By Ghausia Rashid Salam
Once upon a time, there was an evil capitalist corporation that existed in an evil capitalist country in an evil capitalist world. Even though little girls never needed to be sold on the Western ideals of beauty, and little boys never needed to think that women are prizes to be won after “masculine” hardships, the evil corporation made sure to emphasize just those ideals.
Then one day, as Peggy Orenstein tells us, in the magical year of 2000, “A former Nike executive named Andy Mooney rode into Disney on a metaphoric white horse to rescue its ailing consumer products division.” Now this man decided that the best way to make a quick buck was to exploit little girls, not just in his own land but the whole world over. He decided that little girls would be told since birth that they wanted to be princesses: a word that he claimed had a “broadly-constructed meaning” but really meant a lot of frills and sparkles and pink and Prince Charmings and everything that makes radical feminists hold their heads in their hands and cry. This franchise used all the princesses (and even some not-princesses) from its cartoons to sell their message to little girls in the form of princess merchandise. Within two years, this evil capitalist corporation had sales up to $400 billion from the Princess franchise alone, and the world was never the same again. Since then, people have struggled in vain to fight the war to save their children from the clutches of this evil, greedy empire.
The story of Disney Princesses is a tale as old as time, true as it can be. Peggy Orenstein is not the only one to write about princess culture, and feminists have long warned against its damaging influence for young girls. But the manipulation does not simply end at profits made from exploitation and oppression; capitalist culture goes beyond Disney Princesses and products targeted towards young girls. The faerietale culture at the root of the male-gazed Princesses exists in forms other than children’s cartoons and tales, and it turns out to be just as damaging for adult women as it is for young girls.
Take every single “chick flick” you’ve had the misfortune of seeing. They are all based on the same formula; girl meets boy, girl magically falls in love with boy, problems happen and are overcome, girl gets her happily-ever-after ending. These movies are sometimes tarred with a contemporary brush; the girl may be independent, unconventional and capable of speaking her mind but no matter how much she is designed to appeal to the modern woman, her life is still empty without a love interest. In the epic words of Pakistani film actress Meera, “Without man, no life.”
The problem isn’t with romance, or women consciously wanting to be in a relationship, but that the concept of love seems to imply that a woman can be beautiful, smart, successful, driven, surrounded by loved ones, and yet still incomplete without love. A movie may start out with a successful woman who is good at her job. She may go home to a kickass apartment and maybe even go see her family for some reason or the other. She may have really nice friends that she can spend time with. But at some point, she’s going to wistfully stare into the distance because- say it with me now – “without man, no life.” Her quest to overcome this debilitating loneliness will often include putting up with, quite frankly, really terrible men, and waiting for them to “grow up” and reform.
For all the people who said we were all bitter feminists when we talked about the damaging impacts of Beauty and the Beast: ladies, take a bow, we’ve won. Don’t believe me? Just watch The Spectacular Now, a terrible movie about a teenager who falls in love with a geeky girl with all the potential to be a great woman, except she forgives the guy for kicking her out of his car ‘for her own good’, even though it results in her getting hit by a bus and breaking her arm. Oh, and in the end, the two DO end up together anyway. I’m a big believer in second chances, having needed many of my own in life, but I would assume that broken limbs are enough motivation to stay far away from someone.
The message these movies send is that a woman’s personal happiness is contingent on a man’s love, and nothing else can validate her existence. And that’s a narrow, boxed, patriarchal view of women, assuming that all women are the same in the first place. It contends that women with successful careers and loved ones will never be happy on their own, unless there’s a man to take care of them. The formula is problematic because it is a modernized version of Disney’s own happily-ever-after crap. And sure, it sells, but do we really need women to be assaulted by this message in the media for economic benefit alone?
The fact that faerietale-inspired fiction is crossing over into visual media more and more is worrisome. Not just for the standard geeky “the book is always better than the movie” reasons either; there is obviously a market for turning shitty, stereotypically “girly” books into equally shitty movies. Take ‘The Twilight Saga’ for example. The series is a classic example of an abusive relationship, and the creepy faux-vampire Edward Cullen is the sort of person you’d get a restraining order against in real life. He reminds me of every skeezy guy who’s ever tried to hit on me under the assumption that being feminist means being sexually liberal and promiscuous. He’s controlling and possessive, but it’s okay because he “loves” Bella.
Then there’s the appalling ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (or as I like to call it, Fifty Shades of Abuse). The fact that this trilogy was originally fanfiction is not at all surprising; having spent considerable amount of time within fandom, I’ve seen my fair share of disturbing misogyny in those stories. The entire concept of fanfiction is to play out the writer’s fantasies, and in books and TV shows that specifically target the 16-40 demographic, the fantasies are often sexual in nature. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the fantasy remains within reason, not into the realm of incest or pedophilia for example. So fanfiction based on Twicrap was never going to be empowering in the first place. Fifty Shades is your typical, poorly written erotica, and the fact that Anastasia keeps returning to a terrible man, apparently drawn by twisted notions of love and desire, is depressing to say the least.
In 1979, Karen Rowe wrote about faerietales and how they reaffirm societal attitudes towards love and marriage, emphasizing that these patterns were not confined to children’s fiction alone, but also frequently found in women’s fiction and erotica. Thus, adult women “internalize romantic patterns from ancient tales.” Stephanie Meyer even went as far as ruining ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by producing the movie Austenland, about a woman obsessed with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy and hell bent on finding a real Mr. Darcy for herself. Considering that Jane Austen is cited as one of the female writers who subverted classical faerietales in her own writings, it’s tragic that Meyers produced something that would have made Jane Austen turn over in her grave.
Classic faerietales have always emphasized the beauty of its female heroines, and while not much has changed there, patriarchal concepts of beauty have also been infected with the happily-ever-after virus. Take, for example, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. One of their ventures included plastering images of overweight women on billboards to portray as beautiful, regardless of their size. The same Dove also uses overweight women on ads for its cellulite firming cream. It all sounds odd, but unsurprising considering that Dove is owned by Unilever, the same company that markets Axe body spray by promising men plenty of sexual conquests. Women are sold these ideas about Real Beauty and weight because a woman is only worth her appearance. There is nothing empowering in telling women that they’re beautiful thin or overweight, not when the emphasis still remains that their happiness & success in life is contingent upon their physical appearance.
And therein comes the faerietale element; classic faerietales insist that “good” women aren’t just submissive and oppressed, but beautiful because of their oppressed state. Many feminists find fashion and cosmetics oppressive because of the false ideals they place on women, and emphasize that a woman’s worth is somehow intrinsically dependent on her looks. Like I said, tale as old as time; pretty women get good grades, good jobs, good husbands, good children, good lives in general while unpretty women struggle through life. In fact, that was the point of one of Dove’s True Beauty campaigns: women who don’t think they’re pretty are holding themselves back, because if they just believed they were pretty, then they would be better friends, better professionals, better mothers. As Naomi Wolf stated in The Beauty Myth, “A girl learns that stories happen to ‘beautiful’ women, whether they are interesting or not.”
The basic problem is that toxic unrealistic expectations of womanhood inherent in faerietales are pervasive in all forms of media today. We can no longer subscribe to the simplistic school of thought that faerietales are exclusively damaging to young girls and children. This is nothing new of course, feminists have been warning against it for years. But now, in the age of new and emerging media, is the time when we need to use images of Barbie dolls and princesses and use them as cautionary tales against reinforcing gender stereotypes. Nor can we ignore the impact of doing so any longer, not when mainstream media is awash with tales of women who undergo horrific surgeries to look exactly like Barbie or anime characters. There are those who would say that feminism is dead, that feminism is outdated because women have no need of it any more. But as long as we’re still making “chick flicks” (and refusing to acknowledge how offensive that term is) about women whose lives mean nothing without love interests, we will need feminist theory to deal with the repercussions of adult women chasing unrealistic happily-ever-afters and fantasies of terrible men.
Ghausia Rashid Salam is Junior Articles Editor for the magazine.