The Disney Princess Plot is as follows: a spunky, rebellious (but virginal) late-teenage girl (of some exotic culture) is the daughter of a blustering fool of a father (her mother, along with all her other close older relatives are absent, presumed dead). We have one musical number establishing her plight, before she "meets cute" some hunky bad-boy that, for various reasons, won't be acceptable into the family. There's some by-play with some comic-relief secondary characters who tell slightly vulgar jokes in the movie's "other" hit song, before the Big Love Scene set to a soaring Love Theme, that will hereafter be repeated endlessly, through the movie, through the credits, and for several weeks afterward on the radio. Cue the villain, who is usually someone older, ugly and Politically Incorrect and may or may not have a song to themselves,, who either a) wants the Princess for themselves, or b) is just naturally spiteful enough not to want them together, who either a) wants to kill the hero and/or b) will tell the Princess's father that his precious snowflake's tender virginity is about to be taken by a street ruffian. However, through the machinations of the secondary characters, the newly heroic Hero and just maybe, the Princess, the day is saved, the villain falls from a great height to their (presumed) death, and it all ends happily with the wedding of the Princess and the Hero.
Oh, but every fairy tale is like that! Um, maybe not. Snow White isn't like that (OK, the Evil Queen falls, but it's the beasts and shorties who get her there). Cinderella isn't like that either, since she's the guttersnipe (let's forget the toe-cutting part). Rumplestilskin is about a girl doomed by her father's lies, who first is forced into a draconian bargain, but gets free through (minor) underhandedness. I Love you like Salt is a nursery version of King Lear, which, in some versions, leads to the Princess becoming an independent Queen of a neighboring realm. Princess Catskin, the Snow Queen and the Singing Tree are incredible escape fantasies, where the heroine outshines every other character, goes on a fantastic journey, and (if you're Catskin) looks splendid doing it.(Though the Princess Perezade, in full King drag, is one of Maxfield Parrish's most beautiful illustrations.) And, if you think about it, and have read the non-Disney versions of the tales, none of the great 90's classics (Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahantas) were anything like the movies that bear their names. Lumping some of their older catalogue in with the new breed to form The Princesses means that they can market Snow White, which has no strong male presence and is about being resourceful, making and honoring strong friendships more than anything else, as spiritual sister to Ariel, who gladly takes on a lifetime of torture for Her Man and whose relationship with the villain is downright complicity.
The problem was, Disney was desperate for a sure thing. After reeling around in a Silver Age of less-than-stellar non-hits, they came up with a formula designed to appeal to little girls (a Princess in a pretty outfit), teenagers (adults are fools, smitten teenage love, that love theme -- don't you just want it for your wedding?), singles (a date movie that won't bore or threaten the guy and the girl will think is sweet, childish and romantic), males (potty humor and some action-adventure…and it was all done on computers!), Moms (that girl is spunky! smart! a self-esteem role model! and there's no killing onscreen.) and old folks (that lovely love theme…doesn't it just take you back! And doesn't little Shirley just love her pretty dresses!) For the red-state crowd, there's the message that however rebellious your daughter is, she'll calm down once she discovers boys. For the blue-state crowd, while the story is whitebread, the Princess is multicultural. And she's spunky! Transgressive! And…it's done on computers! You get to hear Jerry Ohrbach singing! With Angela Lansbury! Never mind that the Perrault original, about a young prince driven to madness by his own narcissism, who lives in a magnificent castle full of toys, is being turned into a tale about domestic abuse told by the victim! You say Aladdin was set in China? And real Muslim women don't dress that way? But, it's so...so multicultural! Pocahantas was twelve, but don't you just love the ecological angle? We're hip! We're now! We're keeping Broadway afloat! What do you want, Song of the South? The self-esteem of the next generation of young women is on the line...if they all fall dead of anorexia, let it be on your head!
Nowadays, we're beginning to have a Princess backlash, since it's beginning to look like 'being a Princess' doesn't necessarily lead to increased self-esteem, ethnic pride or body acceptance, but to a shallow narcissism based on 'looks' and 'getting your own way'. With "Tangled", and "The Princess and the Frog", the formula seems to be showing its age for Disney as well, but it may well continue, until it finds something even more annoying. Over and out.