Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Nostalgia Critic examines popular dislike of “princess” archetype

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One of my favorite web series is the Nostalgia Critic, wherein Doug Walker of That Guy With The Glasses plays a cynical, often histrionic reviewer of old-timey flicks and assorted media. Lately, the series has added a recurring, bi-weekly opinion segment where the NC talks about some aspect or other of pop culture and its effects on society in general.

Today, he put forth a rather thoughtful look at the much-bemoaned “princess” archetype (especially as popularized by Disney) and the lackluster role model it generally provides to young girls. While I don’t agree with every argument he makes and I think he misses a few logical connections, it’s still an interesting and insightful perspective to consider:

Transcript: (click the [+/-] to open/close →) []

NOSTALGIA CRITIC: Hello! I’m the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don’t have to.

Hey, what’s with the “princess” hate?

Yes, most little girls fantasize about being a princess at some point. With their elegant beauty, kind heart and enchanted surroundings, the princess, for many, is the epitome of femininity. But there’s been a bit of a backlash in the past several years, saying that the “princess” stereotype is a more damaging fantasy than an encouraging one. Even I’ve had my rants on the overuse of it in media.

NC: (to a movie character) You’re not really a princess! You just took the title ’cause it sounds cute!

NC: So, is it just innocent make-believe, or is there really something to get angry about? Well, in order to answer this, we should probably look at what the majority of people take the most offense at. And I guess it’s only the most logical, albeit clichéd, to look at the most famous lineup of princesses: Disney.

Disney has practically reinvented the fairy tale. And seeing how their Princess line is the best-selling licensed entertainment character merchandise, it’s safe to say they have a clear understanding of what makes princesses so popular.

What do they have in common? Well, they’re all pretty; they’re all kind; they all have various clothes and accessories you can buy for them. But naturally, the intrigue in owning one has to come from their personalities formed in the movies, which many consider, from an ethical point of view, not the best role models. “They don’t do anything,” many complain, “they’re just damsels waiting to be rescued and never take responsibility in getting things done for themselves, instead relying on their status and/or beauty to get them what they want. Which, in most cases, is just a man.”

Aaand … sometimes that’s true.

Sleeping Beauty, for example, I still stand by as one of the most forgettable characters in Disney history. Yeah, we all know the iconic image, but her fantasy extends to her doing absolutely nothing while her true love comes to save the day. And what, of course, happens? She does absolutely nothing while her true love comes to save the day. And on top of that, she has nothing else to make her stand out, be unique, or have any specific characteristics. So, yeah, the argument is pretty valid there.

But fuck it, I’m gonna defend the other ladies a little bit. Not that they’re always the best, but there’s[sic] still good virtues that we can learn from them. Snow White kindness and helpful nature, for example, serves as a second mother for the dwarfs. And anyone that says being a mother doesn’t make a hard-working, responsible woman clearly has never been one. It’s work, and worst about it is that you don’t even get paid for it. So the fact that she can still be pleasant while also teaching the dwarfs responsibility may not be major, but it’s still something.

But, many would argue, it’s one thing for one of them to fall in that category. What about three?

We mentioned Sleeping Beauty before, but Cinderella is often the biggest offender to the “sit back, do nothing and let someone else save the day” routine. Again, to her defense, she’s working her ass off. I mean, like, every second she’s on-screen, she’s doing something. And in the end, she’s rewarded for her hard work and kindness, even in the face of such nastiness.

And if your argument is this is still not a good role model, that it wouldn’t inspire people to go out there and achieve, guess who’s favorite fairy tale this was? Yup – the “D-man” himself who supposedly started this whole controversy: Disney. He said Cinderella was his favorite because he often felt like her: Working as hard as he could every day until destiny finally gave him a chance, and that hard work and kindness can result in a virtuous reward.

But what does that arguably-greatest-businessman-creative-genius-and-heartwarming-icon know? Pfft. Slacker.

Now, granted, while I don’t think these characters are that bad, it’s clear to acknowledge that these women were limited to the roles that women were expected to have at the time. In the following years, the princess would be a little more proactive, taking more chances and forming more definitive personalities. But even that can take some flak, too, particularly Arial, the Little Mermaid, who many complain is just a whiny teenager who needs a man to save the day. And while she can at times certainly be her own teenage drama queen, people forget, at the time, she was praised as being much more independent than the past Disney princesses. She traveled, she explored, she broke the rules, she left the house, she had a distinct personality, she was curious.

ROGER EBERT: The character is active. She’s not just a little girl that things happen to. She’s up there, she’s gonna go to the surface, she’s gonna find her prince, she’s gonna take care of business, and so, you can really identify with her.

NC: And on top of that, while the prince does save the day in the end, she saves his life not once, but twice in this movie. Hell, if we wanna get technical about it, I’m surprised more people weren’t pissed off at Jasmine. I mean, yeah, she fights for her independence once and even takes a chance at living her own life, but she quickly returns to the world she said she hated, stays in it, and constantly lets her boyfriend save her.

But nevertheless, the complaints were heard, and the Princess brand over the years has made an effort to try and make their lady more and more independent, having them save the male just as many times as the male saves them, while still keeping true to the kind and moral virtues that – let’s face it, people – are enforced in every Disney character, not just the princesses: Be nice, be kind, be true to your heart. When has that not been a major part of the lesson in a Disney film?

So, after looking them all over, I’m not sure if it’s entirely Disney’s fault for the negative stereotype. Okay, it didn’t always help, but in many respects, it did help. They’re still trying to teach the importance of patience and kindness, which are great virtues for any gender. And Disney is even pushing harder to make their most marketable icons be a symbol of strength and honor, as see in these recent ads:

GIRL: I am a princess. I am brave even when I am scared. I believe compassion makes me strong. Kindness is power.

NC: So, if the virtues that the massive Disney’s promoting isn’t the problem with the princess icon, what is? I’ll admit, something was rubbing me the wrong way for years about girls wanting to be princesses. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. But then, the answer came to me when I saw Bridge to Terabithia, which is a godawful flick, by the way. (Right, note to self: Review Bridge to Terabithia.)

When our main lead brings his little sister into his fantasy world.

SISTER: Is there a king? Are you the king, Jess?

BROTHER: Only if you’re princess.

NC: Wait a minute. Why is he King, and her Princess? Shouldn’t it more logically be King and Queen? In fact, even more recently, in Wreck-It Ralph, why is it when the king is destroyed, again, it’s a princess who rules the land, and not a queen?

In fact, how come in a lot of nostalgic shows and movies I’ve reviewed, even if the original ruler is gone, they still hold the title “Princess”? Yeah, Princess Sally, Princess Lana; hell, even Princess Leia. All their parents are out of commission, and yet, they still hold onto the title of Princess and not Queen. Why does that seem more marketable for some reason?

And that’s when it suddenly hit me. It’s not necessarily the virtues of the princess that piss people off. Maybe it’s the title. Why do so many boys want to be King? Because they want the power and responsibility to control and change things.

DUKE NUKEM: Hail to the King, baby.

NC: Well, then, why do so many girls not want to be Queen, then? In fact, we’re almost anti-Queen, aren’t we? The more research I did, the more I found there aren’t that many fictional queens that are kind, heroic women. They’re usually the villains.

Which brings us back to the question: Why do so many girls prefer Princess to Queen? Well, maybe because being a princess not only indicates you’re younger, which often translates to prettier, but also that you have a position of power with responsibility, but not too much responsibility. “Oh, I’m just holding the spot for the King until he returns. I still have the title of youthful innocent who has power, but not all the power, thus projecting an image of daintiness and elegance who makes everybody cookies instead of an image of strength and determination who makes powerful changes.”

It’s the same thing as calling a grown man a “boy” and a grown woman a “girl”. If you call a grown man a “boy”, they’ll usually be pissed off. Why? Because they want to be seen for strength and responsibility over youthfulness and innocence. Whereas sadly, many women who prefer it the other way around, valuing the youthfulness and innocence over strength and responsibility. Oh, don’t get me wrong; there’s many who don’t, but you all know out there, there’s plenty that do.

Now, why this is is a whole other argument. Is it society over nature, nature over society, a combination of both; it’s a whole other issue. And I’m also not forgetting that prince and princess are not made-up titles; they really exist. It’s not titles we created to keep people in certain roles; they’re actual royal positions.

But what is obvious is that a reinforcement seems to be that princesses are young, beautiful and try to live in an innocent world free from conflict. And if one does arrive, it’s somebody else’s job to take care of it. With that said, no matter how tough, action-packed or honorable you make your heroine, by keeping your “princess” title a very popular title, it’s still reinforcing that youth and the need not to take responsibility are the best virtues.

And don’t get me wrong; I know men and women are different. I know, instinctually, we’re gonna have a different emphasis on different values; men are from Mars, women from Venus; etc., etc. But the world is changing more and more every day, and we’re seeing much more variety in our female characters than we have in the past. So, maybe it’s time to really look at the changes happening around us and see which virtues we really want to enforce. And, at least, making it very clear that there’s a definite option that any female can be as powerful as she wants to be. And that second place, or being under somebody else’s wing, is not the furthest you can go.

Because, let’s face it, guys: With so many female characters that are good, strong, interesting, funny, entertaining, intelligent, responsible and just as compelling as male characters, perhaps it’s time for the princess in so many people to stop living in fairy tales and look at the reality that is unfolding around us.

I’m the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don’t have to.

(I have got to start writing shorter summaries …)

I would personally take it a few steps further than he dared to and posit that one reason for the historical popularity of the “princess” role model, particularly instead of the much more logical role of “queen”, is that it’s essentially another subtle manifestation of that ol’ bugaboo, the patriarchy. It only makes sense for a society that’s long been geared towards emphasizing male dominance in most fields (especially leadership) to depreciate the value and contributions of women in society at large. This would also help explain the long-running trope of the “evil queen”, given the precious few good queen characters that exist in our culture. (I can’t even think of any off the top of my head, though that may well just be my own ignorance showing.)

Another issue that Doug failed to mention is how the “princess” archetype is usually (if not inherently) attached to the romanticized concept of “true love”, where the implication is that not only should girls wait around ineffectually for some dashing male knight, but they should fall in love with them at first sight. This is perhaps a more ancillary point, but it’s nonetheless a grotesque caricature of actual romantic love, and it can become harmful when more gullible youths are encouraged to give themselves over to the first minimally suitable man that comes along, regardless of whether or not they’re actually compatible.

If anything, it’s disturbing how reminiscent this concept is to certain religious-fundamentalist circles, where rigid emphasis is placed on notions of female docility and delicateness, along with this deeply bizarre and creepy ideal of “purity”, where a woman’s worth is determined by how “clean” they’ve kept themselves by avoiding sex (because while men’s sex is a sign of virility and prowess, women’s sex is just icky, filthy shame, of course).

Then again, given how deeply and pervasively our society has been influenced by theocratic ideals throughout history, it shouldn’t be much of a revelation that religion might be a source for a popular archetype that essentially encourages girls to meekly know their place at the side of their rugged and heroic man.