As a tomboy, I have very few memories of ever watching, much less liking, traditional Disney movies. I distinctively remember my first movie theater movies, none of which fit the "traditional" mold of children's classics. They were Barbara Streisand's Yentl with my best friend and neighbor, Arthur, and his mother Lita who took us (we were about 10); A Coalminer's Daughter, with my ex-aunt Debbie at a tiny movie theater in downtown Attleboro (maybe I was 7?); and Star Wars with my father when I was about five years old. I remember the smells of the theaters, the glamour of the experience, and most of all, the adults with whom I went and our ensuing discussions after each movie. It's strange in hindsight that I had exposure to sophisticated adult themes like cross-dressing, severe alcoholism and poverty, and space wars (well, that's not as sophisticated) at such a young age. I don't really recall the themes of the movies as much as the music, the dark movie theater lighting, the vaguely musty smell during A Coalminer's Daughter, and the feeling of being very glamorous and sophisticated. My earliest Disney exposure was actually through music; my first record: Disco Mickey Mouse. I was obsessed with not only the title track featuring Mickey himself, but also "Macho Macho Duck" featuring Donald. I just LOVED that song and would dance around my cellar to the uplifting and badass lyrics saying something about Donald being a "keen and a real sensation," or whatever they were mumbling because I didn't really understand it. In fact, I was totally bored by the girly songs and any girly princess movies back before princesses were really a thing. For me, they weren't even a part of my life until I joined an area moms' club when my boys were one and two, and every other mom in the group had little girls obsessed with princesses. I absolutely HATED it, but I couldn't quite pinpoint why. My two younger sisters, on the other hand, grew up loving all things girly including the Disney classics (maybe we saw Snow White but I honestly don't remember), My Little Ponies, and Strawberry Shortcake. I was more interested in playing cops and robbers and "office" with my best friend and all of the neighborhood boys. I loved imagining laboratories and received presents from Santa such as Giant Ant Farms, Capsella, and microscopes. I never felt traditionally girly until I was about thirteen years old and discovered makeup. My image insecurities began to develop as a young teen when I "betrayed" my father by becoming a girl, and somehow became less worthy, even trustworthy, in his mind. My becoming a young woman was the beginning of the demise of my deeply instilled confidence from a young age; it was almost like a vice that wedged a divide between my father and me and began to gnaw at my self esteem as I realized that physical beauty was more greatly valued than intellect in my small world at thirteen.
Linda Christensen points out many hidden messages in mainstream Disney movies, including my personal favorite, Peter Pan, which I probably saw for the first time on and old VCR player as a teenage babysitter. I loved the music and the pirate scenes, but I didn't at the time read into subliminal messages teeny tiny Tinkerbell was portraying with her own self loathing or the negativity/"darkness"/plumpness equaling negative depiction of the pirates. Actually, before reading Christensen's article, I thought of Peter Pan as a benign princess-less tale and a really cool ride in Disney World, which my family and I visited twice in my formative years when I was six and then thirteen. Christensen's former student, Lila Johnson, further illustrates the grave danger involved in typical princess culture; white, fair complected, light-eyed, impossibly adorable and lovable women who exuded happiness when presented with their perfect princes. Even though I wasn't specifically exposed to the Disney movies at length as a kid, I still valued those same ideals that I wasn't: I wasn't blonde enough, blue-eyed, stick skinny (even though in hindsight, I was thin), or traditionally beautiful with my Irish pancake knees. I always felt like I didn't measure up to the stereotypical perfection that I saw on Doublemint Gum commercials, every TV show including "The Love Boat," "Fantasy Island," "Three's Company", and my favorite, "The Dukes of Hazzard", and in the eighties, MTV. I felt like an outsider even within my culture of power as a white Christian female from a middle-class suburb. I felt, well... less worthy.
Seeing Brave this afternoon was better than I anticipated but still somehow demeaning to me in its message. It was Disney's attempt to undo the harm of their princess culture; to explain the traditional virtues and behaviors of a "princess" and to reverse the stereotype through its protagonist, Merida. I admittedly watched it from a cynical perspective knowing that this princess culture has skewed many children's views of themselves, even now that we're adults. I also had taken an advertising and media course as part of my undergrad studies at UMass Amherst where professor Sut Jhally pointed out hundreds of instances of subliminal objectification of women and minorities and brand placement in movies, advertisements, videos, and television programs. As Christensen's students asked her, we asked Professor Jhally, "Can you look at tv the same again?" The answer is a resounding no. Even in watching Brave, as a non-princess-kid, I was aggravated with Merida's education of a princess's role. Regardless of her rebellious nature, the film continued to instill the concept of "this is what a princess is to do." As a mother, I was offended by Merida's wish to change her mother rather than the societal image of women as objects to be won over. It bugged me. I also didn't like the gratuitous violence among the men; the machismo which was clearly belittled by Disney (men were objectified as well) but nevertheless instilled thoughout the film. I didn't feel like there were too many instances of bravery as the title proclaims, but rather, circumstantial happenings that were fortuitous. I know that the message was intended to be good, but somehow, it didn't leave me feeling invigorated. Maybe I'm being too cynical because Brave is certainly a step in the right direction and also entertaining, but I was left feeling underwhelmed by the attempt to strengthen the role of the female protagonist who happens to be a princess. True to my tomboy nature, I suppose, I still don't like princesses.