Melissa P. LeClair
It would seem that within the context of modern cinema, the film industry has begun to produce films which emphasize the diversity of womyns' roles and the ability for womyn, within these roles, to make decisions regarding their lives and futures. Moreover, the female characters portrayed outwardly seem to have more opportunity for decision making that will affect their lives. When comparing female "fantasy" films of the modern era to films of the late 50's and 60's that focused on womyn, romance, and happiness, there is not that much of a sharp contrast between the two eras regarding wom[y]n's roles and the opportunity to take control rather then merely subjecting themselves to the will of the lead male protagonist as was the norm of the 50's and 60's. One of the major producers of these "new" and "cutting edge films" is Disney Incorporated.
Recently, Disney has financially backed Gary Marshall to create the film entitled: The Princess Diaries. Marshall, the creator of Pretty Wom[y]n has once again created a film which works under the guise of creating a situation family film/comedy that emphasizes the "modern" womyn taking control of her life and making decisions for herself. Working under the same pretense, The Princess Diaries focuses on convincing the young female viewer that fantasy and the "dreams can come true" mentality can still exist in parallel with "the modern view of womyn" without completely rejecting Western cultures definition of femininity. However, upon a closer analysis, I have found that what the film claims to accomplish, and what the film actually relates to the audience, is conflicted and contradictory. In fact, I will argue that what the film actually accomplishes is to further perpetuate stereotypical gender roles that are directly communicated to the young female audience between the ages of 8-18. When reviewing the film's marketing techniques, dialogue, camera angles, make-up, custom design, and just as importantly soundtrack choice, we see that there is an underlying message that limits the young female audience's options (as well as the main protagonist's) in relation to what a womyn is and what today's choices for the female gender actually are. Not only does the film support the concept of gender binaries, but it also depicts the emotional and physical manipulation of the main protagonist- 15 year old, female, Mia Thermopolis. In addition, the film literally dissects Mia- picking her apart to recreate "what she really is" -an adult Princess behind a stereotypical inept female child. Because the film is so problematic, I will concentrate my analysis on two particular long scenes along with a brief analysis of one 15 second scene that will clarify some of my main points regarding the behavior of the "typical" female adolescent and the limited gender roles available to her. Moreover, I feel it is necessary to reflect on the critical analysis of several modern day feminists, in order to clarify the films propaganda, in which young womyn are manipulated to support the current understanding of the limited gender roles that are set by male society and that are supported by cultural norms and practices. In truth, what Disney exclaims as a "cutting edge, modern day, fairytale" proves to be nothing more then a re-dressed and re-vamped classic "female fantasy" in which the female protagonist remains in a subjective "womyn's" position which is pre-determined by Western culture's long standing patriarchal- dominant society.
Mia Thermopolis, the main protagonist, is transformed from a bumbling teenager to a ravishing, young, adult princess within 120 minutes of Disney fantasy. The question is how; and furthermore, what is her reaction to her metamorphosis? Before we can answer these questions, we must first become members of the audience and subject ourselves to the will of the director. Marshall sets the tone by opening the movie with a brief 15 second scene of Mia Thermopolis finishing off a conversation with her "geeky" awkward girlfriend Lilly when suddenly she notices a boy named Josh. Although discussing Greenpeace and important ecological activism with her peer Lilly, Marshall drowns out the dialogue with the 1960's romance song "Warm kisses in the summer." Mia quickly envisions Josh coming up from behind her, grabbing her, and French kissing her passionately; he then quickly disappears without so much as a goodbye. As the camera zooms in on the actual kiss, and remains on Mia the entire scene, Josh, slips off to the side lines as quickly as he appeared. Immediately following this sneak attack, the audience witnesses Mia daydreaming, envisioning herself stumbling and then crashing against her locker with a dazed look upon her face. She then returns to reality, still in a daydream state, unable to hear her friend Lilly. In all of 15 seconds, not only has Mia forgotten her peer but also her activism. Moreover, since the fantasy is created by Mia, the audience is convinced that it is Mia who desires this type of intrusive "sneak attack" in which sexual contact is initiated without any permission from Mia herself. This one scene sets the tone for the entire movie. Not only has Marshall managed to perpetuate the stereotype which confines Mia as a sexually crazed teenage girl; but moreover, Marshall relates to the audience the idea that activism and female bonds take a backseat to compulsory heterosexuality and the physical and sexual desires of the white male. What Marshall actually creates (within this scene) serves as a prime example of the theories regarding sexual dominance examined by Catherine Mackinnon:
It [sexuality] is made in social relations of power in the world, through which process gender is also produced. In feminist terms, the fact that male power has power means that the interests of male sexuality construct what sexuality as such means, including the standard way it is allowed and recognized to be felt and expressed and experienced, in a way that determines women's biographies, including sexual ones. Existing theories, until they grasp this, will not only misattribute what they call female sexuality to womyn as such, as if it were not imposed on womyn daily; they will also participate in enforcing the hegemony of the social construct 'desire', hence its product, 'sexuality' hence its construct 'wom[y]n', on the world. (353)
What Mackinnon demonstrates is an understanding of the relation between sexuality and the definition of what a womyn is. Moreover, Mackinnon emphasizes the need for feminists to realize the relation between the two. In fact, by ignoring the relationship, the social structure is reinforced and perpetuated. Because Marshall includes this scene, within the film's initial opening scene, he sets a precedent for what constitutes womyn and what constitutes "Mia." Mia not only remains in this dazed, sexually-aroused state; moreover, her ability to think and to rationalize is brushed away in moments with a brief, stolen kiss. Although Josh enters the scene briefly, he becomes the controlling factor; moreover, ironically, it is Mia who empowers Josh through her daydream. Marshall manages to create a sexualized foundation for the movie in which --although the film claims to empower the female protagonist --that control is relinquished back to the male within the first five minutes. The moments of empowerment are exactly that-moments of control in which Mia will continually relinquish her power to another source.
In relation to the above scene, it is important that we dissect these scenarios, and begin to formulate a feminist viewpoint early on within this examination, so that we can apply feminist theories to larger segments of the film. Within the next scene to be discussed, Mia's lack of empowerment and her relegation back to a controlled female position not only comes into question but we now also call to the forefront the opportunities that are afforded to Mia as a "Disney modern-day womyn." Upon first meeting her grandmother "Queen Clarisse Renaldi," Mia is informed in her grandmother's garden that she is not "just" Mia Thermopolis but she is actually "Princess Amelia Minuet Thermopolos Renaldi." Since the tragic death of her estranged father, Amelia is the blood heir to the throne of Genovia. Surprisingly enough, Mia is none too happy about her new identity. It is important to discuss the dialogue and camera angle at this juncture (see attached dialogue summary). As the camera pans back and forth, during the banter between queen and Princess-in-the-making, we view Mia slouched in a chair nearly banging her head on the table. From the dialogue, it is not difficult to decipher that Mia has two paths from which to choose. The first option is to "…remain invisible. It's something [she's] good at;" or, her second choice, which is to accept her Queen Grandmother's offer and become a trained and reshaped Princess and Heir to the Throne of Genovia. Mia (initially) refuses the Princess offer and flees the scene-temporarily returning to her life of invisibility. As a young viewer relishes in the news that Mia is not really "just" Mia Thermopolis, the underlying message remains the same as many female roles within cinema today. The choice is obvious-conformity with accepting "Lady Lessons" and becoming something, and someone, or to remain a subjective, female, or no-one. The irony lies in the fact that although the movie is marketed as a savvy, modern day, princess tale which depicts an independent American teenager, what we actually uncover, from a feminist reading, is the same classic female depiction from the 1950's film's such as My Fair Lady, in which a rag-tag flower girl is transformed into a Lady by a white, educated, male who is a member of the upper-echelons of society. Hence:
The pressure to achieve 'goodness' is a powerful mechanism of social control; one must work constantly to earn the label of 'Lady,' an accolade that can only be bestowed by men. Although some wom[y]n may achieve instant respectability through wealth or lineage, most must strive to acquire and maintain that status (Fox 172).
The criticism that Fox employs, within her reading of social control of female sexuality, can also be implemented within this analysis; moreover, as Fox explains that some womyn already maintain the title of Lady and some must strive for it; Mia falls within both categories. This is due to the fact that Mia, although already "given" the title of Lady, through her lineage, must strive to meet the social standard of the position she is already privileged to. Moreover, Fox's criticism regarding social control can further be applied within the context of Mia's actual dissection and transformation.
Eventually, Mia is convinced that "Lady Lessons" are a fair compromise and that although she is not actually committing herself to the title of princess it would be fair to allow her grandmother the opportunity to transform her. What is ironic is that although Mia's grandmother assesses Mia's present state of being, it is actually a male figure who dissects and reconstructs Mia throughout the film. One of the most troublesome scenes within the film is Mia's physical transformation. When reaching her grandmother's embassy, after she has received basic training in being a Lady, Mia is presented to Paolo the beauty consultant and hair stylist. Mia is briefly introduced and then relinquished to Paolo. The camera pans away from Mia's grandmother, who leaves the premise and then allows Paolo to, "work his magic" upon Mia. At this juncture, although Mia is presented as the protagonist of the film, who has complete control of her destiny, it is actually Paolo on whom the camera focuses upon. Hence this scene becomes frighteningly reminiscent of Fox's observation that, "the label of 'Lady,' is an accolade that can only be bestowed by men" (173).
When we examine each camera angle and cut of the camera perspective, from the point that Paolo takes over, it becomes evident that there are several sexual and violent symbolic depictions within this scene. At one brief moment, Paola pulls two items from his pockets and holds them below waist length. These items are a phallic-shaped curling iron, within his right hand, (that will undoubtedly burn and singe Mia's unwanted follicle characteristics) and a blow dryer that is bulbous on both sides of its elongated heating extension. Why Paola pulls them from his pockets and places them at waist length may be a mystery to the young viewer; however, a feminist analysis can only suggests that is through Paolo's male genitalia, or at least what is represented by his genitalia, he is empowered to violate Mia's physical being and change her from a innocent child to the depiction of a sexually provocative womyn. We could only hope that at this juncture in the film, the educated female viewer would not be held captive by these particular types of scenes; however, we are subjected to yet more harassing images of Mia's "make-over." Another disturbing image depicts Paolo readying himself to "work Mia over." His two assistants, depicted as blonde, bombshell, replicants place Paolo's hands over a bowl and begin to remove all of his rings before he begins his work. The camera shot is reminiscent of the 1950's gangster movies in which the Italian member of the Mafioso clads himself with several bulky rings which suggests his self- empowerment. This also depicts him as a the brass knuckled criminal who uses these weapons to sway his victims into subjecting themselves to his barbaric and masculine dominance. As Carole Sheffield suggests:
All systems of oppression employ some type of violence or the threat of violence as an institutionalized mechanism for ensuring compliance. Sexual terrorism is the system in which males frighten, and by frightening, dominate and control females. It is manifested through actual or implied violence. The subordination of wom[y]n in all other spheres of society rests on the power of men to intimidate. (171)
Although the naïve viewer would argue that Paolo in no way harms Mia, or conducts any acts of violence upon her person, I argue differently. Not only does he clip, cut, press, polish, file, singe, and remove several of Mia's already existing characteristics, at one point, he actually snaps her glasses in two, not suggesting, but demanding that she wear contacts. This brings us to Mia's actual destruction and reconstruction.
I use the term construction to define Mia's final appearance because Mia is not reconstructed in such a way in which she maintains her original form, that of a fifteen-year-old child but, she is constructed into the form of a grown, sexually-provocative, womyn sitting submissively in the stylist chair wearing the short skirt and peasant blouse assigned and understood as "a school-girl's uniform." Although this is an extremely sexual depiction, it also calls to mind the feminist theory that within society it would seem as though gender construction is actually biological and natural; however:
[The] notion that gender is constructed suggests a certain determinism of gender meanings inscribed on anatomically differentiated bodies, where those bodies are understood as passive recipients of an inexorable cultural law. When the 'relevant' culture that 'constructs' gender is understood in terms of such a law or set of laws, then it seems that gender is a determined and fixed as it was under the biology-is-destiny formulation. In such a case, not biology, but culture, becomes destiny. (Butler 281)
Hence, Disney, and its director, would have the audience believe that what is occurring in this scene is an "uncovering" of Mia's "natural beauty." However, this close analysis uncovers that what would appear to be Mia's natural state, uncovered, still remains a social construction of the cultural definition of what a "womyn is." In essence then, what Butler suggests (within her theories) are the very tactics which are incorporated directly within this "groundbreaking" film, which are "bought" by the viewer, as the natural image of womyn as she is biologically meant to be rather than a cultural construction which is really what we are witnessing.
During her construction, the camera literally dissects Mia into several segments. Moreover, this particular scene is pivotal to this analysis because, from this point on, the camera focuses directly on certain aspects of the "physical" Mia, which provides a clear example of how Mia is transformed into a sociably acceptable and stereo-typical image of the female person. In this scene, we are given a single shot of the back of Mia's head as Paolo brushes, styles, and re-shapes her hair. The camera then cuts directly to Mia's eyes where Paolo begins to pluck out her eyebrow hairs and even names them while accomplishing his tasks. This signifies that Mia's body parts are not part of her but rather dissected entities of the female body. The camera then zooms in on Mia's toes as they are painted and polished. This dissection continues as the audience hears the pop hit, "Dreams Can Come True" playing in the background. All the while, the audience waits in anticipation as Mia is changed from a human being into a product for the viewer to perceive as the "Modern Princess of Genovia." As we are bombarded with Mia's dissection, we already know what we will see in a few moments. What is ironic is that the young viewers wait in anticipation hoping they will not be disappointed. Unfortunately, from the feminist perspective, they are not. As Mia's grandmother is first given a glimpse of the new "Amelia," after the audience's approval, Amelia is then allowed to view herself. What she sees is a reflection of a different person. The image depicted is a flawless image in which Mia represents: "The image[s] of beauty, power, and success which dominate in US culture [and that] are generated out of Anglo-Saxon identifications and preferences and are images which, with some variations, are globally influential through the mass media" (Bordo 452). The very image that Bordo investigates and uncovers becomes synonymous within The Princess Dairies; moreover, the viewer becomes a mind-less volunteer who is passively "force-fed" the propaganda which supports this supposedly biologically and natural image of womyn that is actually uncovered, within this analysis and also within Butler's essay, as a cultural norm dictated by the male powers that be.
Educated feminists have an understanding that, "wom[y]n are meant to look perfect, presenting a seamless image to the world so that the man, in that confrontation with difference, can avoid any apprehension of lack. The position of womyn as fantasy therefore depends on a particular economy of vision" (Rose 389). Keeping this in mind, and having a clear understanding of what Disney actually accomplishes, with the making of this film, we now understand that Disney fails miserably in the promotion and structure of this film as anything other than a return to the 1950's and 1960's, My Fair Lady revamped for the modern-day young audience. Moreover, Disney becomes a prophetic fulfillment of Jacqueline Rose's interpretation of "the social construct of wom[y]n" within the field of vision. Hence, other than Disney's strategic marketing of this film as a "cutting edge depiction of a modern day young womyn in complete control of her destiny," this film offers no evidence of what Disney claims it accomplishes. In fact, Disney solidifies Jacqueline Rose's analysis that, "…only a project which comes via feminism can demand so unequivocally of the image that it renounce all pretensions to a narcissistic perfection of form" (Rose 389). Hence, if anything positive can be taken from the film, it would be the ability to use the film as a text in which feminists could dissect it and use it as evidence as a work in which social norms and cultural boundaries are still in need of dismantling even in the 21st century.
The Princess Diaries is filled with scenes in which an entire multi-volume feminist work could be constructed and distributed. Unfortunately, my analysis works within a particular structural constraint and I do not wish to subject myself to the Disney image of womyn for too long for fear of uncovering even more disturbing and problematic issues that I know exists within the film. What I find so ironic is that within the western tradition lies classical philosophy. Within Platonic thought, Beauty can never be constructed within the body or face because, according to Plato: "beauty is understood as a singular, uniform, unchanging and eternal form; something beyond the physical body" (Chapkis 14). Plato is also recorded as stating that wom[y]n are "fools" for they fail to realize that the female body can never be "Beauty." He reminds us that it cannot take the form of the face, or the hands, or of anything of the flesh. Perhaps Plato should have addressed his comments to a male audience since it is they who propagate the image of womyn as entailing the perfect example of beauty. Perhaps, if he did, Disney would understand its negligence in the manipulation of the character Mia Thermopolis. Since this is not the case, feminists must realize that what her character represents is the perpetuation of the male ideal hidden behind the guise of a pseudo-cutting edge perspective of what womyn are falsely identified as. It is frightening to think that this film serves as a form of propaganda to which myriads of young, impressionable, womyn will voluntarily subject themselves to throughout the years. Unfortunately, they may see the depiction of Hollywood womyn as a standard in which they should struggle to obtain. Hence, what Disney truly succeeds in doing is evolving into a promotional, Ideological State Apparatus that promotes a biased image of womyn which is created and maintained by patriarchal society and finally formulated into a 120 minute advertisement selling womyn as a man-made cultural product. I can only hope this essay, as well as the feminist analyses that I mention can help undo the damage that is monstrously imposed upon womyn of all walks of life.
Bordo, Susan. "Normalisation and Resistance in the Era of the Image." Feminisms.
Ed. Sandra Kemp et al., New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 451-455.
Butler, Judith. "Subject of Sex/Gender/Desire." Feminisms. Ed. Sandra Kemp et al.,
New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 278-285.
Chapkis, Wendy. Beauty Secrets: Women and The Politics of Appearance. Boston:
South End Press, 1986.
Fox, G.L. "Nice Girl: Social Control of Women through a Value Construct." Signs 8
Mackinnon, Catharine. "Toward a Feminist Theory of State." Feminisms. Ed. Sandra
Kemp et al., New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 351-358.
My Fair Lady. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley
Holloway, Wilfred Hyde-White. Warner Bros. Films, 1964.
The Princess Diaries. Dir. Gary Marshall. Perf. Julie Andrews, Anne Hathaway,
Hector Elizondo, Heather Mattazzaro. Disney Films, 2001.
Rose, Jacqueline. "Sexuality in The Field of Vision." Feminisms. Ed. Sandra Kemp
et al., New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 388-390.
Sheffield, Carole J. "Sexual Terrorism: The Social Control of Women." Analyzing
Gender: A Handbook of Social Science Research. Ed. Beth M. Hess. London: Sage Publications, 1987. 171-189.
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