If you don’t know Children’s Fairyland, that in and of itself deserves a post. It was the first modern theme park, constructed in the 1950’s all around fairytales. Indeed, Walt Disney ripped a lot of the ideas for Disney Land off of Fairyland… and their head designer. If you want to see what Disney Land would be like if it never evolved from original concept… go to Oakland. It’s there. And yet, Fairyland is sort of my family’s happy place.
On this particular trip, Evie noticed a set of statues she hadn’t seen before. In front of a small cottage were statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “Look at this mommy and all her little guys!” she exclaimed.
I groaned internally. My child knows every song from Moana but has no clue who Snow White is.
“Mama, why is this one look like he’s being so rude? And it’s clearly past their bedtime— look at how tired this other one is?”
Yes, Evie, those would be Grumpy and Sleepy.
And yet, as I thought about it, I’m fine with the reality that my daughter is only aware of the modern Disney/Pixar “princess” cannon of Brave, Frozen, and Moana.
If you don’t have young children and aren’t a raging feminist, you may not have noticed: But Disney has taken a sharp 180 on the traditional princess thing. Recent movies have gotten increasingly feminist.
Brave was a turning point— in technology and story. It was the first movie made using the software that was Steve Jobs’ Pixar legacy: A new several hundred million dollar system that could have such precise animation that curly hair was finally possible in animation.
It was also the time when the princess thing started to turn. Brave has an explicitly matriarchal construct: The Queen clearly is the one with it running everything while the men all look like buffoons. And it’s the story of a princess that refuses to cave to tradition and be a princess. She fights for her own hand in marriage. The rest of the story is about her and her mother coming to common ground on how traditions like men winning the heart of a woman by competing in competitions need to change.
When we recently watched Brave, Evie said to me, "I would never act that way to you, mommy." And I said, "Evie-- if I ever told you who to marry, you'd have every right to."
Brave, though, was still produced by Pixar and distributed by Disney.
Next came, Frozen, to my mind the perfect amalgamation of Disney and Pixar, post merger. All the inside jokes for adults and fast dialog and stellar software, merged with Disney’s epic good versus evil battles and songs. But again, the princess trope was changed.
Elsa and Anna were the oldest princesses in the Disney canon. As such, they had more presence, independence, and identity than others. Elsa became Queen without a man in the picture, and Anna’s I-just-met-you true love euphoria was stolen from the Disney playbook. That magical ability to have one dance and know you’ll wind up together that we saw in Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and so many other iconic Disney films. Disney tricked us into thinking we were seeing it again… but of course, Hans turns out to be the real villain.
Anna’s actual romantic interest, Kristoff, is hardly the princely ideal, after all she is the one with the money and power not him. And there are all those jokes about him smelling bad. He grows to loves her after getting to know her, and Kristoff and Anna aren’t the main love plot line. They don’t wind up married at the end, and she is the one who buys him a new sled.
The key to the film— the “true love” that saves everyone— is the love between sisters. That is what is the most powerful and truly indivisible.
Pretty amazing step forward for Disney, I thought.
And then I took my kids to see Cars 3. We are big fans of the Cars franchise. But Cars 1 hews to a pretty standard boy-meets-girl-conflict-then-love formula. Sally objectified as a “hot Porche” — although, credit, she has a career as a lawyer and doesn’t rely on a male care. But the relationship between Lightning McQueen and Sally is secondary to the other relationships with McQueen and Mater and McQueen and Doc. That’s what really changes McQueen. Sally is more the reward of his evolution.
Cars 2 was — if anything— worse on this front. There’s no talk of Sally going on the trip around the world with the rest of the town, she conveniently has plenty to do in Radiator Springs. Now, maybe, this respects the fact that Sally is a lawyer and has her own shit going on and has enough of a strong identity she doesn’t just fly off with her boyfriend on a whim. Ok. But it also makes Cars 2 effectively a buddy movie about McQueen and Mater.
And Mater assumes the female agent— Holly Shiftwell— who has him confused with someone else is interested in a romantic relationship with him, which is comical and very Mater and very real life. And in the end, of course, they do go on a date.
I don’t think any of these movies are an anti-feminist abomination by any standards. At worst, they reflect Hollywood generally. But holy shit, Cars 3 takes things to another place.
In Cars 3, Cruz Ramirez is a fast female racer who is marginalized by racing’s bro-culture and has to give up her dreams of being a race car to become a trainer to race cars instead. Lightning McQueen is fighting for his career and Cruz is enlisted to help him. It becomes clear along the journey how talented she is. At one point, McQueen’s pathetic fragile male ego wins out and he screams that she’d understand his angst if she were a race car. She schools him on how she is one, she was just marginalized by the system. So on the final race, McQueen gives up his spot for her. And she wins.
Now: Yes, you can argue, a man still gave her her shot. But a man (can we call a male car a man?) also gave up his own shot to do so. And there is zero romantic involvement from anyone. Cruz is simply a competent racer. Not a car for another car to hit on.
Which brings me to the most feminist animated movie I’ve seen yet: Moana.
I almost don’t know where to begin. In the opening we’re told of the story of Te Fiti— the goddess of all creation. Shocker: A shit load of male demigods and monsters envy her power of creation. So one demigod, Maui, steals her heart in order to deliver her gift of creation to “man.” Guess what? He fucks up the entire world. A lava monster is unleashed, shit gets real, and a black death spreads to the island and Maui is stranded without his magical fish hook that allows him to shapeshift.
We are told this legend by Moana’s grandmother, the “crazy” (read: Hysterical) matriarch on the island. Moana is the chief’s daughter and the chief lost a friend sailing beyond the reef and has forbid it. But she is called to the ocean and the ocean choses her to restore the heart. It is her grandmother who convinces her to listen to the voice inside her: The real her, no matter what anyone says. Her mother finds her sneaking off, and helps her pack up supplies.
So Moana finds Maui, voiced by The Rock. A massive, muscled, macho bro who corrects Moana when she addresses him, saying she forgot to add “hero of men.” His song is “You’re Welcome” in which he lists all the awesome things he’s done for humanity, even though he also doomed it by stealing the heart. He strands her in a cave and steals her boat. She gets back to him. She convinces him to help her by incentivizing him that first they’ll find his hook and he’ll be an actual hero of men if he restores the heart.
It’s then that they meet the villain of the movie: Tamatoa, voiced brilliantly by Jemaine Clement, channeling David Bowie. Tamatoa represents everything the movie doesn’t. It’s not about what’s inside, it’s about the shell, the armor that you construct on the outside. In this, Tamatoa and Maui are pretty similar, as Tamatoa himself taunts Maui in song:
“Chasing the love of these humans
Who made you feel wanted
You tried to be tough
But your armour's just not hard enough”
While accurate, Tamatoa is subsequently brought down by his own fragile male ego. Moana encourages him to brag about himself before killing her. To which he says, “I will gladly do so! IN SONG!”
Muscles aside, Maui is consistently losing his nerve despite having more powers and calling Moana a “chicken” at one point. (Projection, anyone?) Moana is the one who has to convince him that what’s inside makes him Maui not his silky curly hair, his fish hook or his past accomplishments. And when Moana loses her nerve, it’s not Maui who helps her, it’s the spirit of her (now) dead grandmother, encouraging her to know who she is.
And then, we get to the lava monster, Te Ka. Moana is the one to realize, Te Ka isn’t a monster. It is what Te Fiti became after her heart was stolen. Moana parts the ocean and bravely lets the dangerous lava monster crawl to her, telling her she knows who she is and that her anger doesn’t define her.
I mean, if that doesn’t sound like the most feminist kids movie of all time…. lemme just point out a few more things.
- There is zero romance or even implication of romance in the movie.
- Moana explicitly gets pissed when Maui refers to her as a princess, saying “she’s the chief’s daughter, there’s a difference.”
- The “crazy” grandmother is right; the macho chief is wrong.
And also this: Tamatoa is the villain of the movie, his song even channels rhythmic touches of Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” But it’s the only villain I can think of in the Disney canon that is only in one scene. (Not counting the Easter Egg after the credits.) Tamatoa is more of a reflection of what’s wrong in the world. But the real battle is about the world telling you who you should be versus who you know you are.
I don’t have any insight into what has occurred here internally at Disney. But my friend Christie Pitts, a VC at Backstage Capital, recently wrote about why VCs should be thinking more about diversity….
From her piece:
In the United States:
These trends are only increasing: 43% of are non-white/ 50% of newborns are non-white, and in 2055, there will be no majority population
She pointed to Hollywood as a place that was “getting it” more than the Valley. Also from her post:
Other industries have realized this and are starting to reap the returns. Let’s look at the film industry to understand that bets on diversity pay off in a huge way:
Highest domestic gross box office film? , featuring the most diverse cast of any Star Wars movie, with Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in leading roles.
As more diverse films are released, records continue to be broken. A few recent and great examples of this are Get Out, Hidden Figures, Wonder Woman, and Girls Trip.
I’m just glad I have a young daughter now, not ten years ago.