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We also need to talk about Disney Studio's persistent lack of diversity and its inability to reimagine love stories where female desire isn't justified by the need to find security. And when the multibillion-dollar media corporation decides to appease modern moms by introducing courage as a theme, shouldn't that courage—in this age of "leaning in"—be used for something more than sticking up for a rich guy with an army? Can't a girl be kind and have courage without letting herself get trampled on, over and over and over again?
The answer is, yes. Yes, it's 2015 and this is what we—we moms, we the media, we readers and writers of the Internet, we feminists—talk about when we talk about princesses and Disney and stories marketed to little girls. We're looking for kick-ass girl stories for the kick-ass girls we think we're raising. The nostalgia for stories we were raised on is wearing thin. We can do better and Disney can do better ("Brave"!), but for some reason, we/they don't.
In the live action remake of the classic cartoon "Cinderella," opening in theaters today, the orphaned servant girl's transformation includes a corset so tight—and CGI effects so strategic—one wonders whether, in addition to taking away the girl's mother and father, the fairy tale's authors didn't take away her liver, too. Considering the degree to which she's all cinched up, where could vital internal organs possibly fit?
Director Kenneth Branagh denies animation effects were used to shave away lead actress Lily James' midriff. Lily James also denies that we're seeing anything other than her corseted self. She says to make the corset work, she had to go on a liquid diet, which is a little gross and kind of makes the case for using CGI in the future. I mean, we're supposed to feel sorry that Cinderella's wicked stepmother denies her scones and jam. And yet, we're supposed to appreciate the effects of a super low-calorie lifestyle when Lily James emerges in her show-stopping gown?
James wouldn't be the first actress to alter her diet for a role. And, actually, I don't care how the waist was accomplished. The point is: It's too small (way too small), especially for a film whose core audience is young girls and their moms.
One wonders whether, in addition to taking away the girl's mother and father, the fairy tale's authors didn't take away her liver, too.
Did no one speak up in producers meetings and ask, "Won't there be backlash? Can't we do better?" Sure, some study probably showed that, deep down, the bulk of us only wants to see very conventional beauty. But, so what? Let a transformed beauty eat and breathe, for God's sake. Quit making us ask the questions, guess the procedures, filter through the noise of a director and actress denying, denying, denying and, instead, find some other shorthand besides "blond, busty and skinny" for motivating the fact that a girl is worth the kingdom.
And that kingdom! Let's talk about that kingdom, where the diversity is minimal and pointless and completely swept over. Notable is that Prince Charming's most loyal employee, Captain, is black (played by Nonso Anozie). In the context of asking Disney to do just a little better, that low bar is met. But it's a real sidekick/loyal servant kind of role that we're used to seeing with our black-white bro pairings. Captain's basically Prince Charming's fun-loving wingman, handling the feet of ugly women and girls in his search for the crystal slipper's owner. Captain, like all loyal buddies/servants, sets aside is own desires in the service of getting his royal master laid.
It's a lot to ask Disney to go full-feminist in its major studio releases, because it's a scary world letting young females have the kinds of desires princes have been entitled to through the ages. Anyway, the formula works for the studio's bottom line, and that's not on Disney—that's on those of us who keep shoveling money at the company. It's also apparently too much to ask for more and regular diversity when casting. But we should ask anyway.
The indoctrination against princess tropes came young and steady in their lives, but my 9 and 13 year old daughters ... both still hold "Brave" up as a model of princess stories that pass their young feminist scrutiny.
My own daughters, 9 and 13, have been well-trained in the art of detecting Disney's shortcomings, and "Cinderella" didn't change their minds. Prioritizing beauty, "mean mom" tropes, weakness in the face of disrespect, impractical clothing—the two ticked off what's always made them reluctant princess-movie fans. Sure, the indoctrination against princess tropes came young and steady in their lives, but they're open to good stories and characters they like. Both still hold "Brave" up as a model of princess stories that pass their young feminist scrutiny. (I've got diversity issues with that one, too.)
And, really, what's the point of a remake if you're not going to update it, make it better, make it interesting and appealing to the diverse audience we know will line up to see it? My daughters and I attended a screening at the El Capitan theatre in the heart of Hollywood, aka: Los Angeles—one of the most diverse cities in the U.S., a diversity that was reflected in our viewing audience. My mind wandered more than once (spoiler: setting aside all the hate-watching, it's kind of a snoozy movie), and I tried to see the movie through some of these little girls' eyes, which I can't really since I'm white, but I tried. And the fact is, if they wanted to see themselves on the screen, they had very little chance. The camera lingered on male diversity to some degree, thanks to Captain. But—and this is probably a Disney strategy we'll read about some day— the camera swept right past the few bits of color and diversity among the females in the cast. It's a strange choice for a studio that counts on international ticket sales. It's a strange choice for a movie meant for girls to see in the year 2015.
We love a swoony love story as much as the next person, but not ones involving such narrow casting, such narrow vision, such a narrow waist.
I'm expecting a lot from a princess movie, aren't I? That's the problem with we humorless, overly literal feminist moms who set high bars for what our kids watch. We want princess stories without princesses. Old-timey Anglo tales with far fewer blue-eyed blondes. Beauty to reach beyond conventional, beyond extreme and impossible. We love a swoony love story as much as the next person, but not ones involving such narrow casting, such narrow vision, such a narrow waist.
We modern moms, at least the ones who think this is worth obsessing about, want our metaphors for worth and goodness to go a little deeper, reach a little higher.
And for the love of the strong, smart modern girls we hope that we are raising, we'd like these metaphors to have more meat on those beautiful, beautiful bones.