Disney’s films can have a strong cultural impact, so it’s important that Moana continues the trend for smart, dynamic heroines, writes Declan Burke
MOANA, the Polynesian heroine at the heart of Disney’s latest animated feature film, is a charmingly multi-faceted character: She’s a thinker, a revolutionary, an adventurer and a leader.
Most importantly, perhaps, she’s the very antithesis of the stereotypical notion of the ‘Disney princess’, a fact that seems to escape Maui, the demi-god who accompanies Moana on her epic seafaring trek across the Pacific.
“I am not a princess,” Moana corrects Maui when he makes the faux pas of describing her as royal.
Moana is a chieftain’s daughter, and the difference isn’t subtle: Moana understands she must earn the right, by word and deed, to lead her people. That she does so by whipping a demi-god into shape and demonstrating to her father why his insular thinking is dooming their tribe only hammers home the message.
Moana is the latest Disney animation to represent a refreshing change to the earliest incarnations of the ‘classic’ Disney princesses. The passive heroines of Snow White (1937) and Cinderella (1950) were no one’s idea of female role models, simpering and swooning whilst waiting for Prince Charming to ride by and sweep them off their feet. The story of Sleeping Beauty (1959), featuring an unfortunate woman cursed to slumber in a coma until kissed back to life by a man, makes for uncomfortable viewing today in an era of feminist empowerment.
Given the iconic nature of these films, it’s unsurprising that the term ‘Disney princess’ still carries negative connotations of infantilised wishful thinking. Whether the criticism is valid when applied to Disney’s modern offerings is another matter entirely. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Beauty and the Beast (1991), the first Disney princess movie to push back against the stereotypes.
The story ends — spoiler alert! — with the traditional happy ending of a heroine marrying her handsome prince, but Belle is by no means a conventionally pliable, passive character. An avid reader, the independent and spirited Belle rejects the brutish, boastful Gaston; she is the engine of the story, a proactive heroine who rescues her father and tames the violent instincts of the Beast, who initially woos Belle by introducing her to his library and asking her to read to him. This subtext — the importance of books and education — signalled a defiant change in tone for the Disney heroine. New directions, of course, are nothing new for the fairytale, which, as a storytelling form, has always been malleable enough to accommodate new ideas and reinventions.
The recently published Fairytales for the Disillusioned offers a collection of audacious 19th century rewrites of the classic fairytales, which were in turn adapted from the stories gathered by the 17th century French author Charles Perrault. Writing for his children, Perrault culled his stories from the European folk tales, many of them cautionary fables about ‘beasts’ and ‘wolves’ in men’s clothing. Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, was a literal warning against men who prey on young women — “I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort” — and Perrault’s original ending is decidedly more tragic and violent than the upbeat finale we tell our children today. Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm built on Perrault’s work, rewriting some stories, adding new ones to the canon, the variations taking account of the needs and social mores of the writers’ era.
More recently, authors such as Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt, and Angela Carter have rewritten the classic fairytales, challenging stereotypical notions of gender and sexuality (Angela Carter translated the stories of Charles Perrault in 1977; Neil Jordan’s film The Company of Wolves (1984) was adapted by Carter from her short story Wolf-Alice, a version of the Red Riding Hood tale).
It may be true, then, that Disney is a follower rather than an innovator when it comes to reimagining the heroine in fairytale, but that shouldn’t diminish the importance of the changing role of the Disney princess.
A Disney animation will always play to a massive audience; the message it sends out resonates in contemporary culture.
Disney followed up Beauty and the Beast with Mulan (1998), in which the young Chinese heroine steals her aged warrior father’s armour and goes to war disguised as a man, where she proves herself entirely capable at undermining preconceptions about a woman’s ability to survive and thrive.
In The Princess and the Frog (2009), the formerly virile, all- conquering Prince Charming is reduced to the status of an amphibian in dire need of Tiana’s protection.
The real game-changers of recent years, however, have been Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013).
Brave is a story about the eternal conflict between mothers and daughters, as Merida, the chieftain’s daughter and a more accomplished warrior-in-waiting than her male peers, chafes against her mother’s conventional wisdom about how a young woman is supposed to behave. Frozen, meanwhile, centres on the relationship between sisters Anna and Elsa, with the Prince Charming character of Kristoff virtually irrelevant other than as a humorous travelling companion.
With Disney continuing its roll-out of live-action remakes of animated classics (Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, is due next March), it’s a trend that seems set fair to continue.
For now, Moana delivers what fans of the new Disney heroines have come to expect: Young women who are smart and dynamic, funny and articulate, ambitious and successful. Just don’t call her princess…
THE DISNEY HEROINES
The enduring image is of Belle in a fabulous yellow ballgown swirling around in the Beast’s arms, but make no mistake: In Beauty and the Beast (1991), Belle is the beauty, brains, and heart of the story, a young woman with her eyes on the page and her mind on the possibilities of the farthest horizon.
If the armour fits, wear it. For everyone who still believed girls couldn’t do everything boys could do, the young Chinese warrior of Mulan (1998) was a rude awakening.
She’s blonde and blue-eyed, she’s a little bit ditzy (wouldn’t you be, if you’d just escaped from a life locked up in a tower?), but don’t make any assumptions about this Tangled (2010) heroine or you, like sidekick Flynn Rider, will get whacked upside the head with a metaphorical frying-pan.
A Scottish Amazonian, Brave’s (2012) flame-haired Merida isn’t just a sharpshooting archer — when she bends her bow, she bends the patriarchal hegemony to her will.
So you’re a scheming male politician who doesn’t believe a woman can rule her kingdom? Don’t mess with the snow queen of Frozen (2013), gents, or you’ll end up a popsicle. Altogether now: “Let it go, let it gooooo …”
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