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Wed Apr 23 23:10:09 SAST 2014

Fallen Stars

Barry Ronge | 18 December, 2010 18:170 Comments

Disney has put a moratorium on princess movies and the merchandise that goes with them, writes Barry Ronge

For many years, feminists have expressed their distaste for the cult of the "Disney princesses", a movie brand that is a cornerstone in Disney's corporate edifice. It is a retail range that sells clothes, bed-linen, pyjamas, toys, lunch boxes, jewellery and DVDs, mainly to young girls. It's a major feature in both the theme parks and international Disney shops and these princesses rake in the millions, to the ire of feminists everywhere.

Now Disney has imposed a moratorium on the making of any further "princess" movies, to the delight of people such as Diane Levin, an author and spokesman for the "Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood".

"Disney's princess films and merchandise are limiting to young girls because they perpetuate diminished and unattainable stereotypes. It's a regime of controlled conformity," says Levin. "Does a seven-year-old girl really need a tiara and ballgown? Could she possibly find useful role models for herself in these animated princess movies? In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves a vindictive stepmother ditches Snow White in the forest, where she must live as a housekeeper to seven dwarves. To make things worse, Snow White is nearly killed by a poisoned apple, sent by her stepmother, but she survives because a handsome prince knocks the apple out of her throat. She is a stereotypical victim of abuse," says Levin.

Similar themes run through all these princess tales. Levin calculated that Disney has licensed 40000 fairy princess items, from tiaras to toothbrushes.

"By doing so," she says "it has practically defined the goal of American girlhood: sparkly dresses and lots of hair. They aren't as salacious as, say, the Bratz dolls, but they nonetheless keep young girls focused on gorgeousness. And it's not the gorgeousness you can achieve from within," said Levin.

The news that Tangled might be the last "princess" movie has pleased Levin. "I'm happy that Disney is stepping down from its role of fairy-tale interpreter and is leaving kids to read the old, original stories on their own. I grew up reading and re-reading fairy tales and they were more thrilling and more fulfilling than cartoon characters on their way to becoming Happy Meal extras."

That's one interpretation of the situation. The Disney executives offer another, and it's all about profit. The "princess" movies have always been a reliable revenue stream, pouring money into Disney's coffers for decades. In many ways, they were a core feature of Walt Disney's creative vision and they reached back to 1937 when he created the first "princess" movie - Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

World War 2 started with Hitler's march into Europe and at the same time, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was the first full-length animation film made in colour. It changed the direction and stature of animated film and opened the possibilities of animation to the movie world, where Disney ruled supreme. He understood the animation process and also the mood of the film-goers of that time, and that's how the "princess" movies began. Sixty years later they came to Disney's rescue, when the studio's animated films were doing poorly at the box office. It took just two princesses - Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989) and Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991) - to put the studio back on track, but now, 20 years later, they are contemplating the last of the "princess" fantasies and it seems the cause is the merger of Disney and Pixar.

The partnership between two animation studios created issues to resolve. Pixar's track record and its new approach to animation created a discerning audience for animation that left the "princess" genre looking outdated and tired.

Disney experimented tentatively with its traditional formula in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog. It was set in the bayous of New Orleans, and the lead character, Tiana, was Disney's first black princess. It was greeted with a flurry of derisive accusations that a black princess was "too little; too late".

Their latest, Tangled, shows just how wary they were about the subject. It started out as Rapunzel, but trend analysts produced research showing that when young boys saw the words "Disney" and "princess" on a poster, they switched off immediately. That signalled a problem. In the United States, young males are considered the key audience for new movies and they favour the blockbuster fun of Transformers and Harry Potter.

So Disney implemented changes. The name "Rapunzel" was dropped for a more neutral title. Rapunzel was re-written as a spunky, tomboy character and, instead of the obligatory prince, there's rascally fellow called Flynn Ryder, who takes Rapunzel on an exciting, slightly criminal excursion into his world.

The re-designed Tangled opened on Thanksgiving weekend, traditionally a great time for family outings.

Disney believed that if the film did well at Thanksgiving, it would sustain momentum into the Christmas season and the toys and movie merchandise would fly out of the stores.

That did not happen. Tangled went head-to-head with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and in the first two weeks of release Harry Potter earned $230-million, while Tangled earned just $80-million and that sealed the deal.

Tangled was by no means a flop. It easily reached the magical $100-million mark, but compared to other animated movies, such as Despicable Me with $249-million and Megamind with $130-million, it's obvious why the "princess" movies are being retired.

A contributor to the feminist blog www.achillesheel.com says: "Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Jasmine and the other Disney princesses have been elbowed out of cinemas, leaving only stories starring Buzz Lightyear and Woody from Toy Story, Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean and a platoon of superheroes from comics. This boy's club at Disney and Pixar dominates the kids' world, asserting the privilege of males over females with no care at all. Their disregard for half the population is really sad."

  • Tangled opens on January 28
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