Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Are the Disney Princesses Growing Up?

I finally had a chance to see "Tangled" over the weekend, and it was as charming and sweet and gorgeous as any Disney fairy-tale film ever made. I'm glad it's been doing so well in theaters, so Disney can be prodded into making more animated content in the same vein. There was a minor detail in "Tangled" that caught my attention, though, which felt like a decidedly modern touch. The heroine Rapunzel, Disney's latest princess character, turns eighteen during the story. In fact her birthday is a major plot point.

This is a small thing, but Rapunzel being eighteen makes her two years older than Ariel of "The Little Mermaid," Jasmine from "Aladdin," and Aurora from "Sleeping Beauty." However, she doesn't appear to be any older physically and doesn't act any more mature. There are several other Disney princesses that are older than sixteen. Tiana of "The Princess and the Frog" is stated to be nineteen in official Disney copy, though not in the film itself. Belle of "Beauty and the Beast" was described as a little older and a little wiser than Ariel during the film's initial marketing blitz. And then there's Giselle of "Enchanted," who was transmogrified from animated form to thirty-something Amy Adams in live action. Adams can easily pass for younger, but not that much younger.

Looking back over recent Disney films, the female leads have been pretty eclectic. "Lilo and Stitch" and "Bolt" featured spunky little girls in original, non-fairy-tale stories. "Mulan," "Tarzan," and "Atlantis: the Lost Empire" had heroines in their late teens to early twenties, built for action more than romance. But when you look at the traditional fairy-tale princesses that featured in Disney's lucrative Disney Princess branding, there's a clear divide. Between Jasmine in 1992 and Giselle in 2007, there were no new fairy-tale princesses. The earlier ones often had indeterminate ages, but were a mix of adolescents and young adults. All of the recent princesses to debut since Disney got back into the business of making animated films have been emphatically older - Giselle, Tiana, and now Rapunzel.

A few months ago I wrote a blog post bemoaning the recent practice of studios aging up child characters in films like "Ramona and Beezus" and "How to Train Your Dragon" in the belief that older characters would attract older audiences. I'd be tempted to lump in the newest Disney Princesses in with them, but I think there are different forces at work here. For one thing, Disney has always aged up its female characters, especially when they're romantic heroines. Esmeralda of "Hunchback of Notre Dame" was sixteen in the Victor Hugo novel and a mature woman in the film. The same thing happened to Pocahontas, historically a ten-year-old when she met John Smith. The first Disney princess, Snow White, only appears to be in her early teens, but accounts of the film's production show she was aged up from her original fairy tale incarnation.

I think this is the same impulse, but updated for the twenty-first century. Finding true love and settling down at sixteen used to be socially acceptable, but times have changed and increasingly I think there's resistance to the idea of a teenage girl getting down to the business of love and marriage. Sixteen is traditionally the age that marks entry into adulthood in many cultures around the world, which is why it recurs so often in the classic fairy tales. In the information age, however, it takes a lot longer to be considered a grown-up and responsible adult who is ready for an adult relationship. Of course teenagers still fall in love all the time, but there's a salacious quality to premature couplings these days, helped out in no small part by the current media landscape that encourages us all to rubberneck at the likes of MTV's "Teen Mom."

Disney has always been staunchly conservative and family friendly in the romance department. So while they might have gotten away with implying Ariel got married at sixteen in 1989, twenty years later Rapunzel has to wait a few extra years for her wedding day, even the though the characters and their personal arcs are practically identical. It's not so much a marketing ploy as a reflection of the way the American culture and sensibilities have changed. It should be noted, however, that Disney is still selling the fairy-tale romances, the princess mystique, and the happy endings with all they've got. The princesses may be getting older, but otherwise they aren't gaining much ground.

Oh well. I guess some things never change.


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