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Friday, 26 June 2009

Part Of Their World

Part Of Their World

When the question was first posed to me: 'WHAT WAS IT LIKE HAVING DISNEY PRINCESSES AS ROLE MODELS GROWING UP?' a memory came to the forefront of my mind, a moment from my childhood I actually reflect upon often. Well, there were a few, but this particular one defined who I was very clearly. I was eleven, and "The Little Mermaid" had been released on VHS a year beforehand, and we didn't have much money so I missed seeing it on the big screen and couldn't afford to rent it 'overnight' from a video store, as we had no way of getting into town and back within 24 hours. The only time I got to watch it was when I went to stay with my sister's family in Brisbane, one thousand kilometers away. She'd bought it for her children and I was obsessed. I'd spend most of my two-week vacation watching it over and over again until I had every line committed to memory.I was so taken in by Ariel's song 'Part Of Your World.' Oh that voice! That beautiful, magical voice! It was indeed the siren's song! I would sing it constantly. In their shower, while lying in bed, while going on walks to the shop - over and over I hummed it.

Then came the 18 hour train ride home. Surrounded by strangers in close quarters, this song would plague me, only I couldn't very well bust it out in front of anyone, especially given how hard some of the notes were. So I waited until it was time to lock myself into the shower cubicle and there, I would sing it as softly as I could stand as many times as I could manage, although this particular song demands to be crooned loudly and I probably annoyed a lot of other weary travelers by using the bathroom four times an hour. All my life, I aspired to be able to hit every note of that song, but do you know what? I never could. There was always one line that would make me cringe so I'd sigh and start again. Well, that is until about four weeks ago when I finally sang it publicly at work! Boy did I "saunter" after that one! The next thing you know, this rough and tumble Irish bar has turned into Disney karaoke paradise! People couldn't volunteer fast enough! Now given my obsession with this song, mermaids in general, and the fact that I just published a mermaid trilogy, you'd think I'd cite Ariel as my role model, when in fact, even at the age of eleven, I was shaking my head at her and the line: 'Betcha on land, they understand, and they don't reprimand their daughters...' Then you become an adult, and a parent, and you start reflecting on the movie and think: 'Okay...so she just "left" her family? For a guy who almost married someone else? A guy who was drawn to her looks and voice and didn't actually hear a word she said? My god! Ursula the sea witch was right - men don't care, and Ariel doesn't mind! What a flake! Ariel is the teenager we don't want to raise. Who puts herself in dangerous situations for a boy? Who runs off with the one person her father actually forbids her from seeing, eludes minders and friends and risks everyone's life, including her own, for a man who is pretty oblivious to her, right through the story? This isn't a role model. It's a cautionary tale.

Next to step up to battle for the Disney princess crown was Belle, of "Beauty And The Beast". Belle is the level-headed one. She dresses more demurely, has less striking features and hair than the others, tries to blend into the sidelines and reads constantly - and this substance is reflected in her character. How selfless she was, clever and sweet, sarcastic but capable of hiding it and not afraid to look a monster in the eye and scream right back. Belle is the perfect girl. The wallflower with a backbone who doesn't mind being an outcast. This is the princess we should aspire to be. The two scenes that stick out to me the most in this movie were both book-related. Her swinging along on that ladder in the bookstore, delighted, and then being led into the grand library at the Beast's palace. I've been reading since I was four and those scenes haunt me to this day. I want that library! I was the weird girl who ran into things while reading - once even while reading and riding my bicycle home, I hit a car! Thank goodness they were reversing and didn't know exactly why they'd managed to take me out, or I would have been dead meat!Which is, in a lot of ways, a reason why Belle is a poor role model. The slogan of this movie could be: 'Curiosity almost killed the cat. A lot.' Yes, Belle was brave to go into the forest by herself or stare down wolves or exchange her life for her father's or lurk through the forbidden side of the castle; but did anyone else watch this with their fingers over their eyes? And if my kids made themselves an unwilling child-bride to a hideous monster to spare me in my golden years I'd kick their butt the moment they returned home!

So yes, level-headed and kind to a fault. But not very good at making life choices, was she? Guess there's only so much you can get from book learnin'!

Enter Aladdin and 'Street Smarts.' I remember being entranced by that movie and especially, miss Princess Jasmine. Now there was a firecracker! You understand why she rebels, she's literally being forced to marry someone - anyone - even some evil old guy with a crooked mustache. She tries to make her father listen and when he doesn't, takes matters into her own hands! Good girl! Jasmine was wonderful. She was light on her feet, a 'very fast learner' and she knew how to swivel the hips and lower the tone so perfectly to manipulate the opposite sex that I often wonder how many little girls looked at that moment where she fools Jafar and thought, 'I want to be like her when I grow up!' I know I did! I wanted the long black hair, the almond eyes, the curves, the belly button - all of it! My friend Claire and I used to always play pretend and if I close my eyes I can still hear the pre-teen shrieks of. 'No "I'M" princess Jasmine! No "I'm" going to be princess Jasmine!' It was like Introduction to Seduction 101. Headstrong, stubborn, brave, witty... Very clued-in to the deceptions happening around her and not afraid to put her own neck on the block, Jasmine was magnificent. And boy, did she make Aladdin work for it! And then she sang...Oh she sang! Why she didn't get a solo is beyond me, but that voice was like angels serenading the stars. For the first time in my life, I stayed in the movie theatre and watched the credits roll just to catch the name of that songbird: 'Lea Salonga' and I have been following her career since.

You may have noticed that I've ignored quite a few of the notable princess's and I'm going to tell you why. For starters, they predate 'my' time, so the behavior of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty had little to no effect on shaping who I am as a person. I always thought Snow White was rather plain and a bit of a pushover. She ran from the threat, cooked and cleaned for men to get by, bit the apple offered to her by a very questionable looking old lady (Say it with me: Stranger Danger!) and then had to get herself rescued by a prince. Aurora was the same. She played no part in her own destiny, only allowed herself to be dragged where the current led her and yes, rescued by a man. Cinderella was not much better. Though when you compare these movies to their time, you can see how they were socially relevant. But to me, unfortunately, it was always a little antiquated. The moral of the story seemed to be if you were sweet and pretty, someone would save you, but if you were old or ugly, you were a bad person who would come to hunt down the sweet and pretty ones. They were certainly beautiful stories that create the backbone of most romances written since, however, I'm grateful that evolution has come to the rescue - most notably, Drew Barrymore's remake of Cinderella '"Ever After' "in which the heroine is a feisty, forward thinking girl who rescues everyone else - even her enemies in the end.

Pocahontas and Mulan should get a mention too, representing the tough-as-nails native girls who have their priorities in the right place and are truly champions for their race. But unfortunately, both flicks fell to the wayside of the others in reception, just as they have in this article. It's clearly a cultural thing. It is much easier to get hoards of western girls relating to buxom redheads, angelic blondes and exotic belly-dancing beauties, but who actually wants to grow up to run a tribe or join the military? These movies, along with "The Lion King", always seemed to go over better with boys - more action, less swooning. I know the latter two are actually my husbands's favorites, so I guess Disney accomplished a much greater feat with those, getting growing boys to realize that they have heights they should aspire to as well, or they may end up with a girl saving their backsides! The Disney Princesses are role models - powerful, beautiful bewitching ones. I write because of their story-telling, I run karaoke and do musical theatre because of their songs, I take time with my hair and clothes because of their beauty and I try to be sweet to be deserving of a Happily Ever After. If I ever end up singing madly in my massive, personal library, you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be pretending to be not one of the princesses, but all of them in that moment! I might even twirl like Belle in the meadow!Might? Who am I kidding? I'll twirl, I'll twirl. And I'll have WD to thank for my blessings.

But the only way to keep the obsession healthy is to aspire to characteristics prevalent in all of them - not just one. Follow your heart like Ariel and sometimes, life will put you in the path of true love. Read, like Belle, and you will become beautiful on the inside too, and might educate yourself enough never to enter into an awful marriage because the guy happens to be hot. And don't be afraid to be different and stand out. You can only be seen clearly when moving in the opposite direction to the crowd. Speak up for yourself, like Jasmine. It is not enough to be beautiful and coveted - you must be able to think for yourself, to land on your feet when someone is trying to knock you down. Because even if you're lucky enough to stumble upon that diamond in the rough, he might need the help of a good, strong woman to polish him up a bit before he is truly worthy of your time! And for the love of god, don't listen to old ladies. Whether they're giving you apples, granting your wishes, teaching you how to sew or planting rose vines in your yard, they're probably up to no good! You've been warned.