yet he will not listen. Neither will the other men. And to everyone’s great dismay (this is as much as I’ll give as a spoiler), she is right.

So perhaps the lesson is that when you have a story with any kind of princess, you are likely going to come up against the rules of behavior that were in place in so many areas for so much of history, and most of that meant that the men had the real power, and the women had to find other ways to exert influence.

Many of us want Sansa Stark, in GoT, to basically grow a spine. But spines are not always viewed as an asset for women in her world, and Sansa is surrounded by enemies, so I can’t blame her for being somewhat paralyzed in fear. It unfortunately makes her a bit of a dull character, but that may be remedied later. Never expect Mr. Martin to follow the rules, I think it’s safe to say.

And I wrote more than I intended, so thanks for reading.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lady Falcon on June 5, 2013 at 7:31 am

    I enjoyed this blog. I would say to those that belittle the princesses they do need to be reminded these are movies and that the right lessons are learned from the parents so they need to get off their butts and be proactive parents. My daughter likes sci-fi and action movies as well as any movie with dancing in it and teenagers singing. She knows the difference between reality and movies. It was my and my husband’s job to teach her the difference.

    I watched all these movies growing up and was reading Harlequins and Silohettes by the time I was 13…did I grow up thinking a prince or Sheik or some other rich man would come in and sweep me off my feet and make all my problems go away? Where is the fun in life if its that easy? When I did role paly as a child I was a princess…I was Princess Leia and I was kicking butt with a light saber I stole from my little brother….funny how that mirrors the movie. 😀

    Take care and keep writing!
    LF

    Reply

    • I was unable to get into the newer, stronger “princesses,” such as Leia from Star Wars and Hermione in Harry Potter, or even Merida in Brave. Hermione is not a princess in title, but I think she pretty well fills that role. Nor did I tough on Bella Swan from Twilight, although since I haven’t read the books or seen the movies, I can’t do that very well.

      I watched many of these movies myself, and didn’t come out of it covered in tulle and waiting for my prince. They were movies, and that was fine, and the other women I saw in my life — my real life — were the ones I figured I’d emulate. I would work, and/or be a mom, things like that. And that is what I did.

      At no point did I expect someone to come and “rescue” me, or sweep me off my feet or anything like that. Hell, I didn’t expect to go to my junior prom and didn’t care. My girlfriend and I had planned to make plans for that night, when I was asked by someone and so was she. But neither of us was broken up about the first idea or pining for a date.

      I think as with many kids things, adults see more than is there, or more than is intended — because we are adults — and forget that most of that is either not intended, or is lost on kids.

      Reply

      • Posted by Lady Falcon on June 7, 2013 at 7:54 am

        I wouldn’t have considered Leia a new princess as I was watching her in the 70s and with all the others…I don’t know if i would put them in the same catagory except Meridah as the other princesses simply because the formats are so different. Jasmine from “Aladdin” would be in there and so would Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog”, and most recently Rapunzel from “Tangled”.

        Hermimone is a much stronger and deeper character and I think if you are going to pick role models from movie characters a better choice than the rest. She was muggle born (wrong side of the tracks if you will) and she was smarter and braver than all but a few as well as kept the boys out of trouble and saved their butts quite a few times.

        Bella, hmm, I have read all the books and watched the movies but I didn’t particularly like her till the last book or the very last movie. Especially when she was in that months long depression after Edward left..in the book it was represented by a month on each page as chapter titles and nothing else. While I know depression is real and horrible that is all I know about it. I know it is not something you can just decide to pull up your boot straps and move on I am still not crazy about Bella’s depression and how it was portrayed in either the book or the movie. I feel they might have made too light of it and possibly had it wrong with what can spiral a person into depression. Again I have no real knoweledge so don’t get mad at me.

        I think adults do see more and extrapolate onto the movies way more than the children see or feel. Those same feelings are what get books banned from libraries and such. They are dangerous and for the most part just serve to make what those adults fear come true. You make a big enough deal about what someone shouldn’t do or watch or read and that is exactly what an inquisitive person is going to do and children are very inquisitive.

        Some parents are relying on society, music, movies, teachers, and anybody else they can think of to raise their children except themselves. I see it everyday around where I live and its scary because this generation of children are who is going to have the power to make decisions on my future. I said some not all..no generalizations intended here. 🙂

        Now I’ll get off my soap box…I’m gonna have to rush to not be late for work. Never check my email in the morning..I know better! 😀

  2. Posted by Slone on June 12, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    When I was a little girl, we had every single Disney movie on VHS. And I adored them. What I loved about Princess movies was not the actual princesses themselves because, in true tomboy nature, I found them to usually be whine-y and boring. I loved the other people in the story, seeing how they reacted to the situations and how they handled themselves. In fact, I still love the “background people” in movies and in books.

    Like in Sleeping Beauty, it’s Aurora’s tale and from her character all I took away at the time was don’t touch a spinning wheel whatever that was. But the fairies taught me that I may not be able to stop something from happening completely but every little bit helps and they taught me that you should do all in your power for people you care about (an arcing theme in the Disney movies if you watch them closely). Prince Phillip was just another far more interesting way to learn to not give up on something I believe in (love, justice, truth, blah blah blah). Malificent showed me that some people will not like you for no apparent reason and will go out of your way to harm you but you just have to tell them tough nuts and keep trucking.

    Honestly the thought of barring any movies from my home breaks my heart and frustrates me because as someone else mentioned, I think some people just read way too much into these things from an adult perspective and don’t see it the same way kids do. When they do watch movies with backlash be it Disney movies, Harry Potter, or even superhero movies, you bet that we’ll talk about the movies to ensure that they leave the movie with the right impressions.

    Reply

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