You are entering the Independence Zone!

Hello, readers,

Who doesn’t love a good Disney film? Okay, I’m aware that some of us out there really don’t care for Disney, which is perfectly fine. I’m well aware of its flaws. However, if we’re honest, most of us will admit that we grew up on, and enjoyed, the classic cartoons and movies associated with a certain cute little mouse and his creator, Walt. And for the girls out there, most of us will admit to growing up on and enjoying the Disney princesses. (If there are guys reading this who enjoyed, or enjoy, the princesses too, feel free to chime in. I find, for example, that once a guy becomes a dad and has daughters, that quotient goes up).

Of course, the Disney princess line is fraught with controversy. Our favorite royals are accused of being bad role models, teaching little girls that it’s okay to wait passively and helplessly for a prince to rescue them (Snow White, Aurora, Cinderella), that it’s okay to be totally selfish as long as you get your man (Ariel and arguably Jasmine), or that you can change the people in your life to suit your own wants and needs (Belle and Tiana). Now, some of this, I understand. The original three Disney princesses in particular sometimes get on my nerves because they seem to lack an independent spirit as we think of one today. However, please recall that these three young women were products of their time periods, where women were just on the cusp of discovering those spirits and action-oriented qualities. As for the other accusations leveled at the princesses, I can see both sides of the issue, and I favor some of the royal line over others. For example, I see Belle as someone who can see, and help others find, their inner beauty, not someone who changes others for her own purposes. I see Tiana as the one princess so far who has balanced “wish upon a star” with the hard work it takes to achieve one’s dreams. As for Mulan and Merida–I just plain love ’em. Merida in particular–I’d do a lot for that flaming red mane of hers. And may I just say, the executives who gave her a sexed-up makeover were absolutely insane?

Yet, I do feel Disney’s star is lacking some serious polish in one area. Yup, you got it: why have there never been any princesses with disabilities in the eleven-princess lineup (soon to be thirteen, with the addition of Elsa and Anna from Frozen this December). Now of course, one could come back and say: “Well, there aren’t any Hispanic, or Jewish, or lesbian, or even obese, princesses out there–why doesn’t that concern you?” Believe me when I tell you, it does. The thing is, Hispanic and Jewish heritage, a lesbian lifestyle, and even obesity–those things don’t carry the same antisocial stigma as disability does. Recall from previous blog posts that we’ve talked about this: the majority of society sees disability as the one thing that no one, under any circumstances, should want, and woe to those who have one, or even more than one.

A fellow blogger mentions this in a post where she discusses an ad that hit the airwaves shortly after Brave came out. The ad is based on the statement, “I am a princess,” and shows several girls of different backgrounds, interests, and so forth confidently saying those words. But out of dozens of girls, only two have disabilities. One is Deaf and signs the statement in ASL. The other has Down’s Syndrome, but her time on camera is very brief. The other blogger writes that she almost missed it.

Other people out there have raised the question of why Disney has no PWDs (Princesses with Disabilities) in their line as well. A recent Fanpop poll was taken to see if participants would like to see a princess with a disability in the future. However, 27% of people said flat-out “no princesses with disabilities.” I suppose that means they haven’t yet explored the myriad of positive possibilities behind that new princess. Another twenty-seven percent voted for the princess to be completely blind. The percentages of disabilities that got other votes, such as deafness or “other,” got even smaller from there.

So, what do I think of all this? Well, let me say first that in a way, I understand people’s reactions to having, or not having, a princess with a disability in the Disney franchise. People tend to shy away from those things they haven’t done before. Also, some disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or autism, would take time to explain within a film, whereas blindness or deafness, or even the use of a wheelchair, can be, though not always is, pretty self-explanatory. However, I’m not going to let Disney off the hook. Just because nothing has ever been done before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t or can’t be done–and after all, isn’t that one of the lessons that Disney, purposely or not, teaches children through its plots and characters? So why, then, is disability, above any other concept, still being looked at through a “can’t” lens, courtesy of these, of all people?

As for the easy-to-explain issue, I’m not going to let them off the hook there, either. Beauty and the Beast took its first couple of minutes to explain the enchantment on the cursed prince who became the Beast. Earlier classics, which had a “storybook” type of intro, took their first few minutes to explain the beginnings of Cinderella, Aurora, and Snow White’s stories, too. Snow White even began with just the storybook page, no outside narration (so I guess if a kid watching it couldn’t read yet, she was out of luck)? Also, children can understand complicated concepts more easily than we think they can, if they are handled in the right way. For crying in the sink, The Lion King killed off a major character, and nobody felt the need to bring in a licensed psychologist to explain why. The Princess and the Frog loosely based its magic on the real construct of voodoo, and nobody felt a need to give a dissertation on voodoo, Creole culture, and so forth. The voodoo just “was.” The death of Mufasa, though heart-wrenching, just “was.” Why can’t a disability be “just is” as well?

Here’s my final word on the easy to explain issue: The Little Mermaid. Some viewers of this classic argue, and rightly so, that Ariel spent part of her film with a disability because she was mute. Yes, muteness is often a disability. However, Ariel chose to become mute for the sake of a man (not getting into that), and knew what she was getting into. Not so for many people with disabilities–maybe all of them (unless you have BIID and choose to amputate; see earlier post on that subject). From a child’s perspective, this is okay–they just see Ariel as a princess who’s in love with a prince, and a prince and princess need each other to live happily ever after. End of story. But as an adult, one must wonder why nobody bothers to question: Ariel, do you feel you have a justifiable reason for this? You’ve known this guy existed for what, one scene? Do you fully understand what muteness means? See, viewers of the movie let this go–and yet we shy away from a Disney princess who has a disability, which she did not choose, which is natural for her, in part because we think said disability would need some kind of long explanation?

There’s also the fear that having a PWD would automatically make said princess passive or helpless. But, you guessed it, I’ll be shootin’ down that argument faster than Merida could shoot for her own hand. Why? Because that argument is based on the antiquated idea that disability = helplessness. If Disney can give us a princess who would rather read than lust after the town hunk, a princess who worked two waitressing jobs and came to own her own business in 1920s New Orleans, when African-Americans owning businesses was pretty much unheard of, a princess who fights to save her country, and even more: what is so hard about creating a princess with an indomitable spirit, who just happens to have a disability?

Disney taught us to believe in the impossible. So, suppose we help them learn to do it themselves, for a new generation of princesses?

Advertisements

Comments on: "Disney and Disability: What Would, or Should, a Princess with a Disability Look Like?" (13)

  1. I personally think a deaf princess (or non-princess Disney character… I don’t care about the princess part) would make a fascinating addition to the line-up. There is so much that could be done with this, and it would shine a different sort of light on the character’s strengths and abilities. And considering that Walle was made with so little dialogue, the greater number of silences shouldn’t be a problem for the team either. However, it is always easier working with a formula that is more familiar and doesn’t require as many risks.

    To be clear, though, I’m certain the reason that our princesses have not had disabilities so far is simply that Disney is interested in marketing, and the reason the princess line sells is that little girls can a) relate to them enough that b) they wish to be them. For that reason, they have all mostly been pretty white girls until now, because it was hoped that this would be relatable to the majority. I think it’s very telling that Tiana finally became the first black princess once the “black” stigma had eased up enough that they figured the majority of little girls would be able to relate to her or wish to be her. A lesbian princess would be too hard for many girls to relate to and an obese princess might not be someone that little girls would want to emulate. As pathetic as that is, that’s the bottom line. Disability falls into both of these categories as well. As much as Disney is meant to be magical and inspiring, it really is just a business, and it knows that a lesbian, obese, or disabled princess wouldn’t sell. I think that says more about our society than anything about Disney as a company. It’s sad, because I would watch the hell out of a movie with a lesbian, obese, or disabled princess. Maybe a smaller company would create such a movie, even if it will likely have a much smaller audience. We can hope!

  2. I personally think a deaf princess (or non-princess Disney character… I don’t care about the princess part) would make a fascinating addition to the line-up. There is so much that could be done with this, and it would shine a different sort of light on the character’s strengths and abilities. And considering that Walle was made with so little dialogue, the greater number of silences shouldn’t be a problem for the team either. However, it is always easier working with a formula that is more familiar and doesn’t require as many risks.

    To be clear, though, I’m certain the reason that our princesses have not had disabilities so far is simply that Disney is interested in marketing, and the reason the princess line sells is that little girls can a) relate to them enough that b) they wish to be them. For that reason, they have all mostly been pretty white girls until now, because it was hoped that this would be relatable to the majority. I think it’s very telling that Tiana finally became the first black princess once the “black” stigma had eased up enough that they figured the majority of little girls would be able to relate to her or wish to be her. A lesbian princess would be too hard for many girls to relate to and an obese princess might not be someone that little girls would want to emulate. As pathetic as that is, that’s the bottom line. Disability falls into both of these categories as well. As much as Disney is meant to be magical and inspiring, it really is just a business, and it knows that a lesbian, obese, or disabled princess wouldn’t sell. I think that says more about our society than anything about Disney as a company. It’s sad, because I would watch the hell out of a movie with a lesbian, obese, or disabled princess. Maybe a smaller company would create such a movie, even if it will likely have a much smaller audience. We can hope!

  3. That’s okay; computers are weird. And yes, the fact that Disney is a cash cow means that we may never see a princess with a disability–unless society can get to the point that it did with blacks, and let the stigma wear off. It never ceases to mystify me that in a nation that claims to promote tolerance, stigmas still lurk like sticky cobwebs.

    There’s also the disheartening possibility that if Disney were to come up with a PWD, they would either focus the movie on her searching for a cure and then learning some morally heavy-handed lesson about acceptance, or focus on a message the company is already famous for. For instance, my theory is that if Disney had a blind princess, they would focus less on her abilities and make her story all about “seeing inner beauty,” as in, she’s the only one who “gets it” because she’s blind, and if she weren’t, she’d be just as shallow as everybody else. I can see the same issues happening if you had a lesbian princess or an obese one–the other characters would constantly nag the protagonist about losing her extra pounds, or they’d become mouthpieces for one LGBT stereotype after another. And can you imagine what they’d do if, heaven forbid, a princess had AIDS? (I’m not sure they could even say that in a kids’ movie; they’d make it some kind of nebulous, but deadly illness).

    But really, again, does Disney have any excuse? Take a look–a good look–at The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I love that film, but I would NEVER let a child under 12 watch it. I mean, for Pete’s sake, the villain spends all his time either singing about hell, threatening characters with hell, lusting after Esmeralda (whose dancing scene makes her look like a flippin’ pole dancer), or trying to kill babies with deformities. (And do not get me started on Quasimodo and what his character says about our society’s treatment of disability).

    The sad truth, though, is you’re right. Disney is a business. And if we looked inside them, instead of brains, we’d find cash registers. Instead of hearts, bottom lines. (That’s from You’ve Got Mail).

    • Ugh! “Inner beauty.” Yeah, you’re probably right. Or even if she didn’t find the cure, her blindness would undoubtedly be coupled with some special 6th sense or something so she could still “see”, she would just be seeing into people’s hearts or some drivel. Yes, I’d rather NOT see a movie with a princess with a disability than see one that was done so tritely, still reinforcing all of the negative messages. Same with an obese princess that has to prove her worth despite being obese (instead of just accepting that she is and leaving it at that) or a trans princess having to prove her worth despite being trans (instead of just accepting that she is and leaving it at that) or a lesbian princess having to prove that her love is valid (instead of just accepting that it is and leaving it at that). All of these things CAN be plot points, but they should take Waaaaay backseat to the fact that the princess is just her own character. I think it would be hard for disney to pull that off.

      My fiance and I are actually working on writing and illustrating a children’s fairytale with two princesses that fall in love. We want it to just be part of the story and not be highlighted as something particularly surprising or important. Two princesses go on adventure together, fall in love and get married at the end. I think we need more literature like that out there. I’d love to see more books that represent people with disabilities as just average characters, rather than having to make all such books “heartwarming” and completely wrapped up in a message of tolerance and acceptance of “those other people”. You know what I mean? However, I feel I’m much more qualified to write an LGBT book, given my own experiences, than one about a disabled person. What do you think?

      • I think that’s a good idea. And I agree, oh, so much, with your point about “heartwarming” literature and movies. Now, granted, I’ve seen “heartwarming” examples that are quite good, for what they are. However, as you said, those plotlines continually paint their subjects as “those other people,” rather than showing the characters as average people with struggles, problems, and yes, true joy in their lives.

        I myself am working on a novel right now, wherein the protagonist has cerebral palsy. She is also academically gifted, but that’s not about giving her a trait to “make up for” the disability. Rather, I chose to do that because I was the academically gifted kid with CP growing up, and because you never, ever see a book or a movie that stars a smart character with a disability. If a character with a disability is in the main role, that person is usually intellectually disabled, with or without some special “sixth sense.” (I was required to watch “Rain Man” in a high school psychology class, and still can’t bring myself to watch it again more than a decade later). I also recently watched another example, “Jimmy.” It’s a movie based on a novel by Robert Whitlow. The main character is presented as pretty “normal,” but again, he still has that sixth sense thing going on. It’s almost as if the producers are saying, it’s not worth pursuing a plotline with a character who has a disability in the main role, unless they’re practically psychic. (?????)

        Best of luck on that children’s book. 🙂

      • Thanks! It’s on hold at the moment due to plans to get into gradschool, wedding planning, and multiple jobs, but my fiance is hoping to get back to working on it once we’ve moved to whatever school I end up going to and are settled down a bit. I hope you get that book published as well!

        Question: I don’t know if you’ve done this already somewhere in your archive, but if not, would you consider writing a blog post about words/phrases/terms used around PWDs that you really dislike or find offensive? I’m not talking about slurs and insults (those are obvious) but rather the well-meaning sorts of things that people say without realizing that they might be hurtful or be conveying a damaging message? You don’t have to write this, obviously, but it’s something that I would really like to know. I try to be sensitive with my language around all people, but I really don’t know if there are common words or sentiments that I or many people express that are hurtful without us realizing it. I know that, once I came out into the LGBT community, I realized there were a TON of those for me, and I’m thinking of writing a post on my own blog to address some of them. I think such things for PWDs is often overlooked though. I don’t want to make demands on your blog, of course, it is just something that I think I’D find really informative. Thanks!

      • Hmmmmm….maybe I will. I’m very big on lists, and you’re right. If something isn’t a slur or an insult, many people think it’s completely okay to say. What I also find disturbing is that PWDs are often stereotyped as overly sensitive–as if we don’t have the right to say we’re offended at something, because, “At least it’s not an insult.” There is a Top Ten Stereotypes of Disabled People list lurking around online, but there are some things those writers didn’t cover. (For an example of what they did cover, there’s the “super-crip” myth, meaning that the temporarily able-bodied tend to think that we can all get in our wheelchairs or whatever–as if we all use wheelchairs–and climb Mt. Everest and not break a sweat. There’s also the “chip on the shoulder myth”: “Disabled people are all bitter and whiny.”) That last one is especially weird, considering yet ANOTHER myth, which says we’re all sweet and saintly. It’s like, okay, make up your mind–which is it? I have a post on this particular issue; check the August 2012 archives under “A Stereotype by Any Other Name.”

      • That blog post makes a good point. I think a lot of it does have to do with how disabilities are portrayed in popular media. Generally, the PWD is inserted as a lovable, heart-warming plot device. Really. That’s almost always the case. They exist to teach the other characters and/or the audience a lesson in perseverance and acceptance, but they don’t exist as characters of their own right. I think a lot of people, without meaning to, sort of drag this stereotype into real life. It’s kind of gross.

        Admittedly, I think that personal appearance and age has LOADS to do with whether PWD’s get stereotyped as the “chip on the shoulder” type or the “saintly” type. Are you obese, looking sort of disheveled and middle aged or older? You’re the chip-on-the-shoulder type, probably sucking up welfare dollars. Are you young, slender, and fairly attractive? You belong in a hallmark commercial where we can put you on a pedestal of loveliness! Are you intellectually disabled in a way that makes people uncomfortable or awkward around you? You’re probably the sort of person best avoided. Are you intellectually disabled in a way that makes people view you as innocent and child-like? Here, have another damn pedestal, and we’ll sing your praises every time you do anything!

        I don’t know the full scope of these sorts of attitudes, but I can glean them from the air even without ever having been disabled myself. It’s pretty sad that we have worked so hard at “othering” people who we view as different that we either feel we need to put them down or put them on a pedestal. I would not very much like to be in that position.

        I’d love to see your blog post on offensive sayings if you ever get to writing it. I’ll let you know if I get to writing mine, in case you’re interested.

      • Do let me know…I think I may go ahead and write that post around Monday. I have an interesting title in mind and don’t want to forget it.

  4. Citrusella said:

    FWIW, I know a great deal of people consider Vanellope disabled in the context of her story/narrative. Too bad she doesn’t get counted as a princess. Sigh.

    • I haven’t seen Vanellope’s movie, so I’m not sure what you mean, but I’m guessing she’s considered disabled because she’s a game “glitch?” And yes, it’s too bad she doesn’t count as a princess in the usual lineup. (One could also make the argument that Elsa of Frozen is disabled, but because her “disability” is the result of magic, like Ariel’s muteness, I don’t know if the average person would count that). Once again, we’re back to the question, what is so awful about representing disability as a natural part of life?

  5. It would be awesome if Disney’s next princess had a disability! Personally a princess with Dwarfism would be great. Her disability would be self explanatory and a plot that just mentions her disability in the background or flashback. Like going somewhere and in the background a child ask their mother if the princess was an adult, but the princess focusing on something else. If Disney did a princess like this they should treat her like an adult by having her dress like one but in an appropriate manner, and scenes of how she works around her disability to do daily things like reaching for an item on the top shelf. But a princess with any disability would be amazing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: