Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fairytale Feminism--Part Three

Disney’s marketing of films like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White, so soon after the first wave of American feminism reflects a social dis-ease with the change in women’s roles and growing desire to reestablish gender roles that placed men and women in separate spheres, with men in the work place and women confined to the home. This dis-ease would reach epidemic proportions in the wake of the second wave of American feminism. In the 1980s and 90s, the objectification of women became more sensationalized and more sexualized. Images of women, from department store dummies to runway models reflected unrealistic beauty standards that women struggled to keep up with. These two decades saw an unprecedented rise in eating disorders like anorexia, plastic surgery and make-up sales, particularly those products that promised to slow down the aging process. While the dangers of anorexia are widely known, the dangers of anti-aging creams and plastic surgery are less so. Encouraging women to turn back the clock, dermatologists and cosmetic companies peddled products with ingredients like Retin-A, a non-FDA approved drug known to cause cancer in lab rats, and Accutane and arsenic, which burned women’s skin and “made them sick, some fatally” (Faludi 211). Complications from plastic surgery were even more prolific. According to Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, “At least 15 percent of cosmetic surgery caused hemorrhages, facial nerve damage, bad scars or complications from anesthesia…For breast implants, in at least 20 percent of cases, repeat surgery was required to remedy the ensuing pain, infection, blood clots or implant ruptures” (219). And in 1988, a congressional subcommittee learned that at least twenty deaths had been caused from complications associated with liposuction (221). Despite all this, in the 1980s, plastic surgery became the “fastest-growing specialty in American medicine” (217). Clearly, women feared failing to live up to beauty standards more than they feared even death. This fear was fostered by the media, which was quick to show girls and women what happened to those who failed to live up to the beauty standards society set for them. Many argued, for example, that it was Roseanne Barr’s off-the-cuff comedy that earned her the title of the “one of the most hated women in America,” but it was her full-figure that most many critics seemed obsessed with. Throughout her career, Roseanne has been the butt of “fat jokes,” many of which verge on the extreme; one member of the Bar Roseanne Club called her an “ugly, Jello-O-Bodied, tasteless monster from the black lagoon” (quoted in Faludi 146). Disney echoes the mainstream media’s attitudes about women’s bodies in its second generation of Disney films. In 1989, Disney would create its own full-figured sea monster and pit her against a svelte, red-haired mermaid who embodied all the beauty ideals of the era.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid is, uncharacteristically, the only second-generation princess film to pit a virtuous “good girl” against the ambitious “evil woman”; as such, the relationship between Ariel and Ursula provides Disney with a unique opportunity to teach its young female audience an important lesson about what it means to be a woman in a "post-feminist" society. Throughout the film, Disney animators work to emphasize the shape and size of each female character. As a mermaid, Ariel’s upper body is largely naked, with only her breasts covered, and the attachment of her fin, below her bellybutton, serves to emphasize her super-thin waist. Soon after being turned into a human by Ursula, Ariel bursts forth from the ocean in slow motion, drawing the audience’s gaze and forcing us to focus on her body. With her head thrown back and her body arched, this scene also serves to sexualize the young girl and encourages viewers to associate Ariel’s size with her sexuality and her desirability. Even fully dressed, Ariel’s gowns are designed to cut in at the waist, and her red hair is left loose and flowing down her back. Indeed, it is Ariel’s physical beauty that is her defining characteristic. Unlike her powerful singing voice, which is absent for much of movie, Ariel’s super-thin waist and long, flowing hair are with her despite her many transformations throughout the film. Unlike Ariel, Ursula is full-figured. Half-human, half-octopus, her upper body is drawn with curvaceous arms and large breasts. Her costume serves to further emphasis her rounded buttocks and her breasts, which appear to move independently from the rest of her body, bouncing with each step she takes. When first we meet Ursula, she is eating shrimp in her underwater lair. She lays herself out dramatically, gesturing to her body and complaining that she is “starving” and “wasting away to practically nothing.” In gesturing to her body, Ursula forces viewers to follow the sweeping motion of her hand; this, coupled with the irony of her words, highlights the fact that she is, in fact, not starving. By highlighting the shape and size of these two characters, Disney once again constructs an oppositional binary between the good heroine and the evil antagonist.
And in the world of Disney, those who adhere to society’s standards of female beauty and thinness are rewarded, while those who subvert them are destroyed. Ariel dreams of a life out of the sea, and to achieve this dream, it is implied that she must play to her strengths—in this case, her physical beauty and sex appeal. While it’s Ursula who teaches girls and women the importance of silence and “body language” through song, it’s Ariel whose actions prove that “it’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man.” Having surrendered her voice to the sea witch, Ariel uses her human body to entice Prince Eric. She is often shown, standing demurely, with her head bowed and her hands clasped in front of her, fluttering her eyelashes and smiling up at the prince, coquettishly. And Eric is clearly 
smitten. More than once, he is shown staring distractedly at Ariel, with a moony expression on his face. Just one day after her arrival at the castle, Eric makes up his mind to stop searching for the mystery woman who rescued him from the sea and seemingly decides to marry Ariel. He knows nothing about her family, her social status, her education, her hopes and dreams for the future or the experiences of her past. Still, he is willing to marry her, to make her his princess and give her power over the people of his kingdom. Through Ariel, Disney teaches its young audience that being thin and looking pretty are all it takes achieve the ultimate dream of “being part of [his] world.”
Unlike Ariel, Ursula not only refuses to play on her beauty, she openly subverts society’s beauty ideals. The sea witch clearly has the power to change her form. With a snap of her fingers, she has made other mermaids thinner, and in an effort to keep Ariel and Eric apart, Ursula disguises herself as Vanessa, a svelte, dark-haired woman who speaks with Ariel’s voice. But when the sun sets on Ariel’s third day as a human, signifying the young woman’s failure to live up to her contract, Ursula no longer has need for her disguise. She bursts forth from her thin cage, laughing joyfully. Her refusal to make the physical change permanent implies that she finds this thinner form constricting—even limiting. In fact, as her power grows, so does Ursula. In her article, “Where do the Mermaids Stand?” Laura Sells likens Ursula’s desire for King Trident’s crown and scepter to a kind of penis envy (185). While it’s clear that she wants to appropriate his patriarchal power, this may have as much to do with her desire to control as it does with a desire to be free from the bondage of stereotypical standards of beauty. After acquiring the trident, Ursula swells to a size so large the sea cannot contain her, and it is here that her power reaches its peak. Unfortunately for Ursula, this is still a man’s world, and her refusal to adhere to traditional standards of beauty makes this impossible for her to be part of it. She is killed, stabbed through the belly by Prince Eric with the "phallic mast of a ship," thereby reestablishing the patriarchal balance of power and reaffirming the message Disney has been sending women for years: Ambition in women must be contained, controlled, and sometimes even destroyed. 

With each successive generation of films, Disney princesses have become more dynamic, and one could argue that each generation’s growth is a reflection of the growth of women in American society. Although this change is encouraging, it would be too enthusiastic to call these films feminist. While I think it is important to acknowledge the positive changes made by Disney, it is perhaps more important to acknowledge the ways in which their films fall short. Since the creation of its Disney Princess Line, the sale of Disney products has increased exponentially, with Disney making more than three billion dollars a year globally (Orenstein para. 6). In 2006, there were 25,000 Disney Princess Products alone (Ibid). Disney princess costumes are available for purchase year round, and Disney’s website encourages girls to engage in “Disney Princess Dress Up and Makeup Games.” And at Disney’s theme parks and resorts, girls can be transformed in to the princess of their choice at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. Clearly, playing princess is big business, but before we encourage our girls to buy into the Disney princess craze, we need to be sure we know exactly what Disney is selling.

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