Sunday, 24 March 2013

Happily Ever After

I've always had a love/hate relationship with Disney.

As a child, their films were magical, fantastic escapism and, as an adult, provide a safe haven from the trials and tribulations of the "real world". From Snow White to Tangled, Sleeping Beauty to Enchanted, these tales of happy endings soothe us and transport us back to a time of innocence and hope.

At the end of 2011, I wrote a post on my Guiding blog about the perpetuation of the "happily ever after" myth, and the false expectations given to girls about relationships, but the Disney Princess culture goes deeper than that.

Because, through the years, they have put an emphasis on beauty, that self-worth is tied to ability to find a man. Yes, there have been others in recent years (Pochahontas, Mulan, Tiana and Merida) that have bravery, tenacity and wit, but even they get their man in the end. And all of them are stunningly beautiful.

As a short, fat, spotty child with bushy hair, I struggled to find characters I could identify with within the Disney framework. Rotund men were friendly, funny characters, often bumbling (Maurice, Sleeping Beauty's father), but the women were evil (Madam Mim, Ursula). The most positive I could find was Merryweather from Sleeping Beauty.

I always adored Belle from Beauty and the Beast, as she was the first Disney Princess, in my recollection, that was "real". She had hobbies, was a bit of an outsider and, despite her beauty, was a character I could almost identify with.

Even now, when I'm ill, I flick on my copy of Beauty and the Beast, which practically lives in my DVD player upstairs (I'm pretty sure it's in there at the moment). But I also feel a strange, niggling doubt. Because how are we supposed to empower girls and show them that there's more to life than this media-driven obsession with beauty and reliance upon a patriarchal system if we perpetuate this ridiculous Disney myth?

And then, yesterday, I saw this video. No, it doesn't address the fairytale ending, but it does talk about what it means to be a Disney Princess. It does talk about what qualities should be valued, and even refers to physical appearance in the understated, "we are told we are beautiful". It's a beautifully dismissive and appropriate, "yeah, we're beautiful, but that's not the important bit".

Disney are getting better at sharing this message. Between video campaigns such as "I am a Princess" and their more recent heroines like Tiana and Merida, who promote self-reliance and determination, we're starting to talk about empowerment and feminism with younger generations. But is it going far enough? When will we see the heroine that doesn't get the prince? Or, more importantly, isn't bothered about getting the prince?

Because life isn't about about looking pretty, or finding true love. It's about all the things spoken here; bravery, loyalty and friendship. It's about trust, kindness, overcoming fear and obstacles and about standing up for what we believe in. Only when we know, believe and live all these things will we really live happily ever after.

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