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'Brave' and the Princess Problem: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

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Jun 25, 2012 | 12:57pm EDT

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"And they all lived happily ever after." These are the words countless fairytale-devouring children have heard throughout generations. You know the drill: Boy meets beautiful girl, beautiful girl falls in love, boy saves beautiful girl from harm, boy and beautiful girl get married and, well, live happily ever after, of course. Did I mention that she's beautiful? Yes, ever since the dawn of happy endings, princesses have been programmed to reflect society's idea of the "ideal" woman: beautiful, slender, completely submissive, and completely dependent on her father's fortunes or her princely boyfriend's future fortunes. It's a pattern that's been ingrained into our psyche since we were old enough to work a VCR. (Google it, kids.) 

But the animated franchise has come a long way in terms of such "damsel in distress" stereotypes. Though once portrayed as subservient and overly feminine, Disney is now attempting to make today's modern princesses just as strong and independent as any of their animated male counterparts. Just see Pixar's latest film Brave, which managed to rake in $66.7 million over its premiere weekend (that's the fifth biggest opening weekend in Pixar history) while showcasing a princess who's just as wild and untamed as her curly red locks. No housekeeping and spindle wielding for this girl — she's got her own dreams to follow. It's a progressive message that has impressed critics (though perhaps not as much as some of Pixar's other hits) — according to Rotten Tomatoes, 72 percent of the female critics gave Brave positive reviews and a whopping 75 percent of all the male critics also gave the movie rave reviews. Seems empowerment is an equal-opportunity pleaser.

"On behalf of women's film, it's so encouraging to see roles for women and girls that are complex and original because this is what we suffer from more than anything else is lack of originality in the actual kinds of stories that are told," Cathy Schulman, President of Women in Film, tells Hollywood.com. "And the roots of that often stem from the lack of female writers that are working, but also just a sort of lazy, cultural ennui where we don't challenge the stereotypes. I think this is a really good example of challenging the stereotypes and showing that the box office can be your friend when you do that."

Movies tend to be an outward projection of society's hopes, beliefs, and even their fears (the Mayans predicted the world will end in 2012, so what do we do? Produce a swarm of movies about the Earth's impending demise), so the fact that Brave found success offering a fresh new take on a female-focused heroine shows just how far we've come in terms of labeling the female gender. Times have changed. It's no longer a man's world. Adele dominates the billboard music charts, Oprah has more money than God, and it's only a matter of time before a female President will take the reigns. Brave is directly in keeping with this way of thinking, centering around the bond between a mother and daughter and bucking a traditional love story. And that's what makes Brave so groundbreaking — while Merida, the strong, modern-day princess, is teaching her mother The Queen how to evolve and embrace progression, she says, "I suppose a princess does what she's told?" In the majority of old fairytales, yes. Even strong female characters like Katniss in The Hunger Games had to brave a love triangle. Brave, on the other hand, features no significant male role. It's refreshing — especially when you consider fairytale princesses of yore lacked mother figures entirely. (Or, at least ones that weren't trying to make their lives miserable.)

Add to that the fact that characters who actually were bold and intellectual enough to do so were categorized as villains, and it's no wonder films like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty created a "princess syndrome" that has the potential to cause irreparable damage to the youth of today, making kids feel inadequate in comparison to the flawless figures they see on screen. "I think they can go through a lot of psychological problems that can lower their self-esteem,"  Dr. Lillian Glass — expert psychologist and author of the best-selling book Toxic People — tells Hollywood.com. "When you look at so many women that have grown up in various generations, they've all suffered from that princess syndrome of the past." But Glass believes Brave's portrayal of a princess is extremely good for the female psyche since it "gives another image" of what a princess should be like. In this case, "a redhead, someone different that doesn't look like everyone else. Beauty and perfection are no longer the order of the day."

Still, despite the fact that Brave clearly rectifies a few of these stereotypical wrongs, there's still a long way to go. After all, not only did the film lose a strong female voice when its former director, Brenda Chapman, was replaced by Mark Andrews, but Brave couldn't fully escape Disney's beauty-focused princess culture. Just look at its merchandising: One particular item sells Merida's costume displaying a picture of a little girl shooting a bow and arrow with text that reads, "Look pretty and be brave, too." When a franchise like Disney's Princess Franchise rakes in over $2.4 billion in retail sales alone, it's undoubtedly hard to resist nabbing a piece of that fairytale pie.

Of course, the animated classics (including Brave) also have a habit of turning all female heroines into princesses — as if just being an ordinary human isn't enough. "There's always going to be a place for the prince and the princess, and the king and the queen in literature and in the filmed arts because it's a form of entertainment, almost like a genre," Schulman says. "But I don't think we need to depend on princesses or queens in order to tell stories about powerful girls. I thought Coralinewas a really interesting animation ... she was a very feisty character and wasn't a princess at all. She was the opposite end of the spectrum. I would love to see a continuing to make animated movies about more regular kids." But for now, still expect to see an endless array of fairytale gowns and crowns come Halloween — princesses have certainly left a magical (and financial) mark.

What's more worrisome is such success in merchandising could spell a backward step for children's films starring strong heroines. Dr. Jenn Berman, Family and Child Therapist and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids, tells Hollywood.com that some studios might be too eager to trade message for money. "Movie makers are aware that parents are concerned about the effects of gender stereotypes on their daughters (and sons) and the industry wants to appeal to the ticket buyers. At the same time, these companies spend a lot of money getting in to the minds of little girls and will ultimately make whatever movies they believe will get children to the box office," Berman says. "I think it would be a shame to see a return to the era of the damsel in distress and it would have a negative impact on young girls' sense of self efficacy. Parents have to work double time to protect their daughters from the media messages."

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And to encourage quality relationships between women. The princess culture could even affect how women view one another. "The hyper feminine focus on beauty and superficiality that is inherent in the princess culture encourages little girls to concentrate their energy in those areas," Berman says." Little girls want to emulate these princesses who, while they have become more empowered over the years, still consistently lack meaningful friendships with other females, are not terribly ambitious, and rarely rescue themselves. The princess culture has become a Disney marketing machine, keeping our daughters focused on what new princess product they 'need' next."

But if you think your child could have escaped this whole way of thinking by never being introduced to these fairytale movies, think again. "Watching one princess movie is not where the problem comes from," Berman says, "it is the princess culture that has been created. Parents buy into it, literally and figuratively. The concept of the princess implies entitlement and many parents buy into that female stereotype without meaning to or even being aware of it [like saying to their kid], 'What does my little princess want at the toy store?'"

Parents should be encouraged if their children do reach for Princess Merida at the toy store. After all, there are far more submissive choices. But the fact that those dated, traditional choices do still exist — and continue to be a hot commodity — proves that we, as a society, still have a long way to go. When all young girls buck the stereotypical princess in favor of a spunky, strong heroine, that's when we can all truly live happily ever after. 

Follow Kelly on Twitter @KellyBean0415

[Photo credit: Pixar, Disney]

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