It’s a moment that’s hard to see the beginning of, like when a flock of shorebirds suddenly lifts into the air. Theoretically one bird gets the idea first, but to the human eye it looks like one flockwide impulse.
That’s the way it is with the Disney Princess Thing. Some other child in Mara’s group of friends got some Polly Pockets, which is the official name of a brand of Disney princess toys, and suddenly Mara wanted them. Before I knew what had hit me, all six princesses (sold separately!) had moved in and taken over my house.
The Pollys, as we now call them, are dolls about six inches high — Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, Ariel, Sleeping Beauty, and Jasmine. They are, respectively, the leading ladies of the Disney movies Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, and Alladin. Each comes with several rubbery dresses that are kind of disgusting to the touch. The thing is, the dresses stretch, so members of their “target market” can pull and yank on them to dress and undress the princesses. They also come with tiny plastic shoes and necklaces, and in the case of Cinderella, I believe, a bird that sits on her hand. Ariel, of course, is a mermaid, so one of her dresses is her lower half as a fish. She wears this with a pink top made of two 32B clamshells.
We didn’t really want Mara’s early ideas of beauty and worth to be informed by the Disney narrative, where everyone of importance is physically attractive in really “standardized” ways. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we were really delighted when she took a shine to Shrek and Fiona of the DreamWorks movie Shrek, which actually has an integrity missing from 99 percent of what we are encouraged to think of as wholesome movies or television shows.
Let’s take this apart. In the usual fare, the ostensible moral is one that everyone can agree on but one that is actually undermined and contradicted by the underlying unspoken message. Beauty and the Beast is a perfect example and the most egregious one because of what it purports to say but doesn’t really. The story purports to offer the valuable message that beauty is not an external thing, but an internal one. We grow to love Beast because he’s good and kind. So does Belle, who is initially afraid of him and thinks him ugly. Frankly, she’d rather have been betrothed to someone a bit more…ahem…”charming”. Well, she eventually sees the beauty in this beast, but the authors of the story (this is not Disney’s original error) reward Belle’s deeper vision by erasing it — they give her a twinkle-toothed frat-boy Breck advertisement. That is what Beast must truly “look” like, because he’s good. To me this venerable fairy tale would have been so much better, and not the travesty it is, if Beast had retained his feral physique. Sure, the couple would have faced real difficulties. Shedding. Coyote breath. Scratches on all the furniture. But they would have worked it out. Instead, we get handed a slick fix ending that pulls up by the roots the beautiful seedling of truth the story has labored to sow in the heart of the reader/viewer.
By contrast, the message in Shrek is, you’re beautiful because you are who you are, and you’re beautiful even if you don’t look like the all American dream. Which is to say a Disney Princess. The great moment in Shrek is when Fiona expects to be turned back into a hottie but finds that “love’s true form” for her is her ogre shape. And we have grown to love Fiona’s big green face and ogry ears. When she didn’t turn into the skinny pinup, I was relieved beyond measure, as was Shrek, who is big and green and “ugly” and loved her the way she was.
Warning: Image ahead not for the squeamish.
Mara doesn’t even know what McDonald’s is. We’ve been really careful not to resort to the cheapest and easiest ways to feed her or entertain her. (Angela has been nothing short of amazing in the effort she has put into making sure Mara always has good, fresh, healthy food available, even for snacktime.) Cutting out McD’s from the picture has enabled us to dodge a fair amount of pop-culture merchandising. But the Disney Princess Thing went through our kid community like small-pox. One day she was happily playing with her Thomas the Tank Engine trains, and the next day it was all about the Polly Pockets.
The Disney Princesses continue to be the most sought after toys in the lives of Mara and her little friends right now. Even the My Little Pony ponies are sitting idle most days. But the DPs have had their share of trouble. In a moment of exuberance on the part of her owner, the particular Jasmine depicted above went over the fence and down into the coil of blackberries that is creeping up the rockery from the neighbors’ yard below. We made a cursory search, but alas, she is lost. She was replaced by a perfect clone of herself. Ariel’s head came off, and though we pinned and glued it back on several times, we had to replace her as well.
And Belle, poor Belle, her fate was worse than pushing carts full of breath mints and raw steaks and lint rollers through the Costco checkout counter. Mara and lab partner Lily decided to experiment with the effects of setting a Polly on a light bulb last week and she melted all over it. I was nearly retching when I took the photo above. But yes. Yes, she is still beautiful. I will say it even now. Even twisted and impaled in this chilling fashion, she reposes in death as only a Disney Princess can.
So beautiful. So beautiful.