Monday, September 25, 2023

Why Rewriting the Classic Disney Princesses is a Little Sexist

 Victoria Pedraza | 9/12/2023

Rewriting classic Disney princesses (and other iconic movies) has become a trend in recent years, with many creators and filmmakers attempting to modernize these iconic characters through live-action remakes. These efforts are ostensibly under the guise of having more diversity, representation, and female empowerment. I believe that the approach taken by the studio has taken on a sexist note.

This discussion is crucial because it highlights the delicate balance between updating these beloved characters and inadvertently reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes. In this essay, we will explore the complexities surrounding the rewriting of Disney princesses and why it can sometimes be seen as a little sexist, despite good intentions.

The Problem with Rewriting Classic Disney Princesses

The act of rewriting classic Disney princesses can, paradoxically, be seen as sexist due to the unintended consequences it often carries. While the goal is typically to empower and diversify female characters, it can inadvertently devalue traditional female attributes in favor of traditional male values.

While Disney has many live-action movies (and remakes) under its belt, I’ll focus on the princess movies. At this point, those are Cinderella, Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Mulan, and The Little Mermaid.  My intention isn’t to critique the movies, but rather the characters being rewritten to fit new narratives.

The Good and The Bad

I thoroughly enjoyed the Cinderella remake, with Lily James delivering a portrayal that stayed faithful to the original story while injecting fresh elements into the character. Cinderella's character, in particular, closely resembled, if not mirrored, the beloved princess from the 1950 classic. The core values embodied by the original princess shone through in this new iteration, and the expanded backstory, which delved deeper into the tragedy of her parents' demise, lent even greater emotional resonance to the narrative.

Much like my sentiments about the Cinderella remake, I could express similar sentiments regarding Maleficent. While not strictly a remake, it rather serves as a captivating villain origin story. I found that it enriched the character of Maleficent as well as offered new dimensions to Aurora's character.

In Maleficent, the intricate exploration of Maleficent's backstory allowed for a deeper understanding of her motivations and inner complexities, transforming her from a one-dimensional villain into a multifaceted character. Angelina Jolie's portrayal brought an intriguing depth to the character, making her both formidable and sympathetic.

Furthermore, Aurora's character also received fresh layers in this reimagining. Her evolving relationship with Maleficent, from fear to understanding and ultimately to a unique bond, provided a more intricate and engaging dynamic between the two characters.

Beauty and the Beast's 2017 rendition initially piqued my interest, driven by nostalgia for Belle and my admiration for Emma Watson. However, upon closer inspection, it became clear that the attempts to enrich the characters left much to be desired. While Watson's portrayal of Belle was commendable, the broader character development fell short. Although the film introduced backstories and motivations, they lacked the emotional depth needed to connect with the audience. Belle's past, for instance, was touched upon but didn't deeply impact her character development.

Aladdin faced even greater challenges in its attempt to enrich the storyline. While there was a clear intention to develop Jasmine's character, it seemed that the filmmakers lost sight of the fact that she is not the central protagonist; the movie is titled Aladdin, after all. The film's gender equality message, while well-intentioned, sometimes felt heavy-handed, detracting from its overall strength.

Then there's Mulan. In the original, it's Mulan's love for her father that compels her to take his place in the army. She's not a skilled warrior, but her bravery shines through. However, in the remake, it appears she's portrayed as a superhuman, which undermines the emotional depth of her decision to risk her life for her father. Plus, for whatever reason they took away beloved characters to make Mulan more independent, and in the process took away from her humanity.

As for The Little Mermaid remake, I approached it with a mix of anticipation and trepidation. The original animated film holds a special place in many hearts, and I was curious to see how it would be reimagined. However, my initial enthusiasm gave way to disappointment as the remake struggled to capture the essence of what made the original so beloved.

The character development in the remake felt lacking, with crucial facets of Ariel's growth seeming rushed and underdeveloped. Despite occasional bright moments, the film struggled to rekindle the enchantment and allure of the original, evoking a sense of nostalgia for the animated classic.

The Devaluation of Traditional Female Attributes

When classic Disney princesses are reimagined, traditional female attributes such as kindness, empathy, and nurturing are frequently sidelined in favor of traditionally male attributes like strength and dominance. This shift can be damaging, especially for young girls who are taught implicitly that these traditionally female qualities are less valuable than their male counterparts.

For instance, if a character like Cinderella was rewritten to be fiercely dominant and physically strong, the message conveyed is that traditional feminine attributes are weak or undesirable. This undermines the idea that strength can manifest in various forms, including emotional resilience and compassion. By favoring traditionally male values over female ones, we risk perpetuating the age-old stereotype that traditionally male attributes are inherently superior.

The Importance of Embracing Traditional Female Attributes

It is crucial to recognize the importance of embracing traditional female attributes and not devaluing them. These attributes, such as kindness, empathy, and nurturing, are not weaknesses but strengths in their own right. They can be just as vital as traditionally male attributes and offer a unique perspective on life and relationships.

Furthermore, embracing these traditional female attributes can benefit both men and women. Compassion and empathy, for example, are essential for building healthy relationships and fostering a more empathetic society. Recognizing that strength can be found in qualities traditionally associated with women allows for a more inclusive and balanced view of gender roles.

Conclusion and Takeaway

The desire to rewrite classic Disney princesses may be, partially, well-intentioned. The general idea is to make the characters more independent and empowered, with the hope that they'll serve as role models for young girls. However, it's essential to recognize that Disney has already introduced several characters who embody these qualities without requiring a major overhaul.

Characters like Merida from Brave are prime examples. She defies traditional gender roles by excelling in archery and actively participating in a competition for her own hand in marriage. Merida's fierce determination and self-reliance make her a compelling role model for young viewers.

Similarly, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is a testament to hard work, ambition, and determination. Her lifelong dream of opening a restaurant is driven by her tireless efforts and resilience, inspiring young girls to pursue their aspirations with unwavering dedication.

Furthermore, the recently introduced character Maribel from Encanto showcases a different facet of empowerment. Her ability to question and redefine her family's expectations demonstrates that strength comes in many forms, and individuality should be celebrated.

It's crucial to acknowledge the importance of reevaluating and adapting characters to reflect changing societal values. Disney has, in fact, introduced a diverse range of princesses who embody independence and empowerment. Instead of altering the classic Disney princesses, we might consider accepting them as they are and appreciate the timeless values they represent, such as kindness, compassion, and empathy.

Rather than rewriting the classics, our focus should shift towards elevating and celebrating these established characters while also creating new ones that break stereotypes and empower young girls in innovative and inspiring ways. This approach allows for a rich tapestry of characters that can resonate with a broader range of audiences, both honoring tradition and embracing progress.

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