Disney’s Myopia On Princesses

13 06 2014

Disney has a cultural problem: they don’t know how to handle a strong, female character. How did I come to this conclusion? Because of their initial handling of the issue of Princess Leia Organa, the newest entry into the Disney Princess pantheon. It took significant backlash from consumers to get them to relent, and put in motion plans to include Leia in the lineup. Given the historic role of Disney’s female characters, though, their initial reaction doesn’t surprise me.

Is Star Wars Just For Boys?

On the surface, it would be easy to dismiss Star Wars as a franchise mainly for boys. It appears to be primarily about spaceships and blasters and the rebellion, something generally associated with the male gender of the species. But it overlooks one of the most important characters in the franchise, and now one of the strongest characters in the Disney stable.

Princess Leia Organa, the fraternal twin sister of Luke Skywalker, is a strong, intelligent, independent, courageous and resourceful person. She also happens to be a woman. But her gender has little to do with the fact that she, along with Luke and Han Solo, form the core of the rebellion that brought down the Galactic Empire. She was key to getting the plans to the Rebels to ensure the destruction of the first Death Star (and she had to endure torture to keep where the plans were going secret). It was Leia who coordinated the evacuation of the base on Hoth, and was key to the rescue of Luke from beneath Cloud City. It was Leia who gained the assistance of the Ewoks to attack the shield generator, whose destruction allowed Lando and the rest of the fleet to in turn destroy the second Death Star.

Leia easily plays a role that is as important as anything Luke, Han, Lando or other characters did. And this stands in stark contrast to the traditional role of the Disney princess.

They Aren’t Pushovers, But…

Disney Princesses have traditionally be reasonably strong characters, but they have tended to rely too much on their feminine wiles and other male characters, and less on their own strength, courage and intelligence. There are exceptions. Mulan put herself into mortal danger to fend off the Mongol hordes. Pocahontas took some chances to help Captain Smith. Both Anna and Elsa were the main combatants against the antagonists in Frozen. The guys helping them, for the most part, were secondary.

But Rapunzel in Tangled needed a lot of help from a strong male character. Belle, without help from the animated furniture, was a bit lost. Ariel needed a lot of help from a fish, a crab and a seagull (all male) to accomplish her ends, and it was Eric that piloted the ship that killed Ursula. These princesses certainly weren’t just along for the ride, but until Elsa and Anna came along, and with the exception of Mulan, the culminating scenes involving the main bad guy were typically fought by one of the male characters.

Overlooking Leia A Huge Mistake

Leia is easily the strongest and most powerful female character, newly added to the Disney Princess lineup with Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise. She represents an incredible role model, not just for girls, but for anyone. And to not include Leia in the Star Wars toy inventory was a massive mistake on the part of Disney. It demonstrates a myopia towards the traditional role of the Disney princess, and completely overlooks her central role in the Star Wars saga. It says, to me, that Disney just doesn’t get Star Wars.

The Star Wars universe has many strong female characters, some actively in the foreground, others acting in the background.  At least 2 are on the Jedi Council, including Jedi Master Shaak Ti. Mon Mothma is one of the founders of the Rebellion. We see Ahsohka Tano transform from wilfull Padawan to a true Jedi, very capable in her own right. We see female characters, both good guys and bad guys, appear regularly in the Star Wars story.

That Disney didn’t understand this from the start leads me to believe they just “don’t get” Star Wars. I don’t think they realize what they’ve managed to get their hands on here. This isn’t just a way to make a lot of money from movies, TV shows and merchandise. This is a franchise that has deeply involved followers. It is only a money-making machine because of those fans, both the hardcore and the casual. Disney runs a real risk of squandering that goodwill, and the revenue it generates, by bungling things like not including Leia merchandise in their inventory. My worry is now: what will they mess up next?

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