The older I get, the less I feel attached to/need to defend the Disney Princesses. The only time I’ll get defensive is when a critic gets their characters completely wrong (Belle is not a victim of Stockholm Syndrome or pretentious), or claim they’re sexist by…making sexist statements (the original three Disney princesses are not ‘weak’ for being ultrafeminine and passive, it’s because they don’t get enough character development and screen time). They princesses I grew up with will forever hold a place in my heart, but I don’t worship them now like I did when I was a kid, basically.
So I guess that partially explains why I’m hyper critical of the new Disney Princess movies (The Princess and the Frog and onwards). I’ve talked in length on my issues with the new princesses themselves (Tiana should not have been a frog for most of the movie, Moana needed more character flaws, and Anna is literally just a quirky ‘relatable’ character that isn’t interesting at all), but for now let’s talk about the male roles in the Princess films compared to those of the non-Princess films.
Quick quiz: what do Naveen, Flynn Rider, Kristoff, and Maui all have in common, besides being the male leads of the recent Disney Princess films?
And at the beginning of their movies they are all extraordinarily rude and condescending to the female leads. While it is true that they all get better, the only one who’s character development feels the most believable is Flynn’s because he stops being rude to Rapunzel very quickly (after they escape from the Snuggly Duckling) and naturally grows more caring and concerned for her (and thus they grow an attraction to one another). By contrast, Naveen, Kristoff, and Maui are assholes to their respective female counterparts for almost the entire movie, and only stop when the girls either prove themselves to him or after a contrived moment. Kristoff falls in love with Anna right the hell out of nowhere, and Maui is suddenly all better right in time for the climax.
By contrast, look at Wreck-It Ralph. He has his flaws, but it is established at the very beginning that he had a hard life and wants to be loved and appreciated for who he is. When he meets Vanellope and Calhoun, he does NOT act like a jerk to them for no reason or behave like a sexist prick, even when they yank his chain. While he doesn’t think Vanellope is capable of being a racer at first, she doesn’t need to prove himself to him in order to make him sympathize with her; once he sees how bad her situation is he is willing to help out no matter what.
Why the huge difference?
Because, again, the Disney Princess movies have to have a contrived “Look how Feminist TM we are!” message hammered into the audiences heads after all the criticisms their predecessors got. The male characters feel less like characters and more like audience/critic surrogates. Oh, you think our Princesses are ‘weak’? Well fuck you, here’s our Princess doing something reckless to show how brave and strong she is!
This sucks because it makes it harder for me to get invested in their respective relationships. I love Belle and the Beast together because despite a rough start they find comfort and joy in one another. I love Aladdin and Jasmine together because they mutually respect and like each other and he’s willing to expand her horizon. I love Mulan and Shang together because they work efficiently as a team. And, ultimately, I do love Rapunzel and Flynn (or perhaps more appropriately, Eugene) together because they organically grow closer and will do anything for each other. By contrast…I’m supposed to like Kristoff and Anna together despite Kristoff being an absolute prick to her because they survived escaping Elsa’s palace and suddenly like each other? I’m supposed to like Maui and Moana as a friendship even though he demonstratively does not see her as an equal?
But what bothers me is that this is only happening with the Princess movies. Look at Calhoun and Felix, Ralph and Vanellope, or even Nick and Judy. Felix adores Calhoun from the moment he meets her, respects her boundaries, and helps her move on from her traumatic past. Ralph and Vanellope bond over being outcasts in their own games, enrich each other, and would die for one another.
And oh my god, Nick and Judy have some of the greatest chemistry between a male and female lead. They just work so well together, even when they don’t get along at first. Keep in mind, when Nick acts like a jerk to Judy at the beginning, she is always able to get her own back at him. We also understand WHY Nick acts like a jerk at first, and he is able to get better. And it’s not JUST him being a jerk to her; Judy also does something pretty shitty to him, and they BOTH have to make up to each other. In between that they make an excellent and engaging pair.
And of course I have to mention Big Hero 6. What makes that movie even more remarkable is that NO ONE is a jerk to anyone, AT ALL. Hiro, Aunt Cass, Gogo, Honey, Wasabi and Fred (and Baymax) all love and respect each other. No one needs to prove themselves to another. No one acts like a jerk to a woman because they perceive her as weaker. Everybody is equal.
In short, the insistence of making the male and female leads in Princess movies act antagonistically towards each other is just unnecessary and exhausting, and a half-assed attempt of making themselves look ‘progressive’ and ‘feminist’. So I’ll say this:
Women having to prove themselves to antagonistic men is NOT progressive.
Women and men having mutual respect for each other, seeing each other as equals, and working as a team? THAT is progressive.
And why Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 are my fave movies of all time.