Friday, December 28, 2007

Concentrated Doses of Disney Princess Lore

...There I was: hurtling forward through gale-force winds, with only two slender bungee cords between me and the deadly asphalt mere feet below!

Well, sort-of. We made it home this last Woden's-Day without too much trouble. My wife drove the kids in her parents' borrowed SUV, and I drove the crunchy minivan home. Aside from being a little cold by the time I got home, and having my left ear exposed to a lot more noise than my right for two-and-a-half hours (now that's a weird feeling), we were all in passable shape by the time we got home. I did observe that I got noticed by a lot of other drivers on the road, who (helpfully!) gave me a wide berth. I almost got as much notice as my older brother did that time we (age: late teens, early '20's) were bored while driving along a desolate stretch of Highway 99 near Bakersfield, so Rick had me grab the wheel from the passenger seat while he slipped a couple of big ugly googly-eyes behind his glasses. He got other drivers to swerve all over the road on that one.

Thankfully, none of my fellow travelers were policemen. I was looking very carefully for them too, so I could sneak over into the left lane if needed and hopefully not have them notice that my door wasn't exactly secure. Thankfully, though, there was no sign of the fuzz. (No, I'm not talking about the kind that you find in your navel. Speaking of which, we found a Cheerio in the Happy Boy's navel the other day. Given that he was wearing several layers of clothing at the time, we're not exactly sure how it got there. We suspect either that he's in training for a life of smuggling, or it was quantum tunneling.)

Where was I?

(Let's see: Cheerios, navels, bungee cords...) Ah, yes. Disney Princesses!

Do you ever have the experience of staying with relatives, and although everyone is happy to see everyone else and catch up with each other, everyone seems to run out of things to do after the first three days or so? That is, you're so far out of your routine, that you can't think of anything interesting to do. You don't have any of your books with you, and your hosts have entirely different tastes in literature, which you wouldn't be able to read anyway because of all that patter of little feet (which resembles nothing so much as a stampeding herd of Hippalos); and you are already caught up with everyone, having already finished sharing all the stories two days ago, and you're going to be here two days longer, and what the hey are we going to do between now and then? And you find that you start getting up later, and later, and later, and going to sleep later, and later, and you start eating like Hobbits, except a lot less healthily; and you just wish that someone would give you something useful to do! But not too useful, because you're supposed to be relaxing on holiday, after all.

Oh yeah, and you and everyone else in your family is sick and your car is shot. Yeah, I hate it when that happens.

Well, when this happens, usually things follow the path of least resistance: you start pulling out videos in great quantities, in the hope that it will keep the kids from driving everyone else completely bonkers. It kills the time, which by this point in your trip, is something that just about everyone desires.

So we raided Papa's & Grandmother's stash of Disney movies. In the last three days of our trip, our precious little darlings got to watch:
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,
  • Sleeping Beauty,
  • The Little Mermaid,
  • Beauty and the Beast,
  • Aladdin, and
  • Cinderella (twice on this one).
Our little girls came away from this phantasmagoria completely convinced that they wanted to grow up to be princesses. Heaven help us.

Of course, we should have predicted this. After a viewing of Fantasia 2000 many months back (specifically, the Firebird Suite number) which had profoundly touched the Pillowfight Fairy, she confidently announced to us that "I'm going to be a wood nymph when I grow up."


So I suppose it was a foregone conclusion that they should decide the life of a princess is the life for me! And pointing out that Jasmine was trying to run away from that life did no good.

Well, it wasn't just the girls who got a concentrated dose of Disney Princess lore. We adults got it too. And seeing so many of these movies in such a short period of time, it does start to provoke some thought. Here are some observations I have, in no particular order:
  • No one ever has to go to the bathroom in these films. Now, I realize that's not just Disney, but still. And in the times and places that these films are set, they wouldn't have had indoor plumbing--they would have used chamber pots. (I seem to recall that one of the Fates in Disney's Hercules movie gave some whispered investment advice to another character: "Indoor plumbing! It's gonna be big....")
  • It really drives home, seeing so many of these movies in such a short time, how much they link beauty with goodness--and how they link evil with ugliness. This is not a new complaint by any means, but seeing so many movies over such a short period of time, one really sees this displayed so often that it can't be missed. This is true even in Beauty and the Beast, which is supposed to break the stereotype. True, the Beast is ugly, and Gaston is handsome. But even there, the Beast cleans up real nice as they say, and when at the end the spell is broken, he transforms into an extremely handsome and well-built young man. And even though Gaston is handsome, there are still visual hints that he is not to be trusted--notice how he has those slightly fang-like incisors? (Or are they canines? I can never remember.) And, of course, Belle is still the prettiest girl in the town--both more slender, and taller, than any other girl they show.
  • These movies are designed to play to the fantasies--and the fears--of girls. Girls very often fret about things like I don't fit in, and My life is boring, and Am I pretty? and Will the right man fall in love with me? and There's got to be more for me somewhere else. Belle sings "There must be more than this provincial life!" (Or is that "proven├žal life"? Darn those French...) And while the Little Mermaid is one of the most fun movies of the bunch, the message it sends is a terrible one: Ariel behaves really, really irresponsibly, and gets everyone in a whole lot of trouble, but everything is all right because she was in love when she did it; and in the end, she gets her voice back, and her man, and suffers no permanent ill consequences for her stupendous irresponsibility.
  • Those annoying cutesy little singing animals? They're just as annoying as you remember them. Or even more than you remember them, if you're seeing six of these movies in a row (and one of them twice). Of course, that's what the little girls like the best. The Pillowfight Fairy (age 5) would giggle herself silly during the antics of all those little mice during Cinderella (which is why we wound up watching it twice in two days). In Aladdin, she liked the monkey Abu; in Sleeping Beauty, she liked all those birds and forest creatures who filched the prince's clothes and used them while dancing with Aurora.
  • Grumpy's cool. He's the only one of the dwarfs who was able to keep his head in a crisis. And he plays a mean organ.
  • If you're going to be a princess, you've got to be willing to put up with a lot of trouble. After all, you've got wicked stepmothers to deal with, and black magic, and unwelcome betrothals, and annoyingly cutesy animals. Frankly, I'd rather be a peasant. (Actually, strike that. Peasants didn't have very nice lives either. I'd rather be a burgher.)
  • And apparently, princesses all have to get married when they're sixteen. Or (Jasmine, I think) 21 at the latest--lest the whole kingdom fall apart.
And it was interesting to consider the differences in temperament and outlook between the older movies (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty--all done in the '30's and '40's, I think) and the newer movies (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin--all done in the '80's and '90's).

For one thing, the whole idea of what constitutes a "beautiful" singing voice has changed. For the first three movies, the princesses all sang with a very high, lyric or coloratura Soprano. So, I was teasing the Pillowfight Fairy, saying, "If you want to be a princess, you have to be able to sing like this: Aaaaaaaahahahahahahahahahahahaha...." (Imagine a grotesque falsetto parody of a coloratura soprano.) So, she tried her best: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa..." (Imagine a... no, don't.)

Of course, by the time the later movies came out, the female voice in popular music typically doesn't do as much in the higher vocal registers. Nearly everything is sung in chest voice. An artist may hit some notes or sing some phrases in the higher registers for effect, but she typically doesn't stay up there very long. In fact, it's low enough that male singers can often join them (in duets and love ballads, for instance) in the same octave.

I find myself wondering if and when the pendulum will swing back the other way, toward a preference for high sopranos as leads.

But more substantively, there are differences between the two eras in what an image of a good woman, an innocent woman should be. Snow White was sent off by her stepmother (guarded by the hunter, who was intended to murder her) to pick flowers of all things, which she did quite happily and innocently. And later in the movie, she is shown praying that God would have Grumpy come to like her. Somehow, I can't picture Jasmine doing either of those things. The later heroines had a much edgier quality about them.

And our girls thought that the three modern movies were much scarier. And the scariness started much earlier, and was much more intense all the way through the movie. Cinderella only had one scene that could really be described as scary--the one in which the wicked step-sisters ripped apart the dress that Cinderella was going to wear to the ball. But Aladdin had that Cave of Wonders thing right at the beginning, and one chase scene after another, and all that talk about cutting off of heads and hands--not to mention the villain's really annoying sidekick.


What to make of these? Not a whole lot. After seeing so many of these movies in such a short span, I'm really rather glad we don't have any of them here at home--otherwise my daughters would be clamoring to see Cinderella again and again and again.... Also, my appreciation for the movie Shrek is greatly enhanced. And that's not just because of the skewering of the Disney movies that goes on there (like Fiona's really high, shrill singing causing the annoying, cutesy bird to detonate, thus making its eggs available for breakfast), but because it gets the whole beauty thing much closer to the mark. Shrek and Fiona got married as ogres, and they can't sing, and they freak out the cute little forest creatures, and they don't care if you think they're ugly. So there.

I'd much rather have my daughters learn that lesson, despite the fact that they're going to grow up to be drop-dead gorgeous. ;-)


Sarah said...

Hilarious post! And scary, as I'm about to head to family's home for New Year's, and I'm already feeling ill about the movie and computer gluttons my children will be in the next 4 days....

Fortunately I have a pile of books. (Found your blog during the HSB awards.)

Timothy Power said...

Hello, Sarah! Thanks for dropping by my humble blog.

Yes, now we're in the phase of trying to de-program our children from the holidays. I have one daughter who now wants every day to be Christmas day, and who is already planning her next birthday (just under ten months from now).

We've decided that while holidays can be fun, the routines of everyday living are a really good thing. The whole concept of "daily chores" is a blessing. They're not so fun when you're doing them, but without them, everything falls apart; and having a routine that includes them gets them done regularly and with a minimum of fuss. Holidays are fun precisely because they break the routines, but this usually results in chaos that takes most of the month of January to beat back.

Anyway, I wish you a happy New Year's. Thanks for dropping by!

timeless said...

Hey, I STILL love watching the mice in Cinderella! Some things are just "classic" and universal! I think it's time for you to introduce the kids to Victor Borge!! Even a 5 year old can appreciate his antics! Now I got to watch "Fantasia" on the "big screen" when it first came out...and was absolutely enchanted! It certainly reinforced my love for music.

Your blogs are getting really FUNNY, Tim!

Timothy Power said...


I haven't introduced them to Victor Borge yet, but I have introduced them to Igudesman and Joo. Look a couple of blog posts back--I wrote about them about two weeks ago. Look for the post with all the embedded youtube content.

As for being funny, ironic that you should mention that.... I caught your comment just after I'd put the finishing touches on a long, serious, boring, mostly humorless sermon of a post. The only joke in it I remember offhand was the crack about "puppies blooming", which I admit was rather lame.

Anonymous said...

Oh how I hate princess movies. And I really despise "The Little Mermaid"- so she sells her soul to 'Satan' to get the guy and Daddy apologizes in the end for being so strict? Ugh, and double ugh.

This post is funny to me because it is a serious bone of contention with my mil and me. She loves all things princess, even collects Disney dolls (that cost more than my entire wardrobe). I have explained to her why I find princess stuff so shallow (many reasons covered in your post) and beneath my 9 yod's interests and abilities. She is very offended by this. Oh well.