So I’m at the PCA/ACA conference, which so far is a really fascinating experience. Being an introvert, I haven’t made any new professional best friends yet, but I have bought three books, which I will review once I read them because they just sound like the perfect way to spend my dissertation research time. Of course, they’re dissertation-worthy, but yet not dissertation-necessary, which is the case of just about all books.
Anyway, there was this panel about Girl Power, which involved some misguided, shallow approaches to feminist theory. Specifically, looking at girls in literature and how they are awesome. No context, no theory, no analysis. To close the panel was a presentation about Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Tutu, three Japanese fairy tales.
But here’s the annoying part: This presentation did not incorporate fairy tale theory, feminist theory or any cultural analysis into its thesis. Instead, it made some grandiose claims about how the images of Disney caused our sexual culture. The presenter specifically looked at The Little Mermaid. The assertion is that a) Disney images portray women as sexy, quoting a study of how much skin between the upper thigh and bust women show, and b) the “Princessfication” it portrays limits women.
In response to A: The portrayal of women as sex objects is NOT Disney, it’s the larger culture. BUT, to read Disney characters as sexual (and only directed at children, hence the problem) is a misreading of Disney fairy tales. Walt Disney retold fairy tales using traditional models, which did include arguably “weak” princess characters, but gave them a voice long before the birth of the Feminist Movement. PLUS, Disney’s goal was to define family entertainment as something adults and children could equally enjoy together, not as tamed down stories that are more palatable to children. It is important, Oh Disney Critics, to define the era of Disney fairy tales in your analysis and to take into account the goals of the company at the time of the fairy tale release, because those factors greatly influence the marketing of the film. The era in question influences the portrayal of the characters, which is the crux of the argument I am making during this conference.
In response to B: really? Just because the Princess is the over-used marketing campaign of Disney does not mean that Disney holds a negative view of women.
Now, the comparison to three Japanese fairy tale films to Disney Princesses is just plain shaky territory in a 15 minute/6 page presentation. In order to make a sound argument (especially if one is relying on films distributed by the Overtakes of the Mouse), it is essential to take cultural differences into account. One could easily argue that Ponyo portrays a fetishized child (thanks Rebekah!), which is far more sexual in nature than the portrayal of a Mermaid, whose bare midriff is a side-effect of the fact that she lives underwater and whose story is about her failure of finding love with only her slim, red-headed figure as her tool.
On one hand, it really bothers me that Disney Critics are so shallow. But on the other hand, I appreciate the opportunity to be the voice of the opposition. There is so much more to Disney than one’s fear for the brand, but this is a different conversation all together. Eventually, I hope that Disney Critics will start to recognize their shadow and work accordingly. Then I might have more respect for their arguments.