Sarah Madison: Disney Princess Fangirl

Elsa of Frozen - Walt Disney PicturesWhy, Yes, I’m a Disney Princess Fangirl…

I suppose it’s a little fun to be a middle-aged woman talking about her favorite Disney Princesses, but hey, I’ve grown up with Disney my entire life. I love animated movies, I love to sing, and had a fairly strict upbringing when it came to what we were allowed to watch, so yeah, I saw a lot of Disney movies. But I would have loved them anyway! When friends come over for the first time, many remark on the fact that I own a lot of Disney movies for a childless woman. That’s okay. I’m not ashamed.

Over the years, I watched the Disney heroine evolve, and that’s been truly exciting for me—not just as someone who is pleased to see better role models for young women today but as someone who can relate to the pressure so many women have grown up with to conform to society’s standards for what is acceptable and desirable in a heroine. One of the reasons I love M/M romance has to do with the fact that I frequently feel as though I have nothing in common with today’s heroine as depicted in most romance novels. That, too, is changing, thank goodness. This, however, isn’t going to be a deep treatise on the pros and cons of Disney heroines or how women are portrayed in the media. This is simply one fangirl to another, okay?

A few weeks ago on Twitter, Lex and I exchanged some thoughts on our favorite Disney heroines, and it made me sit down and think about my top five favorite characters and why I love them.

In reverse order:

  1. Ariel (The Little Mermaid). I know, some people would question that choice. There were a lot of factors in my including her. It was the first time I’d been introduced to the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and I have to tell you, I’m a sucker for clever, witty songs. I could also sympathize with Ariel’s yearning to want more out of life—to see the world ‘out of the sea’ that she’d spent hours fantasizing about. Ariel is quite young, and as such might be forgiven for making some really stupid mistakes. She also had a father who alternatively catered to her and then came down on her like a ton of bricks without any explanation. It’s small wonder sixteen year old Ariel wanted to kick over the traces and see the world she was forbidden to think about.

This was one of the early movies in the so-called Disney Renaissance, and I was entranced by this new method of storytelling, and a spunkier heroine than we’d seen to date. Forget Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, who seemed to let everything happen to them. Here was a heroine who did something, who took a chance to grab for her dream! I could get behind that.

  1. Mulan. I really enjoyed this movie. I loved the concept of Mulan, who failed miserably at the goals set up for her as a young Chinese woman of that day and age, striking out to masquerade as her father’s son, so as to prevent her father from being called back into active duty in the war. It took a tremendous amount of guts to do what she did, and she not only successfully passed herself off as a young man, she became an asset to the platoon as well. In a nice twist at the end, her former ‘army’ buddies have to dress themselves as geishas in order to infiltrate the palace—and they do so without hesitation because they trust Ping, their buddy in arms. So much to love about this movie!
  2. Maleficent. This was a film that had both strong and weak moments, which goes to show that my love of the heroine isn’t entirely dependent on the quality of the film. I thought the portrayal of King Stefan extremely one-dimensional and that he failed to be believable as a truly dangerous adversary because of it. However, that being said, I love so many things about this movie. Angelina Jolie’s depiction of a powerful faerie done irreparable harm by someone she trusted was truly inspired, and the scene in which she is shorn of her wings (becoming an allegory for rape) and how this loss transforms her into a bitter, damaged person was simply brilliant. In the end, she heals herself, and undoes her own unbreakable curse. It’s a marvelous process, watching her gradually thaw to the child she’d doomed for no reason except that she was the daughter of Maleficent’s sworn enemy. Had this been the only Disney movie I’d seen this year, I suspect Maleficent would be higher on this list. It certainly continued the new trend of having the ‘princess’ save herself—and not be reliant on a prince in the end to save the day.
  3. Belle (Beauty and the Beast). Ah, Belle. Yes, I know people talk about Stockholm syndrome when they mention this movie, but B&B got me through a really rough patch in my life. Though I didn’t even make the connection at the time, like Belle, I was living isolated in a provincial town. I haunted the town library, which was a single-wide trailer, and consisted largely of donated Harlequin romances. I was even being pursued by the town’s Gaston, who told me plainly that I couldn’t do better than him in the area. I used to go to the matinee showing of the movie on my day off and I went every week until it was no longer there. For an hour and a half each week, I could lose myself in the story, in the songs of Menken and Ashman (who sadly died of AIDS before the release of the film), and forget for a while how unhappy I was. That feeling of temporary reprieve from an unbearable existence is one of the reasons I write stories today. I want my stories to be that thing that gets someone through a bad day, a bad month, a bad year.
  4. Elsa (Frozen). No one who knows me can be in any doubt how much I love this character and this movie. I’ve written about it several times on my website, including why people on the far right fear it and have demanded their ardent followers boycott it. I can’t begin to explain how much this movie resonated with me.

Lord knows, I’m no reviewer. I can only answer to how this movie spoke to me, and in particular, the song ‘Let It Go”. I have always been the Good Girl. The Good Daughter. I did everything I was told to do, everything I was taught to do. For the last couple of decades I’ve been burning up inside with resentment over the fact that despite doing everything that was asked of me, it still hasn’t been good enough. I’ve worked hard my entire life. I’ve made personal and professional sacrifices because they were the right thing to do. And now, as a middle-aged woman, I feel as though this hasn’t gotten me anywhere. That I have ‘nothing to show’ for my efforts.

That moment when Elsa gives in to her true self is simply magical to me. That moment is all about refusing to let other people have power over you and acknowledging that who and what you is all you need to be. Like Maleficent, Frozen featured a heroine that ended up saving herself (something that delights me to no end, despite being a die-hard romantic at heart) as well as a heroine who doesn’t need a prince to get her happily ever after. Corny as it sounds, stuff like this gives me the courage to go after my own dreams, to be my authentic self, even as I belt out “Let It Go” at stoplights and in the shower.

Ultimately, isn’t that what heroines and heroes are for?

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