Sunday, June 20, 2010

Disney Dads

I've been watching a lot of Disney princess movies lately, and I know we've all complained about their view of motherhood and femininity but I can't help but notice they started off pretty rocky in the way of fathers too.

I mean, in Snow White the father isn't really seen, but he has a lasting negative effect. We know that he was basically a nice guy, but he married a really horrible lady. Basically, his bad taste in women nearly kills his daughter. Granted, this might not be his fault (the woman has eerie magic powers and may have killed him after marrying him), but it still reflects rather badly on him. The Prince's father is probably still alive, but can't be bothered to teach his son proper courtship behaviors so we can assume he's not just a man of poor taste but a dick like his son, and that his wife is either equally dickish (seriously, someone should have told the brat not to just sneak up on pre-teen girls) or deceased.

Cinderella's father has the same lasting negative effect, though not quite as bad because his bad choice of a second wife doesn't try to actually kill his daughter until the third movie. We know him better too, because he gets a mention in the prologue. We know that he is kind, and loving, and oblivious because anyone with half a brain can see that Lady Tremaine is spiteful, manipulative, short-sighted and selfish. We know even the Couch Potato Prince thinks she's a chore because he yawns and rolls his eyes at her name during the ball--don't tell me that's the appearance of the stepsisters, they CAN'T possibly be the ugliest girls he's met, and she needs magic to fool him into accepting her less-awful redheaded daughter in the third movie. But Cinderella's father was probably where she got the idea that the cat and the dog could learn to get along, because he went ahead and married a woman of James Bond Villain Level Wickedness and thought she'd be okay to leave the daughter and fortune with. However, his daughter saves the entire kingdom in the third movie by preventing that horrible woman from taking political power and pissing the national treasury away on herself and her daughters so I suppose we can forgive him.

Cinderella's father may be a nonentity, but we see a great deal of the Couch Potato Prince's father. He is clearly meant to be a comical cartoon of an aging king, but when you actually think about his behavior he is a truly horrifying concept. He's the absolute ruler of the country, temperamental and obsessed with breeding his son over finding a reasonable woman to help run the kingdom. The King has gotten to the point with his son that he sees the boy as clinging to bachelorhood to spite him, his paranoia is so bad that he physically attacks the poor beleaguered Duke and accuses him of "being in league with the Prince.". (Because how dare anyone take some time to think over their prospects when choosing a lifelong companion). It's this guy who arranges it so that Cinderella and the Prince spends the entire evening isolated in mood lighting, which is actually rather fucking creepy. He repeatedly threatens the Duke with execution if the Prince's romance falls through. The Duke is so terrified of this guy that he sends the palace guard after Cinderella when she tries to make her curfew. There is a horse chase because the only girl the Prince'll talk to is getting away, and no one stops to comment on how fucked up that is. And when the Duke informs him that the girl has escaped (actual quote: "she got away"), this guy looks with naked glee upon the half-baked idea of sending the stupid shoe around the Kingdom to be tried on by every girl rather than sending the lazy-ass Prince around to look at every girl's face. The Duke points out it can fit any number of girls, and the King responds "He's given his word, that's his problem." He has no interest in making his son even comfortable, let alone happy, he just wants to find a mare that his prized stallion won't turn his nose up at and the Prince has stupidly made a promise that means he has to settle for whoever gets brought to the pen. Listen to the royal proclamation the Duke reads next time you watch, it allows the girl to back out but not the Prince. You really believe, watching this, that if Anastasia or Drizella fit the slipper that poor Prince is going down the aisle with them, wishing he'd gone around on his own rather than left it up to a shoe and his father's lackey. Unless there is something extra creepy going around where the Prince isn't allowed to leave the palace grounds until his honeymoon, which I wouldn't put past the old man.

They soften up the King a bit for the third movie, so they can make a plot point of the King being nice to Anastasia and they can make a plot point of the Prince trying to back out and needing mind control rather than just his father's tyranny. Of course, the King took a good long look at the girl at the ball and she didn't have Marvel Girl red hair, so he should've known something was up when he son said that Anastasia was the girl he danced with, but the old man only wants grandkids. None of this changes his worst traits anyway, so he remains an utterly terrifying head of state and family.

As with most Disney princess tropes, the father figures were polished enough to give a positive impression by Sleeping Beauty. They actually aren't bad rulers, to start. Aurora's father, King Stefan, issues the supremely assholish order to burn every spinning wheel in the kingdom and torpedo the textile industry in his Kingdom (I suspect Hubert did so as well in solidarity, which is why Prince Philip runs around in coarse homespun clothes like a peasant. Fine thread would be so expensive to import even the prince saves that clothing for formal occasions), but there isn't any open rebellion over this matter (though I'd wager if it was men's work that got fucked over there may have been). Not only that, unlike the other two stories it gets to be outright stated on several occasions that his subjects generally like Stefan and his family.

His dumbest political decision (that we've seen) stems from being a protective parent, but Stefan gets his biggest father points when he nearly gets into a drunken fight with Hubert because he suggests he might let Aurora back out of the marriage if it bothers her. Unlike a number of the idiotic excuses for paternal authority that precede and follow him, Stefan is actually considerate of his daughter's feelings. He understands that she's going to need to adjust quite a bit to palace life after being raised in seclusion. He's a pretty good father, despite being a bit foolish.

The other Sleeping Beauty Dad, King Hubert, is an update of the short King with an even shorter fuse that has somehow managed to produce a son of ungodly hotness. (Flora's been generous to male royal children with that beauty gift). He has his temper tantrums and that preoccupation with breeding his son as soon as possible, but he has some things going for him that the King in Cinderella simply doesn't have. For starters, his default mood is jovial and not combative. And even though he gets combative, there is no lackey terrified of Hubert like the Duke is of the King in Cinderella. The only character of lower station Hubert interacts with is a palace minstrel who isn't afraid to steal wine from both Kings before falling into a drunken stupor under the table. This sort of thing really makes it harder to see either king as a tyrant despite the stupid spinning wheel law.

The big thing that softens Hubert is how he interacts with Philip. As Philip hasn't shown any objection to the arranged marriage, they don't start the story out with a strange in-family power struggle. Philip meeting Rose/Aurora in the woods is the first bump in this plan, and naturally Hubert has a bit of a blustering tirade and tries to order his son to stop it. But either Hubert's a pushover or Philip is so independent-minded that he doesn't take his father's opinion into account even to rebel against it. This isn't so much a fight as Philip informing his father of his decision and then riding off while Hubert talks to the air. Really, in the end this is Philip's life and Hubert has to respect that. If Hubert erred, it was possibly on the side of overly lenient when the kid was younger. Considering he is a man of frightening political power and sudden displays of temper, I don't think it's bad that he's overly lenient. Perhaps a bit of a weakness, but his parenting style managed to produce the Prince that actually fought a dragon.

The Dad in the latest movie, the Princess and the Frog, was better than any of the four by leaps and bounds without even taking into account that he doesn't have the intimidating political power or the drawback of playing comic relief. Tiana's father is kind, hardworking, loving, cheerful, optimistic, gentle, and wise so naturally he passes away before the opening song. But in the prologue he's firmly established as the source of all Tiana's good character traits, and the inspiration for all her goals, simply by including a conversation rather than just a narrator saying he was kind and good. And in that conversation he gives the Best Advice in the History of Disney. There's a Hallmark Disney display with the little blocks of movie quotes on it next to the greeting cards at the store, and this advice is so good that I look for it every time I pass it. This is the Disney quote I want hanging on my wall.

"Yes, you wish and you dream with all your little heart. But you remember, Tiana, that old star can only take you part of the way. You got to help it along with some hard work of your own and then--yeah, you can do anything you set your mind to."

While this may seem an odd sentiment from a Disney corporation after years of pink princess follow your dreams marketing, and iconic movie songs such as "When you wish upon a star" and "A dream is a wish your heart makes," it's actually not that out of place. Because even though Disney marketing pushes the dream and it'll happen bullshit across the river, up the mountain, and over the cliff, and we fret endlessly about the effect this sentiment of passive wishing for things to happen is having on our children, particularly the little girls, the storytelling division of Disney has long known that this sort of thing makes for an ultimately dull movie.

Watch some of these movies, even the ones with the sappy songs driving home the dubious value of hope and wishes, and you'll find that someone has had to have some sort of skill, sense, or drive to move towards the happy ending. In these movies, Happily Ever After doesn't just happen. The heroes go through pure hell because of their own shortsighted actions before they get their wish (Pinocchio, the Little Mermaid), or someone who isn't the title character works their ass off (the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, the mice in Cinderella), or there's some horrible journey of self-discovery to endure (Mulan, the Princess and the Frog), or at the very least the main character needs to use their skills and brains to stay alive (Aladdin's got to use his wit, Snow White has to become a maid to seven bachelors, even Cinderella has to at least have the sense to keep the second freaking shoe!) in order to survive the machinations of the villain. Tiana's father just seems to be the first character to memorably voice this information (I haven't watched all the movies, so someone else may have said this but not memorably), and he's reinforced by none other than the heroine's dreamsong ("Almost There"). The song that not only supports the idea that work and struggle is necessary to achieve the dream, but that CELEBRATES it. James has instilled his daughter with such a work ethic that she's outright proud that she achieving her goal by the sweat of her brow rather than the sparkles of her fairy godmother's magic wand.

Everyone's always down on magic in fairy tales, and yeah there are certainly folktales where things just fall into place for no good reason, but in the majority of these stories--even Disnified--magic isn't a real substitute for work and skill. It was never supposed to be. Magic instead represents opportunity, and our heroes are the ones who seize opportunity and use it to achieve their dreams. But in order to make the most of that opportunity, or to even get to the point of using that opportunity, the hero or heroine has to have some sort or work ethic, talent, or skill. Her or she has to be likable/honest enough for the audience to accept them getting the opportunity (this is why Aladdin had to give away bread to children early in his movie), have spent enough of their life working that the audience figures they deserve a break (Cinderella can have a fairy godmother appear out of fucking nowhere because she worked her ass off to survive up until that point) and he or she has to be clever or brave or just good enough to take advantage of the opportunity (which can be in big things like fighting a dragon to little things like putting the comic relief you met to work as hired muscle/intimidation).

And for finally verbalizing that rule, and making it part of the moral of the story (In the Princess and the Frog, Tiana knows the value of work but needs to seize love and the opportunities presented before her in the form of a magic curse and the people she meets while under it, and Naveen needs to learn self-discipline and hard work), James may indeed be the best among Disney Dads. And that may seem like faint praise in a club that now includes Magneto but... ummm...

Happy Father's Day

(And here's one more picture of King Hubert and Prince Philip.)