Dear Disney: We have a bone to pick
Maahi Shah deconstructs fairytales and reimagines the narrative
Illustration by Shristi Roy
Disney would have you believe that you’re never too old for Disney. In general, I confess that I agree although there is a side to me that knows this is a marketing strategy devised to expand the company’s considerable hold on the popular imagination and to liberate it from the brand identity of making products for the under-tweens. But there’s another side to me that loves stories, reading them, writing them, sharing them…living them. I was the child who would spend hours dancing and acting in front of the mirror, twirling in pretty dresses, with a tiara on my head and a wand in my hand. I was the princess of my own 7-year young life. I believed and believed with all my heart in the love and magical happy endings that fairy tales had to offer.
This idea of love was shattered as I went to high school and later, college. Right from the hesitant eye contact with a boy, from Cinderella’s story to the karaoke night from High School Musical, love took a completely different form within the hallways of these structures. Disney movies and fairytales led an entire generation to have a utopian idea of love. When Prince Charming gives Snow White the kiss of life, or when Nick Parker of The Parent Trap flies thousands of miles because he can’t imagine losing Elizabeth again, wouldn’t we want the same? Our understanding of relationships is then unarguably doomed to be skewed. Samantha Clark at the Thought Catalogue in fact words it perfectly when she says, “When we spend our entire lives waiting for a perfect man, we miss out on a man with the greatest component of all: imperfection.” Fairytales hid the very imperfections that make us human. But love. Love comes in all forms and languages. Love is unconditional. It is the very core of an individual’s personhood and yet we find ourselves caught up in ever frivolous expectations and demands.
The idea of perfection is inclusive of the heart and mind but often spills over these boundaries. I wanted the perfect hair, the perfect body. I wanted to be the epitome of grace and beauty, with curtsies and demure eyes. I never wanted to disappoint. I may not realize it now, and definitely didn’t notice when I was younger, but the Disney princess was dainty and delicate only with the occasional exception and was almost always white. Super skinny waists, rosy cheeks (no pimples?!), and the most beautiful gowns. They had it all. Intentionally or not, it often reinforced common stereotypes and generalizations. Young girls were then led to believe that beauty came in one shape and size. Chubby cheeks and stretch marks became features to be ashamed of. And God forbid if you were one size larger than was deemed appropriate. There was always something lacking, and owning one’s own body type was never part of the conversation. The Prince too had a certain look. Dreamy by default, with blue eyes and dark brown hair. And one can only wonder what young boys reading such fairy tales and stories would be going through.
Name and identity often go hand in hand. Each princess was called by a distinct name, hinting at one thing or the other. In French, the name Cinderella means ‘little ashes,’ for it was she who used to clean the fireplace. Princess Jasmine was one of the only princesses to represent another race, a different skin color. And then we have Snow White, a name that is suggestive of fair skin being superior to any other. A name is often a small but integral part of who we are, of who each of these princesses is. A name must therefore go beyond features and frivolities, symbolizing who they really are and all that they are capable of being.
Disney’s version of fairy tales was a land of innocence, happiness, love, and joy. Perhaps because of the ongoing war and the atrocities that came with it, it became important to create stories beyond our world, far into our imagination. Even so, as we look closely, we see pre-constructed identities and roles based on gender in several characters. Cinderella was a maid, given the responsibility of maintaining an entire household, because it was impossible for a woman to be more or to want more. The antagonist was always an evil Queen, resentful of her daughter, the king was always more protective, just like in ‘The Little Mermaid. Snow White was a damsel in distress and no one but a Prince, could come riding on a white horse and save her. The woman needed saving because she was entirely incapable of doing so herself and the male was the perpetual savior. Gender roles were concretized without good reason to change.
But stories make us who we are and often take us where we want to be. They change, as people change. From the hero’s narrative to the mice, from the helpless princess to the one who doesn’t need a prince, we keep going back to them. Each time, they make us feel differently, about ourselves and about the world we live in. Disney made us believe in happy endings, they made us believe that truth and goodness would always triumph over evil and more than anything else they gave us hope. Perhaps such was the time and to interpret its characters as problematic may be out of context. However, as the years passed, I’ve begun to understand the complex undertones and the increasing importance to contextualise these age-old stories, in a culturally and socially appropriate manner.
As a twenty-something-year-old, there’s a part of me that perhaps still wishes for the magical happy ending, for the Prince to come riding in on a white horse and sweep me off my feet. My Sunday nights still mean getting into the most comfortable pairs of pyjamas and singing along to a Disney musical. But, I’m also much older, slightly wiser, and driven towards a more equal and empowered world. So, the narrative changes yet again. It changes because today, we write our own stories. Because we decide our own boundaries and freedoms. Because we need to be vocal no matter our gender. We live in a world where women are fighting patriarchal norms, and fighting for their place, fighting battles in their own minds, fighting to be accepted. Because we’re empathetic and compassionate, now more than ever. At a time when we’re all striving to be our own versions, here’s my version of the loved fairy tale.
BERRY BROWN WISES UP
Once upon a time, in a magical, faraway land, there lived a Queen along with her stepdaughter, Berry Brown. The Queen had been raised at a time of convention and expectations. At a time when society deemed what was proper and improper, suitable or a disgrace. And she had been raised to believe in the kind of beauty that had been shaped and defined by others. The kind of beauty that demanded fairness and flawlessness, the clearest of skin and the rosiest of cheeks. Indisputably the Queen elegantly embodied it all. Furthermore, she raised her own children in this manner. But insecurities prevailed then, as they do now. A constant need for recognition and validation, likes, and comments filled the atmosphere. And for this, she had her companion, the magic mirror.
“Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest and most beautiful of them all?” she asked her mirror once.
The mirror replied: “Your Royal Highness, are you equating fair with beautiful?’
“What if I am?” The Queen replied.
“Smells a bit racist to me,” said the Mirror. The Queen pulled out a hammer and waved it at the mirror but the mirror wasn’t going to back down.
“Remember Bianca Piper in ‘The Duff’ last night? Well, remember when she said, there’s always going to be somebody prettier or more talented than you, but it shouldn’t affect how you see yourself. My dear Queen, I hope that you see that you are enough, and when you feel beauty and love with and within yourself you won’t need to look outwards.”
The Queen turned away, with a heavy sigh and went to check up on her daughter. She had raised her to hide her imperfections, the scar on her left cheekbone when she fell down the stairs, her two left feet while dancing or the novel perspective she brought in the traditional castle. Berry Brown was raised to be obedient and above all, graceful. Locked up in her room, Berry Brown, made every attempt to avoid confrontation or conversation with her mother. It seemed easier this way. She fought norms and conventions in her mind. She longed to be herself. But a fear lingered on when it came to truly stand up for what she wanted. Fear of what others would say, and perhaps a fear of what her own mother would say became a barrier in her own mind.
One night, Berry Brown made the choice. The choice to do something for herself and herself only. She unlocked her room door and went to the magic mirror. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, I need a little courage, is all. To dare to dream. To dream and to fulfil those dreams.” To this, the mirror smiled and said, “I must say you’re timing is impeccable for I just caught the last episode of the Bold type, where Jaqueline says and I concur, ‘Have adventures, fall in love, get your hearts broken, make mistakes and make amends, take a leap and make a splash’.” Feeling a burst of courage within herself, Snow kissed her mother on the forehead and ran. She ran headfirst into the unknown, towards defining her own freedom.
In her delicate yellow silk gown, she went horseback, passing through village after village, until she reached the edge of the kingdom. She daren’t look back. The plan was to have no plan. She went deep into the forest, where she found a cottage. She knocked on the door, and with a groan that could be heard a mile away, Grumpy opened it. Grumpy. One of the seven dwarves who lived in the cottage. Berry Brown peeped inside, to find an absolute mess of the place. Spoons and dishes unwashed, clothes lying on the floor. She pushed the door open, introduced herself, and asked if she could stay with them.
They agreed, but only conditionally. Dopey said, “Well, you can stay with us only if you cook and clean for us.” Berry Brown scoffed in amazement and said, “Is that so? How about we all go to work, and when we return we all cook and clean. Together.” Doc, who was the leader of the seven, smiled to himself, and said, “Deal.” And so, they did. They washed, cooked and cleaned together. They mined together. And just for a little while, Berry Brown felt in control of her decisions and actions. She even began to wear Bashful’s extra set of shirts and trousers, which he happily exchanged for her gown.
She began to fall in love with herself. She accepted her scars, and danced her heart out with dwarves. When she ran away, she left all judgments behind too. She learnt something new each day, each moment, in everything she did and became aware of everything she aspired to do. The princess and the dwarves became a muse for learning from each other. But she yearned for something more. Something more than the ordinary and mundane.
Meanwhile, back in the palace, the Queen was overwhelmed by her worries. She could hardly believe that her daughter would do something like that. “I didn’t raise her to run away. I raised her to be a princess, to marry. I expect her to fulfill her obligations,” She yelled at the mirror in sheer frustration one day “Your Royal Highness, forgive me for being so forthright, but Berry Brown was ready. She was ready to take on the world on her own. She wanted to go beyond the boundaries that you had set for and largely, society had for her. You know, Donna Sheridan once said, ‘Life is short, and the world is wide, ' she said, ‘I want to make some memories. It’s her time. Isn’t it?”
The Queen looked up, a little bit in awe of her companion. The bittersweet moment filled her heart and tears streamed down her eyes. The lessons of self-love, the deconstruction of beauty, of the acceptance of the perfect imperfections, and of the drive towards freedom, had been in front of her the whole time. She only had to realize it. Thereon, the Queen, knew what she had to do. She wiped off her makeup and changed her clothes. And for the first time, she felt true to herself. The magic mirror informed her of Berry Brown’s whereabouts and without wasting a moment further, the queen took her horse and followed the path that led to the forest.
Berry Brown and the dwarves were toiling away at the mines. Some often forgot that the very meaning of her name was industrious and eager. She worked as hard as any other miner. But ignorance was in abundance and the other miners who worked there regularly passed comments such as, “Why’d you bring her to the fields?” or “This isn’t a place for you sweetheart.” Furious at the remarks, it was time she fought convention outside her mind, “And why not Sir? I’m working just as you are. I find it very diff..”
Just then, the Queen arrived at the mine, “A woman belongs where she wants to. The poison, however, exists only in the mind.” Berry Brown, turned towards her mother, unaware of what to say and how to react. As she bowed down to curtsy, the Queen stopped her. “No, my dear, not this time.” She took a deep breath and continued, “Would you like to come back home with me?” she paused and took a glance at Snow’s reaction, “I want to train you, to take your rightful place in the kingdom. You were born to lead Snow, to take charge, and to inspire people.” Snow hesitated, “I like this freedom, and more importantly, what if I fail? What if I’m not good enough?” Stretching her arm towards Snow, the Queen smiled and said, “Oh, I expect you to fail. Sometimes you’re just going to fail, but you’ll learn. And if you don’t believe me, Jaqueline Carlyle said that too, ‘Sometimes you need to catch your breath, fall apart and come back. We’ll figure it out together.’ Because Berry Brown,” she winked and said, “I expect you to unleash holy hell on anyone who tries to hold you back.”
Maybe fairy tales don’t end with falling in love with a prince. Maybe they end with each person falling a little bit more in love with themselves. Maybe, it’s about finding our own ending.
Berry Brown and her mother took a leap. They made a splash… and maybe lived happily ever after.