Sunday, September 21, 2014

Synthesizing Disney: A Feminist Analysis of the Evolution of the Disney Princess

I am teaching my first Disney-themed course this semester, which means I spent much of my summer researching and reading books, as well as popular and scholarly articles on Disney films, products and theme parks. While the theme of the course is Disney, this topic is simply the medium through which I am attempting to teach college-level writing skills to students who might otherwise be resistant; each week, my students use one or more Disney related articles to practice skills like summarizing, quoting, rhetorical analysis, and most recently, synthesis. To help my students understand the complex process of combing multiple ideas in an effort to create one, cohesive argument, I decided to create a sample synthesis. What started as a "simple, easy-to-follow example" quickly got away from me, however, and I ended up creating what could be the start of a new and interesting research project. What follows is a half-day's reflection on Disney, feminism and the roles each play in our developing American society:

In her article, “The Disney Princess Effect,” author Stephanie Hines quotes a Disney Corporate Executive who argues, “For 75 years, millions of little girls and their parents around the world have adored and embraced the diverse characters and rich stories featuring our Disney princesses.... [L]ittle girls experience the fantasy and imagination provided by these stories as a normal part of their childhood development” (para. 9). In other words, Disney has been educating girls for the better part of a century, teaching them what it means to be “normal” as they develop from girls into women. While Disney clearly views their effect on girls and the institution of American girlhood in general as overwhelmingly positive, many authors have criticized the underlying messages provided by “stories featuring …Disney Princesses.” Alexandria Robbins, author of “The Fairy-tale Façade,” claims that Disney princesses like Cinderella encourage passivity in girls and women. Other authors, however, are noticing a positive change in the representation of girls and women in Disney films. In “On Disney, Daughters and Dads,” author Michael Corso concedes that, while early Disney princesses like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are “utterly passive” (para. 3), the next generation of Disney princesses, Jasmine from Aladdin, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and Ariel from The Little Mermaid, provide girls with more active, adventurous role models. Even more promising, says Laura Sells, author of “Where do the Mermaids Stand?,”are the covert, feminist messages present in many Disney films; she argues that films like Disney’s The Little Mermaid encourage women to reclaim the voices they sacrificed during the era of Second Wave feminism, when women first began entering the predominately white, male workforce. The collective voices of these critics make it clear that there has been a shift in the way Disney represents girls and women. 

While it’s true that Disney often misses the mark, each new generation of Disney princesses appears to be stronger and more powerful than the last. More interesting, however, is that each of these marked shifts in the representation of women in Disney films seems to follow a wave of feminist activity in America. Disney’s Snow White (1939), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) were released in the generations between First and Second Wave Feminism; Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) appeared in the generation following the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 70s; and most recently, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013) have appeared in the wake of the Third Wave Feminism of the New Millenium. Each successive generation of Disney princesses reflects the advancement of women in American society, but each film falls short of being truly feminist.  While the films of the 1980s and beyond show a marked improvement in the representation of girls and women, each film relies heavily on traditional stereotypical beliefs about gender roles and modern-day cultural assumptions about female beauty to achieve its “happily ever after” fairytale ending; in this way, Disney films act as cultural representations of the positive effect feminism has had on women in American society and the violent cultural backlash that often follows it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

These observations will probably irritate you...

During the school year, I spend so much time reading for work that I have very little time for reading for pleasure. And, to be perfectly honest, after long grading marathons and hours spent lesson planning, sometimes the last thing I want to do is read. I still read a few novels a semester, but my habits are inconsistent. Instead, I find that I usually spend my free-time (when I have it) catching up on my favorite television shows.

The summer is my time for reading. Although I am still teaching this summer, my schedule is much lighter, and summer thunderstorms and longer days are conducive to getting lost in a good book. In this post, I will discuss the first novel I read this summer. I  have read others and still have so many others on my list ( I hope to write of these in future posts), but I decided to begin with a reread.

Early in the Spring, I was discussing Shakespeare’s King Lear with a colleague. To be more exact, we were talking about what constitutes “good literature.” He made a statement that I agree with wholeheartedly. To paraphrase our discussion and consensus, good literature is any text that makes you think. It is a text that speaks to you where you are. In other words, a reader brings to a text as much as a text gives to the reader. My colleague gave the example of a friend of his who spent a whole month reading and rereading King Lear, and he could never escape the idea of mothers. He said that his friend had never thought of the play in those terms before, and it baffled him. But, then he realized that it was because he was coming to terms with the death of his own mother. Revisiting literature allows us to take something new and different from it every time. That was certainly my experience when rereading Jane Eyre.


I first read Jane Eyre when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and I haven’t read it again in years. I try to revisit at least one old favorite each year (though I often feel that rereading novels is greedy when there are so many on my TBR pile). This year, I chose Jane Eyre for two reasons:
1.     I loved it as a teen. The melodrama, the madness, the intrigue, the star-crossed love, and the subversion appealed to me.
2.     My niece, Caitlyn, is now homeschooling, and I am in charge of her English work. Her teacher at the private school she attended last year thought it best to have students read spark notes (the horror!) and take tests instead of reading the literature themselves. Because I loved Jane Eyre when I was young, I thought it would be a good introduction for her. I wasn’t entirely correct.

I’m glad I revisited Bronte’s novel, but I must admit that it wasn’t entirely pleasurable. In Bronte’s own words, “These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.” I’m sure my opinion is not a popular one, especially for those die-hard fans, but let me explain. I understand and appreciate the novel’s literary worth critically, in terms of its context, its agenda, its critique of the separation of sexes and social classes. I also understand its role in our understanding of feminism today. My response here, though, is not as a critic, but as a reader. The novel itself was not as entertaining to me as it once was. I found myself rolling my eyes at the over-the-top melodrama and love affair between Jane and Rochester.

That said, I found new things about the novel that reminded me of the reason why I loved it. I admire the style and language and the clever fairy tale allusions. I still found myself smiling at Jane’s speeches about freedom and women’s rights (Preach!). There were also other differences in my reading of Jane Eyre as an adult. As a teen, my favorite scenes were those exchanges between Rochester and Jane. This time around, I was drawn to Jane’s time at Lowood because it is during this time, for me, that the novel focuses most on Jane’s internal development and her evolving independence. She becomes Jane.

Charlotte Bronte once said of Jane Austen, “she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. ... Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman, if this is heresy—I cannot help it. If I said it to some people (Lewes for example) they would accuse me of advocating exaggerated heroics, but I am not afraid of your falling into any such vulgar error." I have always preferred Austen to Bronte, perhaps because I am practical above all. I am amused by Jane Austen’s reserved style, her humor, and witty subversion. I love Austen for those very things that Bronte detests. I absolutely think that is why I didn’t enjoy Jane Eyre as much this time. I have matured and evolved both as a reader and as a woman. I’m no longer that young girl who thinks that nothing is as romantic as the love between brooding Rochester and the elfish Jane. Now, not so much…

I will not give up on Bronte. After all, I have never read Villete (it’s on the TBR list), and I have heard that is much more…mature. Even though rereading Jane Eyre wasn’t as enjoyable as I would have liked, it still did what good literature does: it made me think, and I learned things about myself in the process. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Four of us started this blog in the hopes of continuing a long-distance book club that had begun when we were in grad school. The time we spent together talking about books (not assigned for classes) are some of my fondest memories during that period in my life.  However, life and distance intervened—as they are wont to do—and it was no longer possible to continue the book club. And, the blog fell to the wayside.

Recently, Heather and I were talking about how much we miss writing and talking about things that are important to us. Because we are both teaching all of the time, we devote our time to developing curricula, lesson planning, grading, student-conferencing, and simply dealing with challenges of everyday life. We, therefore, spend little time on ourselves. As English teachers, book-lovers, and thinkers, writing and sharing our ideas are not only important to us, but also necessary to remind us why we do the things we do. We teach our students about the power of writing and in becoming more culturally aware. To do so, we explain to them, we must be able to communicate our ideas and to realize that we must participate in the conversations around us. Instead of being passive consumers, we should be active participants. We teach these things, yet we were not doing them as much as we would like.

So, the two of us decided to revisit and revamp the blog. This blog will allow us to talk about the things that matter to us: books, popular culture, teaching, and anything on our minds. Our goal is to post at least one blog a week, and we will alternate weeks. Part of the problem with our inconsistency in posting before was that we felt too much pressure to take time to write, especially when we are busy teaching, grading, attending meetings, and conferencing with our students. We hope that by alternating, the pressure will be relieved and that the blog will be a pleasure to maintain instead of a chore. In the next few weeks, we will post about our summer reading lists, our summer Netflix binges, and the challenges/rewards of teaching. Should be fun!