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Is Disney Really So Bad?: Disney And The Evolution Of The Traditional American Fairy Tale

1888 words - 8 pages

As Tartar notes, fairy tales “adap[t] to a culture and [are] shaped by its social practices” (xiv). As American culture began to change, the fairy tales produced by Disney studios began to change and adapt to changing American sensibilities. The main focus of this shift is the role that women play in the fairy tales. While many of Disney’s early fairy tale movies have female characters, they are fairly passive. They achieve their happily-ever-after as a reward for good behavior in the face of adversity. The prevalence of this in the early tales occurs for two reasons. First, the women’s behavior serves as a guide to the American people who, too, are facing the adversity of the Great ...view middle of the document...

Even though she only tentatively breaks away from the “conventional female virtues” that have served to suppress women in the past, Ariel is the first of the Disney princesses to assert her independence in some way and actually take real steps to attain her goal (Rowe 217). Unlike the Hans Christian Andersen version of the tale, Ariel’s independent spirit is rewarded with happiness and love.
In Beauty and the Beast (1991), the female protagonist is also taking her first tenuous steps towards independence (Shaw, Bell, and Sperling 13). From the start, Belle is different than other girls. She rejects the marriage proposal of a man that all others in the film seem to think of as the perfect catch. By doing so, she rejects the notion that fairy tale “heroine[s] dreamily anticipat[e]…[the] predestined roles wife and mother” (Rowe 214). Her difference from other girls is also made evident by the fact that she enjoys reading and thinking for herself. While some may consider Belle’s choice to “embrac[e] traditional female roles” by “trad[ing] her independent self-hood for subordination” and marrying Beast, she does do it on her own terms (Rowe 216). She does it by rejecting the obvious choice of one who is outwardly perfect and choosing the one that she has found to be perfectly beautiful on the inside. Belle ultimately makes her own decision based on her own desires, not letting society and its views influence her.
This independence of females is seen the strongest in the fairy tale films Mulan (1998), Tangled (2010), and Frozen(2013) (Shaw, Bell, and Sperling 13). With each progressive tale, the strength of the female protagonist grows exponentially.
Mulan, the female protagonist in Mulan, openly defies her designated role as an “angel-woman” and is unsuccessful at embracing her “education in submissive femininity” (Gilbert and Gubar 201; 205). In fact, Mulan throws away her stereotypical femininity by cutting off her hair, a common sign of feminine beauty, and dressing like a man. She figuratively becomes a man, learns to fight like a man, and learns to think like a man. In the end, she is able to perform the duty of a man by saving both her father and her country. As a result, she is rewarded like a man with honor and glory. Throughout the course of the movie, Mulan has fully transformed into a “monster-woman” as she has become “a plotter, an impersonator, [and] a woman of almost infinite creative energy” (Gilbert and Gubar 203). However, unlike “monster-women” in traditional fairy tales, Mulan is not evil. Her transformation does not make her into a bad person. In fact, had Mulan not made the change, she would not have been able to save China.
In 2010, Disney released Tangled, based on the traditional fairy tale “Rapunzel.” Initially, Rapunzel seems to be the typical fairy tale heroine, selfless and content with domesticity (Gilbert and Gubar 205). Her only desire is to leave the tower just once in her lifetime to see the...

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