We are delighted to bring you a guest blog from Carolyn Rickards who hosted a cafe conversation about Girlhood and Fantasy at International Day of the Girl.
‘It’s Not Just Make Believe’: Girlhood and Fantasy Fiction
From recent blockbuster adaptations of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood through to the Harry Potter phenomenon, fantasy and fairy tale continue to dominate popular culture. And children are often immersed in fantasy worlds from a very young age through books, films, television, online and other affiliated merchandise such as toys and games. They grow up to recognise and understand the meanings and messages inherent within these texts. Fantasy worlds can provide a unique arena in which to question or even challenge established norms and stereotypes. However, fantastical stories can also promote more conservative and traditional ideals, particularly around issues of gender. Given the continued popularity of the fantasy and fairy tale, we should perhaps attempt to address whether such fiction resonates with the interests and concerns of young girls today.
This post was inspired by a lively public discussion which took place as part of the International Day of the Girl Event in 2013. The aim was to debate and answer some of these questions and we began by talking about the enormous appeal of the Disney Princesses. Created by Disney Consumer Products chairman Andy Mooney in the late 1990s, the franchise features a line-up of fictional female heroines, including Snow White and Cinderella, who have all appeared in various Disney animated films. In this period, Disney have also released dolls, costumes, jewellery, stationery and a variety of other products designed specifically to appeal to young female fans. In a sing-along video starring all the princesses and aired on the Disney Channel in 2006, the cheery lyrics announced:
I look in the mirror and I’m not who I used to be at all
You got me glowin’!
I’m Cinderella at the ball
I’m Alice growing 10 feet tall
It’s not just make believe
Here comes the prince’s kiss
I’m positive the slipper fits
It’s not just make believe
This song captures perfectly the narrative arc of the typical Disney Princess who experiences dramatic transformation in the fairy tale story. In the examples of Cinderella, Snow White and Ariel, each character goes through some personal change either in their bodily appearance or through the sudden presentation of expensive dresses and fine jewellery (thanks to a certain fairy godmother!). And it is also clear that this process of transformation is initiated, or at the very least endorsed and supported, by a powerful and highly influential male figure – the prince. In the lyrics to the song, the fantastical experiences of the Disney Princesses are transposed to the everyday. The young girl listening or watching at home is encouraged to engage with their highly fictionalised adult lives; to grow up and become a princess themselves. The message underpinning this song is that the magical stories presented in the fairy tale are really ‘not just make believe’ at all and should be embraced as a normal and expected transition from girlhood to womanhood.
So – one of the questions we discussed was whether the Disney Princesses presented positive or negative role models for young girls. The opinion in the group was certainly mixed. It was agreed that the fairy tale narrative would appear to be promoting a certain femininity based on good looks, pretty clothes and conforming to societal norms with an emphasis on the prince getting his newly transformed girl. The Disney Princess could therefore be seen as problematic; a female figure who is defined by her appearance and countenance, and whose personal story is bound to the fate of the male character all the way through to the eventual proposal of marriage. However, on the other hand, some people in the group made the extremely valid point that their own daughters, nieces or sisters loved the Disney Princesses from a young age and still grew up into confident, intelligent and independent women. In this context, the princess character was more associated with the nostalgic past, constituting an ultimately benign figure from childhood. Such complexities are considered by Bella Honess Roe who recently posted a similar discussion on this topic. Yet, despite conflicting opinion in the group about the possible lasting effects, most people agreed that the Disney Princesses have the potential to influence young girls. Disney constitutes a major, multi-million dollar international corporation with a massive global reach. There were some concerns that if certain representations of gender are problematic, then the extensive marketing campaigns and distribution of merchandise merely acts to disperse such images to a wider audience of children. In doing so, the princess archetype is provided repeated exposure as a prominent feminine figure across a vast multi-media landscape. And as the fairy tale continues to dominate popular culture, with Disney’s new adaptation of Cinderella due for a big screen release in early 2015, this particular debate will no doubt continue. We may then wish to reflect on the significance and impact of the fantasised princess on our own everyday lives…