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?