Friday, April 10, 2015

Evolution of Disney Princesses Part 2

    Yes, yes. I know. It's been over a year since I posted the first part of this series. But you'd be amazed how much graduating college, opening a business, working 35-50 hrs a week, finding housing, and refraining from homicide can interfere with one's blogging life. I really do hope to do a little more with this thing this year, but I said that to myself 4 months ago, so let's not hold our breath.

Anyways, here is the much-awaited (and probably much-forgotten by this point) second part of my look at Disney Princesses and how they evolved over the years. Just a quick refresher, in our first post we looked at the three pre-90's princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, and how they established the template of what a fairy tale princess should be. In this part we're gonna look at how the 90's princesses stormed in and turned things on their heads, expanding the definition of what makes a princess.

You'll notice that I added Ariel from The Little Mermaid as a 90's princess even though her movie came out in 1989. Ariel shares a lot more in common with the princesses of the 90's than she does with her other pre-90's sisters, the latest of whom debuted 30 years earlier. In fact, in many ways, Ariel set the standards for the pattern that the princesses of the following decade would be based on.

The 90's Princesses

      So what made the 90's princesses so different? For starters, starters they were mistresses of angst. While the pre-90's princesses were all sweet, gentle gals who never questioned their circumstances and were content with their dreams of true love, our 90's gals were fiery little damsels who wanted a lot more than their societies (especially their fathers) wanted for them. The first three princesses were up against evil witches or stepmothers who hated them through no fault of their own, while the 90's princesses were fighting against not only evil villains, but against an unsympathetic/out-dated who society who didn't understand them, usually epitomized in their fathers (with the exception of Bell who got along fine with her dad even though he didn't really get her).

     They also had bigger dreams than a prince charming. Ariel dreamed of the world above, Belle dreamed of the adventures from her books beyond her "provincial life", Jasmine just wanted to get out of the palace and not be forced to marry, Pocahontas wanted to run free following the spirits' leading, and Mulan wants to be appreciated for her whit rather than her pretty face.  Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas were all dealing with unwanted suitors, and Mulan failed to please the match-maker. Ariel did dream of a prince, but that came out of her dreams of life above. They certainly weren't pining away for a dreamy prince to rescue them.

     In fact, the 90's princesses liked to rescue their guys just about as much as the pre-90's girls liked being rescued by them. Ariel saves Eric from drowning, Belle saves Beast with her love, Jasmine tries to help Aladdin defeat Jafar, Pocahontas literally saves John from being slaughtered by her father, and Mulan saves not just her guy, but all of China. Now admittedly, most of them were in-turn saved by their guys at various points. Eric stabs Ursula with his boat, Beast saves Belle from the wolves, Aladdin saves Jasmine from the hour-glass and from forced marriage,  and Xiang spares Mulan's life after finding out she's a girl. Not really sure that John Smith ever really did any rescuing for Pocahontas, though.  

     Like the princesses before them, the 90's girls get by with more than a little help from their animal and supernatural friends. Most of their allies, however, were unlike the hordes of forest creatures that flocked around Snow White and Aurora, and more like Cinderella's Gus and Jaq. They were actual characters in the story who actually had lines, and their own comical side-stories. Sebastian has to escape from the shed and Scuttle tells Ariel who Eric's bride really is. Belle doesn't have talking animals, but that's ok because the furniture keeps her company. Jasmine's Raja doesn't talk, but that's also because she's not the protagonist of her movie (we'll come back to that in a moment). Pocahontas' friends Meeko and Flick don't talk, but Meeko has his own little adventures with Percy, and Grandmother Willow does plenty of personified jabbering to make up for the mute animals. And Mulan has Mushu, the most-quoted Disney princess sidekick in my family, and the real star of the movie as far my siblings and I are concerned.

      The 90's princesses also continue the pre-established tradition of singing. Belle and Jasmine had duets and ensembles rather than a bunch of solo songs, but they still sang. In fact, sharing the musical spotlight was another common tactic for the 90's gang. "Poor Unfortunate Souls" is almost as memorable as "Part of Your World" and more people remember "Be Our Guest," than they do any of Belle's little sung snippets. "Make a Man Out of You" is an all-time favorite for my family, more than any other song in that movie (though I love "Reflection" just as much if not more). While they may have been wrapped up in their own identity-crisis angst, at least musically our girls understood that it wasn't all about them.

     In fact, that was another new trend in the 90's: the heroine's personal struggles rather than being the sole source of conflict, actually intersect with larger-scale conflicts. The only reason Ursula messes with Ariel is to get to her father. Belle's quest to rescue her father winds up leading her to end a curse that Beast had been living with for years. Jasmine's one night of freedom not only winds up giving Aladdin a reason to go to the palace, but also messes with Jafar's plans of becoming Sultan. Pocahontas follows the spirits' guidance and finds herself smack dab in the middle of a racial and territorial land-war. And Mulan's hunt for identity and attempt to save her father winds up saving an entire country.

     As far as style goes, the 90's girls kept the majority of the established style, but added their own flare. Bold, vibrant colors were in. Ariel's fire-engine-red hair made sure of that. All the colors, even the more neutral ones were still much more saturated overall than in the pre-90's princess movies. But they still looked similar enough to their predecessors to not stir up too much of a fuss.

     But the thing that sticks out the most to me about the 90's princesses is just how many firsts there are in their movies. Each one tries to push the envelope just a little bit further in it's own special way. The easiest way for me to develop this point is to tackle each princess in turn and explain her contribution to the evolution of Disney princess movies.

As I mentioned earlier, Ariel really started the ball rolling on the whole 90's evolution thing, so just about all of the trends we've just looked at started in some form or another with her. But in addition to all that, she had some own special features of her own. She was the first princess with a single father, the first red-head, the first non-human princess, the first princess to show midriff, the first princess whose villain sings, and the first princess to have a sequel. She was also the first princess whose prince actually plays an active role in the film (something that thankfully caught on).

Belle is the first princess whose movie is expressly stated as being set in a real-world country( "after all, Miss, this is France!"). She's also the first princess to be shown reading, the first princess to turn down a marriage proposal, the first princess to ride a horse, and the first princess to not become instantly infatuated with her love-interest.

Jasmine is the first non-European princess, the only Middle-eastern princess, and the first Princess to not be the main protagonist of her movie. She's also the first princess to only have one animal/inanimate sidekick, the first princess to wear pants, and the first princess to have her speaking voice voiced by a separate voice actor than her singing voice.

Pocahontas is the first non-fairy-tale princess, the first princess to be based on a historical figure, the only Native American princess, and the first princess to touch a gun. She's also (thanks to the sequel) the first/only princess to have two love interests (John Smith and John Rolfe).

Mulan is both the only Asian princess and the only Disney Princess who is not actually royal by marriage or birth (Pocahontas is chief's daughter and they say that equates to princess). She's the first princess to learn to fight and wield a sword, and the first princess to have Eddie Murphy voice her sidekick (sorry, I just really love Mushu).

And we did it! We made it through part 2! Hopefully it won't take another year to get post 3 up.
Interestingly, while re-familiarizing myself with the statistics for this post I stumbled across an article on the Disney Princess wikia that describes the criteria for the Disney Princess franchise and divides them into the same three eras that I did (the "Original" three, the Disney Renaissance era, and the modern era).

Anywho, thanks for reading and don't get eaten by a were-goblin!


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