Last week my mom, my little sister, and I went to see the latest Disney movie (the first to feature a black protagonist), The Princess and the Frog. As a feminist wary of the whole Disney Princess “some day my prince will come” thing, I didn’t get my hopes up and was prepared to leave the theater mildly annoyed at best and angry and offended at worst.
But in fact, I left the movie happily surprised. (***spoiler alert ahead***) Tiana, the protagonist, seems like a modern feminist herself—she’s a hard-working waitress who plans to open her own restaurant and doesn’t need a man to make her dreams come true. Tiana does eventually fall in love with Prince Naveen, a fun-loving yet lazy and materialistic guy; however, Tiana then teaches Naveen to cook and in the end the two marry and found Tiana’s dream restaurant together. With themes of gender equality and overcoming racial adversity and poverty, The Princess and the Frog seems like a feminist dream come true. (for more on its feminist themes, read this awesome blog post by Rose at Feministing: http://www.feministing.com/archives/019389.html)
When I left the theater, I started wondering if Princess Tiana is also a successful on-screen representation of a Real Girl. In The Curse of the Good Girl, Rachel Simmons writes that a Real Girl stays connected to her desires and acts on them, reflects on her relationships, avoids people-pleasing, and understands and accepts her flaws. Princess Tiana satisfies many of these requirements: she speaks her mind, knows what she wants, and works hard to get there despite criticism from some racist landlords, her boss, her friends, and her own mother. Tiana faces her flaw—uber-independence or perhaps stubbornness—and ends up with a healthy, emotionally fulfilling relationship based on love and respect. While I don’t recall much discussion of Tiana’s emotions, it’s hard to deny that Tiana is perhaps Disney’s first Real Girl.
Yet something has been nagging at me since I saw the movie--is Disney’s new dream for girls just a modern update to an idealistic Happily Ever After, not unlike any other run-of-the-mill romantic comedy? It’s a well-known premise: a woman fulfills her dreams and finds love on the way! I’m looking at you Never Been Kissed, Miss Congeniality, Legally Blonde, Love Actually, Hitch, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Holiday, Music and Lyrics, The Devil Wears Prada, and He’s Just Not That Into You. So of course Disney chooses to make Tiana a successful businesswoman with a successful love life—that seems to be a consistent formula for box-office hits.
My concern is that this new Happily Ever After is still a lot to live up to. Disney wants us to find the perfect man--one who complements and completes us, one who we can change, oh, and one who is dashingly handsome--and now adds on the responsibility of finding the perfect job--one that fulfills our dreams, one that we enjoy, and of course one that brings monetary success. All of a sudden this dream looks pretty hard to achieve.
I’m worried that the Disney’s ideal for girls is just that—too much of an ideal. I’m worried that young women going to see this movie won’t look up to Tiana because she’s a Real Girl but instead because she’s also a Perfect Girl. After all, Tiana is always happy, works endlessly and tirelessly to get what she wants, and eventually falls in love and marries a good man. I’m worried for the girls who have alternative dreams. I’m worried for the girls who are surprised when they realize how hard it is to achieve this new perfection and I’m worried for the emotional fallout of not achieving it.
I do want to celebrate The Princess in the Frog for its feminist themes and, ok, because it was just a really fun movie. But I also want young women to have their own set of realistic goals and wild dreams, apart of any ideal that Disney has to offer.
Image thanks to: http://www.mtv.com/shared/promoimages/movies/p/princess_and_the_frog/150x200a.jpg