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A win for women

BY SAMANTHA MILLER | DECEMBER 18, 2009 7:30 AM

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The hallmark sign of a great Disney movie is the irrelevance of the moviegoer’s age. No matter how old, viewers will still root for the hero, laugh at the age-appropriate jokes, sing along with the characters, and feel that little bit of magic in the end when evil is defeated and the star-crossed couple finally make their way back into each other’s arms (of course, in Disney’s world, this means tying the knot immediately, because extended courtships do not exist here.) This magic is all the more real for children. Speaking personally, I can’t think of any movies that stuck with me more as I grew from child to young adult than those Disney classics of the ’80s and ’90s (well, except for Labyrinth, of course — but only because I’m irreparably scarred by my unrequited childhood love of David Bowie’s Goblin King.)

As a 22-year-old woman, I feel like I was lucky enough to grow up with Disney movies that centered on a slew of strong female characters. Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, Mulan and Pocahontas’ titular heroines — these were not the dormant, clueless princesses who populated the first generation of Disney animation. No, the 2-D leading ladies of the ’90s were strong, smart women who rebelled against the constricting norms society set for them.

But with the new millennium, I felt the next generation of little girls was starved for new assertive female characters from Disney. With the tanking of Disney’s 2-D efforts in the beginning of the decade (anyone remember Home on the Range? Atlantis: The Lost Empire? … didn’t think so), Disney took its animation to a new dimension (3-D) and released the moneymaking, as well as positively reviewed flicks, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Cars, WALL-E, and Up.

Don’t get me wrong; I liked these movies (especially Ratatouille and WALL-E). But where are the ladies? All these movies’ main protagonists were identified as male. With these changes in the medium, it seemed little girls had only supporting roles to identify with. Even more depressing is if young females look to live-action films today in order to identify with a leading lady. They get stuck with such heros as Twilight’s Bella Swan, who proclaims (and whines and whines and whines) she cannot live without her hunky beau.

But then there’s hope.

“The only way to get anything in this world is through hard work.” So says Tiana, the smart, feisty, and driven heroine of Disney’s recently released The Princess and the Frog — the company’s first hand-drawn, full-length animated venture of its kind since the cow-laden Home on the Range bombed in 2004. It seems to me that for the first (and only) time in this decade, parents can take their little girls (and boys) to a Disney movie with a strong and clever leading lady.

Tiana, Disney’s long overdue first African-American princess, is a New Orleans waitress who works her butt off to achieve her dream: opening a restaurant. Sure, she gets her prince in the end, but only after he proves himself to her beyond his pedigree. Also, she marries him under the then-correct impression that he’s penniless, which adds a new level of sophistication and admirableness to her character. She’s smart, charismatic, and driven — and I type that with a sigh of relief.

Tiana’s one of the most compelling and modern of the Disney princesses, which is a comforting indication. Not because Disney has decided to continue making its animated female characters more impressive as generations pass but because what this says about our own culture.

As animation has progressed from giving us passive Sleeping Beauties to smart Belles and, now, ambitious Tianas, it indicates more about what companies such as Disney — which, realistically, only aim to please the consumer and make a buck — see in the society they market to. The sophistication of their princesses hasn’t evolved because they’re driving to be progressive. These princesses have evolved because our society’s women did first. Disney’s creation of this hero shows us they now see little girls aiming to become big Tianas — which is the most encouraging sign of all.


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