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Fallen Princesses

Starr C. yonder in suburbtopia recently posted this link to a photo exhibition called "Fallen Princesses." The photos depict many of the fairy tale princesses and heroines portrayed in Disney movies... and shows them in the worst possible situations that might occur beyond the credits roll, in the "ever after."

artist Dina Goldstein's Belle from Beauty and the Beast

Starr C., as an empowered and strong mama, takes umbrage with the weak female leads in Disney fairy tales and also wonders, why would Disney also kill off most of the lead females' mothers? In most of Disney's animated films based on Grimms' storylines, biological mothers are absent.

I also noticed this at a young age, and I can only guess why women and families are portrayed the way they are in Disney movies.

But boy, do I have theories. And my guesses are educated. (Did I ever mention I'm a nut for folklore?)

In other cultures, such as northern Indian communities, similar Indo-European tales as the ones the Grimm brothers recorded in Germany are, or at least were in the past, considered "women's" stories. That is, they were only told by women to other women and to children. In these tales, with closely related variants found throughout Europe and Asia, biological mothers are ALWAYS good. (Or almost always. I have never found a bad mother character in pre-published, oral folklore.) The only evil women are mother figures without a biological link--step-mothers and mothers-in-law. Magical mother figures (like fairy godmothers, ghosts of dead mothers, or Baba Yaga) could be helpful, dangerous, or both.

HOWEVER. Fathers, in the German tales that the Grimm brothers originally recorded, were sometimes good guys but more often neglectful, incompetent, abusive, and incestuous--ranging from deadbeat to evil and dangerous. Bad women did not have nearly as much of a villainous presence as abusive fathers and husbands.

It is well known that the Grimm brothers' first edition of their recorded tales did not sell well. Why? German society at the time was incredibly male-dominated. Women had little power, and the book market was composed almost entirely of wealthy men. So the Grimm brothers revised their tales, toning down the daddy-rape and other heinous examples of male power abuse, and amping up the evil motivations and powers of the evil stepmothers. Instead of evil, many of the fathers in the revised Grimm tales are (forgivably to German gentlemen, I guess) simply weak and easily controlled by malicious or greedy wives.

Many of the stories, before and after Grimms' sanitation, involve a child or children seeking escape from a bad family situation. The child is often silenced in some way--through a magical spell (such as in The Six Swans, with a little girl told that if she opens her trap during the next several years, her brothers who have been turned into swans will never be human again) or by old-fashioned shame or fear (such as in Allerleirauh or Cinderella). When the child can finally speak or reveal her identity, the child (usually a girl) can save herself and even rescue other children. In The Goose Girl, a kind king suspects that the princess has been victimized, but she refuses to say. He tricks her into crying out her tale of woe into an old stove, and he listens at the other end to find out the truth. When he hears her story, her life is restored, she is rewarded, and her enemies are punished. It's a dark and terrifying pattern reflecting an ancient, cross-cultural phenomenon of abuse and rape in cultures that oppress women (thereby endangering children of both genders as well).

Let's jump to another source of written and revised European folk wisdom, shall we? Let's travel to Austria and visit Sigmund Freud. Here's what I remember of Freud's story from college History of Psychology classes. Freud grew up in a (typical?) Austrian household with severely religious parents, a dominating father, and a whole litter of children raised in a chaotic, yet authoritarian home, expressing all the common emotional and psychological issues inherent therein.

Freud was a bright boy interested in the human mind, so as an adult he talked with many people who had psychological problems. Many of his patients were disturbed young women, and nearly all of them related some level of childhood sexual abuse by their fathers and/or siblings. (Side note: Duh, in secretive, "shame" cultures in which children and women are best seen and not heard, abuse runs rampant.) Freud started publishing his findings and, like the Grimm brothers, ran into some problems with the men who ran society and paid his fees. Freud ran into a conundrum. He couldn't very well continue to practice by accepting payments from rich old men to "treat" their daughters, only to turn around and accuse the hands that fed him of f***ing up their own kids (ahem, metaphorically speaking). So Freud decided to REVERSE his theory and state that the girls were NOT being abused--they were fantasizing about sexual encounters with their fathers.

Freud's theory is fascinating because it seemed to come out of his anal-retentive ass, yet so much of it rings true--and rings true in cultures outside of Europe. It's because his constructions of family dynamics are almost right, just with a few things reversed. AND, it is true (and apparently was not to be thought before) that children DO have sexual urges, from a very young age.

HOWEVER. Children's sexual urges are not to be confused with adults.' Modern people know... Just because a child is interested in sex (totally natural) and starting to awaken to the good feelings their bodies can experience (also totally natural) and even feeling attracted to other children or adults (again, natural development), it does NOT mean that the child has a deep, inborn desire to have sexual relations with a family member. That is not natural, psychologically. Research on incest has revealed that, in most cases, children from a very young age develop a sexual repulsion toward members of their own families--people they are raised with, so even adopted siblings or step-parents feel "icky" in a sexual context. This is a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon. Parents feel less sexual repulsion toward their children than children feel toward their parents. In fact, there is something that happens to many mentally sound, loving parents which can be terribly disturbing to them--they might feel a temporary sexual attraction toward a child of the opposite sex when the child is old enough to resemble their same-sex parent--the observer's spouse. Yikes!

Actually, that is the initial conflict in the German tale Allerleirauh--the King desires his daughter when she reaches adolescence because she resembles his dead wife.

Now, to be fair, most parents of any culture do not have a desire to molest their kids. But IF it happens, and IF the child gets no chance to escape and heal, and IF the child grows up to express his or her pain and sexual confusion as a perversion or mental illness and also become an abuser... You can see how in a culture that forbids talking about sex and demands absolute obedience from women and children, abuse is in a position flourish like bedbugs in a medieval brothel.

In the Grimms' tales, those whose plots involve child abuse or some other conflict, telling someone about the problem often helps--by breaking a spell or gaining the sympathy of a powerful king or whatever. Also, magical help in the form of a magical object, animal, or person often comes into play--sometimes out of pity, sometimes as a reward, and sometimes through dumb luck. In older versions of Cinderella, Cinderella's dad is a contemptuous abuser, and Cinderella's mom is dead. Sometimes Cinderella escapes her father's presence for a few moments to visit her mother's grave, weep, and ask for help. Where her tears fall, a tree grows, sent magically from beyond the grave. This tree acts as the "fairy godmother" which gives advice, consolation, and ball fashion essentials. Symbolically, the daughter is getting help from a mother, who is "dead" or, perhaps, literally alive but weak and silenced by Dad, only of use to her child in secret.

I also find it interesting that when the victim is a girl, the very feminine traits that make her a target for abuse are traits that she can use to save herself and others in the end. For example, many of the victimized girls are described as beautiful, so beautiful that their looks invite abuse by men and jealous malevolence by evil women. In some stories, the girls are quiet, shy, or actually mute. In the most extreme example I can think of, The Girl without Hands, a strikingly beautiful young woman's hands and tongue are cut off, and she is turned loose in the world with her newborn infant. In The Six Swans, a girl must keep silent for many years to save her brothers from a curse. In countless other tales, the girl simply refuses to talk until the very end, and the implied reason is shame or fear. However, sometimes the girls can use those same feminine attributes for their salvation. Cinderella and Allerleirauh, with the help of their magical tree and magic nutshell, respectively (wow, what gorgeous symbols of feminine power) use their beauty to attract powerful men--a charming prince and the king of a neighboring land, respectively. In Allerleirauh's case (as with the princess in Rumpelstiltskin and many other heroines), her new husband is physically abusive--makes creepy sexual demands of her before he knows her identity and makes her kneel down and take off his boots and then throws them at her head--but hey, at least he's not her rapist father!

Okay, so where does Disney come in, and why have they chosen to eliminate most of the lead females' mothers entirely? Again, I can find no scholarly or journalistic information that answers this question--but I have my own theories based solely on observing from the outside.

Disney took a bit of what Freud got right--that children, as well as adults, have sexual urges--and BANKED on that principle. (For corroboration of this theory, check out the South Park episode about Mickey Mouse and the Jonas Brothers. Brilliant!) The animated Disney princess movies--and I'm mainly talking about the pre-Mulan films--have intensely erotic undercurrents of fantasy and voluptuous imagery. (NOTE: I am NOT talking about those "dirty parts" supposedly inserted subliminally into Disney films. Most of those are weird coincidences and non-sexual errors mythologized by Focus on the Family and other perverted "Christian" groups with an anti-Disney agenda. That whole can of worms is fun and interesting, too, but visit and search movie titles to read up on the story behind each movie's dirty "secret.") Being rescued by a love-besotted, handsome prince while in a state of vulnerability or undress; seducing a powerful, rich man at first sight with unsurpassed beauty; having enemies that make such a rescue necessary because of their wild jealousy over this beauty; men fighting over one's affections... All of these and more are classic, self-indulgent female fantasies that can be found in Disney movies. I won't list male fantasies... but... since all the princesses look like Porn Star Barbie with a glaze of pure innocence on their faces, the attraction for little boys is obvious. (Mr. G confirms this!)

Disney princesses are the ultimate Mary Sues. Mary Sues are repulsive in print, but in animated form, when every little girl identifies so strongly with the lead female that she goes around saying she "is" that princess, the Mary Sue on the silver screen becomes a vehicle for the sweetest little-girl sex fantasies. Nothing obscene or sexually explicit is said or done in the films, but the situations are so loaded with sexual tension... Sleeping Beauty lying in a tumble of her golden curls, completely innocent and incapable of awakening until a handsome (and oh so gentlemanly) prince rescues her with a kiss of true love--"true love" (un)defined as something that Mr. Charming can feel as he looks upon Aurora's unconscious body laid out on the sumptuous bed... See how rife with the seeds of erotic imagination these panoramas are.

Okay, but back to the missing moms. I have a few guesses on why the moms were erased from the Disney films--even more so than in the Grimm brothers' revisions.

"Good" women are all portrayed as beautiful... and how hot can Princess's middle-aged mom be without detracting from Princess's acclaimed beauty?

Plot and character simplicity... Two parents make family dynamics more complicated--one parent and one child is as simple as it gets. Two parents would have to have their own relationship with each other to deal with. And it's more palatable to portray a father as doltish and unaware of his daughter's activities (check out all the bubbly, bumbling Disney dads) than a mother.

On her suburbtopia blog, Starr C. jokingly refers to her mother as "the Queen of Guilt." This is a common experience. Mothers are the closest parent to children. Mothers are the keepers of girls' morality in most cultures. Therefore, mothers are always up in their daughters' business, judging, plotting, and doling out heavy doses of shame and guilt. WHO WANTS THAT in a sexual fantasy?

Seriously. Eliminate Mom, and then Daddy and Daughter can have a sweet, doting, yet comfortably distant, relationship that sets the stage for optimal Mary Sue glory.

Disney is a corporation in business to make money... not a political or government organization... so I have to believe that they are not in the propaganda or moralizing business--or, only insofar as it helps them sell product.

Like the Grimm brothers.

Sex sells!

So what? I still like Disney movies! This is true for me. Disney movies are brilliantly packaged, artfully crafted junk food for the soul. They're delicious... yet somewhat bad for you, and sometimes a little too sickly sweet.

My solution is to write my own Princess tales. Here's a little secret: As a girl, I was among those who fantasized about being rescued by a handsome prince. But I also fantasized about doing the rescuing. To me, either situation was equally romantic and exciting. Sexual and romantic fantasies are fun at any age, but as we mature and grow as empowered women, the victim fantasies become a little less palatable, and we develop a taste for fantasies of power and control over our destinies and loves.

Keeping in mind the history and origins of well-known folktales, and their economically-induced revisions by authors, psychologists, and film producers, and the socio-cultural absorption of those revisions, I feel inspired to write delicious tales full of ancient drama and fantasy, complete with happy endings--just not the usual happy endings, and not arrived at in the usual ways.

I'll be continuing to post selections from my draft of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast of Vepreskastel, and I have re-posted my remixed version of Cinderella for comments and suggestions. The popularity of extreme power differential fantasies such as that in the Twilight series has brought the question to my mind: Can a socially responsible tale be un-preachy, exciting, and sexy? I don't know if I've ever read one, so I'm writing it myself.

Have you REALLY read this far? Do you have any insights, opinions, favorite fantasies, or links to sources of info that might illuminate some of the questions raised here? Please divulge. Tell it to this empty stove, please... or this innocent comment box below.


  1. I offer no insight but you did hit the nail on the head about Disney movies:

    "Disney movies are brilliantly packaged, artfully crafted junk food for the soul. They're delicious... yet somewhat bad for you, and sometimes a little too sickly sweet."

    I may not like the fact that Ariel's mother is not just missing, but never mentioned yet I can surely sing each and every song in that movie verbatim!

    I had no idea the origins of most of these tails until now! Thanks for the history lesson!

  2. Ooh, I found this article confirming my suspicion that German tales were originally told by women to children. This writer claims that in pre-Grimm Germany, women told the tales to children, to warn them of social evils and frighten them into submission.

    By contrast, in Eastern European countries, fairy tales were told by both men and women and only shared with other adults. In the East, they did NOT want to scare the children. Also, more female empowerment is found in Eastern tales.

  3. Outstanding essay. You know, I recently read "Peter Pan" and was struck by the possibility of a Freudian influence on the novel's construction. I went back and researched the author. Although I couldn't draw a direct line, the book, based on several plays by Barrie, was written at a time when the ideas leading to psychoanalysis were coming into vogue.


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