Every girl, at some point in life, has wanted to be a princess. It has become undeniable that the concept of the "princess" is, for better or worst, inseparable from girlhood. We live in a "princesses" obsessed era, and we have for a long time now. And a lot has been said about it, with loud people yelling over the internet about the positive and negative aspects of it. So it was about time for me to join the yelling contest, I guess.
If I'm going to talk about princesses, the logical place to go is to the Global Mogul Conglomerate that has led the trend and, in many ways, defined it: Disney. They have, undeniably, redefined the fairytale and have turned the term "princess" into a best selling Licensed Entertainment Character Merchandise.
The thing is, even though princesses have been part of the fairy tale canon for a very long time, they didn't become the central figure until Walt Disney placed them there.
In the tales that the Grimm Brothers and Charles Perrault compiled respectively, there are princesses, but more oft than not, the main characters are not princesses. And even when they are, their defining traits differ quite a lot from what we think of today.
Actually, the princess concept is constantly being redefined, even the Disney princess concept hasn't stayed the same in the last 70 years or so. And that evolving concept has been constantly reinforced and defined by how they look as much as by what they stand for. To develop the topic, I am going to focus on Cinderella as a character and her changing representation within the Disney Princess franchise.
Why Cinderella, you'll ask? Well, while Snow White was the one that started it all back in 1937, it was Cinderella who saved the company from bankruptcy in what was, more than probably, the company's worst times. She was the one that cemented the idea of Disney as the "dream factory", and has remained as a central figure up until today. Note that she's almost always placed in the middle of the official Disney Princess lineups.
Also, the fact that she was the first of the princesses to get the live-action reboot treatment has to count for something. And I'm not counting Maleficent, because Aurora isn't the protagonist and she's barely in the movie and didn't feature at all in the merchandising. So it virtually didn't affect her princess image at all.
But I'm derailing the conversation here, let's get back to Cinderella and how she constantly defines the princess "aesthetic".
THE ORIGINAL DISNEY CINDERELLA (1950)
Cinderella's story, as Disney portrayed it, has very little in common with any of the prior written incarnations. For instance, it's much more children safe and it removes much of the darker stuff. But still, it knew this was no happy story. Cinderella suffers a lot throughout the movie, and you see it.
Because of this, throughout most of the movie, she's animated wearing a very somber and dark outfit. It's a very grounded design, and it discards all the joyful color that we've come to associate with Disney.
The simple outfit consists of a shirt, vest, skirt and a ragged apron all in a very muted color palette: browns and grayish whites. There is no joy in it, no happiness really. It certainly helps to transmit her humbleness, but, even more than that, a sense of resignation that is deeply felt.
That's why it strikes such a contrast when she comes down those stairs dressed in a vibrant pink dress expectant to go to the ball.
The vibrancy of it transmits a renewed sense of hope and faith that helps make the later abuse even more poignant. At the same time, its simplicity underlines the character's personality, completely devoid of vanity or envy.
And then there's the central piece: the ball gown.
This single image is the cornerstone and the birth, at the same time, of the "princess" concept and aesthetic. The big dress, the sparkle, the magic. This single image built Disney's Princess Empire. But how does it work within the movie's narrative? Perfectly well, otherwise it wouldn't have been as impactful.
The dress, all in pearl white is the perfect representation of the ethereal magic that has created it. This is not reality, this is magic, thus the sparkle and the perfection. That same perfection that the pink dress could have never had, no matter how much love was put into it. This is the visual representation of Cinderella's inner beauty. That dress is her: it's her kindness, love, humility, patience... all rolled in one perfect gown. And because all her other costumes have been so simple and humble and even ugly, the change really feels like magic.
And in the end, that's why it works, because it works on a narrative and symbolic level. That's why it hit home with audiences. All her pain and suffering have led her to one moment of reward: the moment where all her effort is rewarded by turning her into everything she deserved to be all along.
It's in that idea where we find both the main drive behind the "princess" concept. It's the idea that every single one of us can be a princess. Every single one us will be rewarded with the dress and the beauty (and the prince) because of our kindness and patience and loving nature. We ALL ARE CINDERELLA.
ETHICS VS. AESTHETICS
Right there is where we encounter the problematic part of the whole "princess" thing. It's not so much on the idea of it, but on how its merchandized.
The idea, as it was first presented in Cinderella, is more than positive. It's the idea that if you dream big and persevere and put effort into it while being kind, nice and overall a good person, you'll get your due.
But, through the years, as the idea caught on, it started to focus more on the aesthetics (the big dress, the sparkle, the beauty...) than on the ethics. Still, for many years, this only happened in the stores, not in the movies itself. Meaning that while the toys always came with the big dress and the glitter, the movies still followed the original Cinderella structure and idea. The big dress is not what defines Belle, or Ariel. Hell, Pocahontas doesn't even have one.
THE NEW DISNEY CINDERELLA (2015)
Such was the impact of the character, that it was only logical to remake it once the live-action remake trend truly set in a few years back. And I've actually talked in-depth about this new incarnation before (read here), but here I'll focus on a different aspect, not as much in the movie as a separate object, but as a movie framed within the Disney Princess Franchise.
Let's have a look at the main outfits, starting, of course, with the regular servant outfit. Which, once again, she wears throughout most of the movie.
This is a baby blue dress with a pink apron. It's a very beautiful outfit that highlights her natural beauty, but hardly anything else. It doesn't matter that is gets dirty at some point, or that is more simple than the dresses worn by her stepsisters. This is not a humble dress. It's made of good fabric and it compliments her figure very well. It's not truly raggedy nor ugly.
Then there's the handmade ball dress, which maintains the original pink color from the Disney Classic.
When compared to her "serving" dress, this doesn't look like much of a change: it's old, the color is a bit muted and it looks worn out. So that feeling of renewed hope is not visually created with the same intensity as it was in the 1950 movie. Because, by comparison, there isn't that much of a change. The serving gown is too pretty and the ball dress too old and worn.
That lack of differentiation causes us, the audience, to downplay the effect of the abuse she receives when her dress is torn, and therefore, maintains an emotional distance between ourselves and the character. Which, in turn, downplays the joy we feel when the godmother rewards her because it feels undeserved. She wasn't that bad off to begin with and we never felt her joy with the pink dress.
And then's the ball gown.
The main difference you'll notice is the change in color. They've discarded the pearl white for an electric blue. Also, there is a ton more glitter and spark. Now it's not only on her dress but also on her hair and her skin and absolutely everywhere to the point where it gets a tad ridiculous.
This causes the dress to lose the ethereal sense of the original. The vibrance of the color gives it a sense of artificiality and makes it look less sincere.
The core reason for the change in perception is that we've stopped reading the dress as a magical reward and instead we've started perceiving it as a part of the merchandising. The dress looks and therefore is, a particularly well-crafted costume to be sold at a Disney Store, and little more.
And I know what you'll tell me: but these are really pretty! And that's true. The designs for the new Cinderella are exquisitely done, and quite astounding. And that's where their faults lie.
The new designs are all trying to be Disney Princess dress material, instead of serving the narrative and the concept. The aesthetics of the Disney princess have overtaken the ethics. The "princess gown" used to be a reward for the kind essence of the character, not the essence itself. By making her look pretty all the time, by foregoing the rags and ugly treatment, we are devaluing the reward itself. In the end, she's just a Disney Princess in look/appearance: she has a pretty set of dresses with sparkly and big skirts, but little more.
Disney princesses used to be characters with a strong message behind (be kind, dream big, have patience, persevere) and a somewhat questionable aesthetic (beautiful, big, sparkly dresses and very feminine visual ideas), but they felt honest because of that strong message. But when aesthetics reign over the message, as is the case in this incarnation, everything becomes vacuous and insubstantial.
THE HIDDEN EVOLUTION
But that change in understanding and representing Cinderella, and all the Disney princesses, doesn't happen overnight. How did we go from point A to point B? Most people understand that when you remake a character, it needs to be "updated". But why? We get that our understanding of the character has changed. We don't understand Cinderella now the same way now that we did back in 1950. But that shift doesn't happen overnight.
Most people don't pay attention, but since the creation of the Disney Princess line, there has been a new design for all the princesses of the lineup every year, including but not exclusively for Cinderella.
And every one of them shifts slightly from its predecessor. Those slight and progressive shifts may seem random at first glance. But they are not. They are the result of carefully crafted market studies that base themselves around one question: what sells? What makes them sell more toys? More costumes? More DVD's?
So, throughout the years, they've progressively tweaked and modified the look itself of the characters in order to adapt to the answer to those questions. And, it's actually really easy to identify the trends in design that have been favored over time.
As you can see, one of the first changes done was changing the color of the dress: from white to blue (which is the reason why most people get confused about the actual color of the dress). Then the dress got bigger and lavisher and more decorated. Then came the glitter, and then they changed the hairstyle and then came the slimming down of the features. It's a pretty straightforward pattern, actually. They were slowly "beautifying" her to fit more modern standards of femininity: she was thinned down and styled more according to today's fashion, with the hair less strict and the dress brighter.
The changes are directed at making her look more youthful, more relaxed and more "sexy". And her character might set the trend, but the rest of the Disney princesses follow.
So, what we find, is that throughout the years, the Disney aesthetic has been modified (in theory to sell more) to the point where it seems that all that matter is the looks. These constant changes in appearance create the impression that what matters and what defines a "princess" is not what she does, but how she looks, especially when they focus so heavily on modifying characters with non-conventional looks, such as Merida or Pocahontas.
And in the end, that's what bothers people about the "princess" trend. It started as one thing only to end as this huge machine that sells conventional body types and a strict understanding of gender normative rules.
And that's what bothers me about the new Cinderella. It seemed to revolve exclusively around the big fluffy dress, and it seemed that the most important factor was to make her look youthful and pretty at all times. The thing is, when I first saw the movie, it surprised me. But then I started thinking about everything I knew of the Disney Princess Franchise, and it became clear to me: the sad truth is that when you see the evolution it has taken, the approach and look of the new Cinderella becomes the obvious progression.
WRAPPING IT UP
I used to be upset when people claimed that the "princess" stereotype was problematic. I grew up with the Disney Renaissance and I loved every single one of the Disney princesses, so they were my model as a child. But a few years back, I started noticing a worrisome trend. Many of the children I babysat, knew (and adored) the princesses only through their merchandize, and hadn't even seen the movies, and all they wanted was the glittery dress and the pretty looks and that's it. That's when it clicked. It truly had become problematic.
Since the creation of the Disney Princess Franchise, they had started to focus more and more on making the look of these characters as marketable as possible, disregarding whatever values they might have stood for. And through years of adding glitter layer over glitter layer, the princess aesthetic had completely buried the ethics that had made it worth it to begin with, completely rendering the characters devoid of sense beyond the "it needs to sell" concept.
And so, the concept of what makes a princess has progressively shifted to the point where it is much more defined by how they look than by what they do. And that's because the younger generation (in its majority) hasn't even seen the movies in which these princesses were presented. They only know them from their collection of lunch boxes and Halloween costumes.
The main difference, for me, is that these characters; Cinderella, Belle, Jasmine... they weren't conceived as "princesses", instead, they were conceived first as characters and then marketed as princesses. This new Cinderella is quite the opposite, it was conceived as a marketable princess and then fitted to a movie. And that's what I mean when I say that the aesthetics have completely overtaken the ethics, making it be shallow and patronizing and devoid of true meaning. And problematic, very problematic.
Why problematic? Because when girls idolize princesses, these days, they are idolizing a superficial concept: the prettiness, the super cute dress, the magic animal friends... etc. They are glorifying youth and beauty and other similarly vacuous things.
Keep in mind that the ideas that we get exposed to as children define so much of our mentality through life. They deserved to be examined over and over again so we can point out the problems with them, and, maybe, even fix them.
But, weren't the original princesses (Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora) also problematic? Sure, but in another sense. These were problematic because they adhered to a rather retrograde sense of the female role in society, but at least they promoted some good values. So, I am not saying that the 1950's Cinderella was perfect as far as female role models are, I'm just saying that it's way better than the new version.
Keep in mind that the 2015 version has a still more passive character than the 1950's movie. Think about that. Here she's completely passive, focuses way more on looks and glitter and it's marketed as progressive. You know, Feminism is hard enough without the extra help.
So, next time you want to convince a child that she too can be a princess, give her a DVD with any of the Princess Movies instead of a costume or a lunch box.
This article was written as part of the Character in Costume Blogfest prompt, click here to read more from the Blogfest.
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