A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece titled, “Disney & Cheese.” The important part of the reflection was that it tapped into a deeper curiosity of why the second wave of Disney princesses from the 90’s–Ariel, Belle, Jasmin, Pocahontas, and Mulan, despite the apparent sexism, lack of cultural sensitivity, and appropriation–still bring up such enjoyable moments of nostalgia, and what that might mean for growing up and being a grown up. I want to note, that I’m purposely leaving out feminist readings of all the Disney princesses because there are more extensive articles out there, including one written by Kaitlin Ebersol for Highbrow Magazine.
If you do a web search of “Disney princesses” with the question “why are we so obsessed?” articles upon articles pop up, including TIME Magazine’s “Why We’re So Obessed With Distorting Disney Princesses,” Huffington Post’s “Meet the Woman Who Dresses Like A Disney Princess Everyday,” or Vanity Fair’s “Why Are Adults on the Internet So Obsessed With Disney Princesses?” Clearly, I’m not the only person that’s wondering. Nor am I the only one exploring the cultural affinity to the Disney Princess franchise that has, debatably, for good or bad (or ambivalently), influenced an entire generation.
First, let’s get something straight. Growing up, I was not a princess. At eight-years-old, I loved basketball and I had a mean 3-pointer. Some of my favorite animated series at the time were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Batman, and X-Men. When I was nine, I took ice skating lessons for a hot minute, but I really wanted to take hockey so I could check people into the boards. At the age of twelve, when other little girls were marrying off their Barbies and Kens and planning their dream weddings, I swore off love and imagined myself as the CEO of some company, unmarried with two dogs living in a penthouse apartment in New York City–hardly the find-your-prince-and-live-happily-ever-after type of girl. But even so, I loved those movies, and I still love the hell out of singing Disney songs from the 90’s, and I’m not the only millennial in the generation that seems to love this (including my BACKWORDS partners in crime, also equally tickled by Disney magic).
At the end of this month, on October 30, you can purchase on ITunes the whole We Love Disney (Deluxe) album. The album features fifteen different artists singing their favorite Disney songs, including Ne-Yo’s rendition of “A Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, Fall Out Boy’s performance of “I Wan’na Be Like You” from The Jungle Book, and Jessie J. belting out “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, among other stars like Gwen Stefani, Charles Perry, and Ariana Grande also doing versions of their favs. About a third of the songs on the album are celebratory throwbacks to the prolific days of composer, Alan Menken and company, who won Academy Awards for their soundtracks for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas.
It’s not hard to see Disney’s intentions with plot and character development in their song lyrics. My favorite Disney tune of all time, “Part of Your World,” explains what’s at stake and what the title character Ariel wants in The Little Mermaid. The song resonated with my own desires to be elsewhere, anywhere but the family I was born into. Menken’s Disney ballads, allowed me to sing my grievances masked in G-rated language before I even knew what the word “grievance” meant. I was, in the most direct way, practicing fantasy as escapism.
I tried running away when I was six, and I could only make it to the end of the driveway with my small backpack. My mom came out and sat on the sidewalk with me, and asked me what I was doing. I started crying.
I ran away again when I was seventeen. I had a car that I had just bought with the money I saved up from bussing tables. I only had a driver’s permit and drove illegally over to my ex-boyfriend’s house at 7 a.m. on a random weekday when I was suppose to be in school. (Princesses can’t set out alone without their Princes.) He was still in bed. “Please,” I begged. Still tucked under the covers, he said, “I can’t. I’m starting college next week. I’ve gotta get my forms in order...this is crazy. I mean, what are you going to do?” Sitting next to him, I said, “I don’t know, but Disneyland is south of here and we’ll figure something out. We’ll work in the park. We could do anything or be anyone.” I had completely forgotten about this until after I finished drafting “Disney & Cheese.” When I told my friend about the memory and what I was writing about, he said, “All the employees in the theme park are directed to treat every little girl and little boy as a princess or prince.” Though I rejected the idea of ever finding Prince Charming, the Disney Princess Brand was still potent. Whatever I was leaving behind had no pull against the mirage of Disney’s happily-ever-after. This perceived notion was so strong that I left without my ex (no Prince in tow), and drove toward Disneyland on I-5 with a couple boxes of Frosted Mini-Wheats, $125 dollars (gas was cheap back then), a couple stuffed animals, my most valuable jewelry to pawn off, and an erratically packed suitcase.
At the root of trauma, there is still, curiously, the expression of nostalgia. As an adult, I realize that getting lost in the music and singing-along as a kid, made it easier for me to cope with a shitty situation. The truth is, Disney movies and Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan, along with other superficial things in my childhood (see: watching TV), helped to pockmark the darkness of growing up with dim pinpricks of light.
Jenny M. Chu