Amy Tuckwell skilfully makes classic psychoanalytic feminist film critique by Laura Mulvey palpable and applies it to a recent Disney’s retelling of the frog prince story. Popular Hollywood cinema, also in its animated version, still has a long way to go
I have been a fan of Disney for as long as I can remember. Born in 1989 and raised on films that far preceded my youth, I would sing along to The AristoCats, dance around my bedroom with Ariel and Sebastian and I cried so much at The Fox and The Hound that the VHS is still locked away in my grandparents’ crockery cabinet. I simply cannot watch it.
I was thrilled to see Disney finally bringing out a princess for our generation when they released The Princess and the Frog in 2009. Many people have lauded Tiana as the first princess to represent a different race and class than we usually see in Disney. Finally, it seemed, we also have a female protagonist who appears to be reaching for her own goals (sorry, Ariel, but ‘becoming human to get the guy’ doesn’t count). However, I personally feel there is more to be said on the representation of gender in this story.
Set in New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog is the retelling of the classic tale about the frog prince but with an unusual twist. Tiana is a hardworking waitress, determined to save enough money to have her own restaurant in the memory of her late father. Meanwhile, Prince Naveen is visiting the city with the hope of finding a rich young lady to marry after his parents have cut him off. After messing with the Shadow Man (a Voodoo master), Prince Naveen is turned into a frog but discovers that if he can gain the kiss of royalty, he will be transformed back. At the same time, Tiana has earned enough money to get her restaurant but is outbid by a higher buyer. In her disheartened state she wishes on the evening star. A frog (who is really Prince Naveen) appears beside her and, as she is in fancy dress, he mistakes Tiana for a princess. He suggests that if she would kiss him and turn him back into a human, he would pay for her restaurant with his parents’ riches (this offer is obviously quite problematic from feminist perspective!). Upon kissing Naveen, she is turned into a frog too. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? The two travel together through the Bayou with the help of an alligator and a firefly to meet Mama Odey who will be able to help them become human again. Or so they think…
It’s not hard to find feminist film criticism of Disney these days; plenty of us stumbled upon the substandard representations of gender in our favourite classics many moons ago and we’ve been protesting ever since. The image of our favourite cartoon matriarchs captioned with their individual failings is now infamous – you can remind yourself of it here. But of all feminist film criticism, one writer has stood the test of time: Laura Mulvey. Only two years ago Mulvey was invited to speak on The Hitchcock Blonde at the British Film Institute in London.
Although Mulvey’s seminal piece ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ was published 37 years ago, it is still cited with as much weight and respect as when it was published. This essay has been the making and breaking of many feminists I know and it has been infuriating film lovers for decades. As I will use Mulvey’s theory here in an attempt to show Disney’s progression with female representations, let me begin with that formidable piece of writing.
Writing in 1975, Mulvey uses Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, the study of what your subconscious mind actually thinks without you being aware of it. Applying it to her contemporary Hollywood cinema, she suggests that all females in these films are portrayed as passive, there to be looked at by males and not having their own purpose in the narrative – other than to move the male protagonist’s narrative forward. Next, she states that because the camera has a phallic shape (always erect and pointing forwards!), it is essentially male. Because she is using Freud’s insights, imported wholesale, to support this, it is difficult to disagree: Mulvey is not suggesting that you are conscious of it; it is for your subconscious that the camera is phallic. [Editor’s comment: please also remember that for Freud, desire worth talking about is always heterosexual: homosexual desires are immature and so on the lower stage of development and not really discussed.]
Now, assuming you haven’t stopped reading in protest, Mulvey goes on to say that because the camera is phallic, it can only ever record through the eyes of a man. A woman’s gaze could not act through a penis-shaped piece of equipment (subconscious, remember!). So, because the camera is male, and the view through the camera is male, essentially, all cinema is male. Which goes a long way towards explaining a lot of the female representations in cinema. [Editor’s comment: obviously, the proliferation of women directors as well as queer filmmakers has changed the cinematic landscape since 1975. However, scarily, Mulvey’s insights still ring true for far too many mainstream films made today.]
What is more, have you ever noticed how Hollywood often introduces its female characters one sexualised limb at a time? Julia Roberts’ hands in Pretty Woman. Cameron Diaz’s legs in The Mask. Reese Witherspoon’s hair in Legally Blonde. When you think about it, there are dozens. Mulvey has picked up on this too and argued that this is one way that cinema makes viewing more pleasurable for men. Laughable, isn’t it? If the camera is male and the view through the lens is male then surely viewing is already pleasurable for men because cinema is geared directly towards them? Mulvey goes further than that and suggests that females in cinema are actually a bit… scary for male viewers. We are still using psychoanalysis as a frame of reference, so please suspend your disbelief while I tell you this next part.
Using Freud’s theory, Mulvey suggests that when a man in the cinema looks at a woman on screen, he (subconsciously) notices that she lacks a penis. The man (subconsciously!) feels that he is powerful and that the woman is passive and the only physical difference he can see between them is the presence or lack of a penis. That’s when ‘Castration Anxiety’ kicks in: the man is scared that if he were to be castrated (have his bits lopped off) then he would become as passive as his female counterpart. So in order to alleviate the threat women onscreen pose to the male viewer, the cinema chops them up into little bits. A bit like feeding a child. It’s always easier for a child to eat little bite-size pieces of veg, they look more appealing and easier to manage than a whole carrot or a big floret of broccoli. Similarly, onscreen women are chopped up into little, bite-size chunks for the male subconscious to process. We see her svelte legs descend from a limo, her elegant arms as they roll up their sleeves and her flushed lips as she applies her makeup. All this means that by the time her whole image appears on the screen, she has been completely sexualised and objectified and the threat of castration has been alleviated. Again, it’s all in his (male viewer’s) subconscious: try not to feel too mortified.
If dissecting her body parts doesn’t work, cinema does have another option to make its girlies less scary. This one is based on demystification – the act of getting to know the female really, really well. Think about it, if you know your enemy better than they know themselves, then you will always have the upper hand. This is a classic Hollywood trick that Mulvey exemplifies using films that have all but dropped off the radar in 2012. A perfect, slightly more modern example is Nancy Meyer’s What Women Want (2000). Poor old Mel Gibson is given the gift of knowledge: he is able to hear the thoughts of all the women in the world. Terrifying, right? Wrong. He uses it to outwit, out-think and ultimately overpower the very same woman who had previously stolen his promotion. He demystifies her, controls her and removes all trace of her threat.
You could draw the conclusion that The Princess and the Frog dispels all of the theories I’ve outlined. The film opens with Tiana as a young girl and, at first, the story appears to follow her to womanhood. She appears to be in control of the narrative as the viewers watch her struggle to gain her restaurant. She cannot possibly be a threat to the male viewer because she is introduced to us as a five year old child, incapable of being classed a woman and therefore unable to cause harm. She is not chopped up into pieces because she is hardly a whole piece herself yet and there is no need to demystify her because she is too young to be considered anything other than innocent. However, dig a little deeper and we see the infuriating truth.
Although Tiana does push the narrative plot forward at the beginning of the film, by the time she is old enough to be considered scary (according to the male subconscious), a young prince named Naveen enters and takes hold of the reigns. After his arrival, Tiana is only relevant in terms of what she means to him and what she enables him to achieve – becoming human again, realising the error of his blasé ways and regaining his riches in love and money. The camera is now no longer looking with Tiana at the world, but looking at Tiana through Naveen’s eyes. This male gaze comes to a climax during the song ‘Dig A Little Deeper’ when Naveen realises he is in love with Tiana and begins to see her in a new light.
Some might also be inclined to argue that Tiana can’t be considered a passive female because of all the long hard hours she puts in earning enough money to buy her restaurant. How could a woman with two jobs be considered passive? Well unfortunately, no matter how hard Tiana works, she is not taken seriously. Most of the characters in the film mock her hard work: her mother suggests she should consider having children, the estate agents take a higher bidder for her restaurant, her friends just want her to go out dancing and even Naveen cannot see the value of her efforts.
This mocking is extended to the way Tiana is treated as a character. Although it is true that Tiana is never objectified and sexualised like so many other women in film, this is surely because she is introduced to us as a child. One could argue that this is where she stays in order to alleviate any threat her presence might cause a male (subconscious) viewer. Tiana’s determination and passion for work and her restaurant are treated as a silly hobby, as though she were still a child with a foolish dream. She wishes on the evening star in desperation, something that even she had deemed to be child-like behaviour. But perhaps most infantile of all is Tiana’s love for Prince Naveen. Having shown no affection towards him throughout the entire film, upon discovering that Naveen is in love with her, Tiana’s feelings are transformed and she seems suddenly and whole-heartedly besotted with the young frog. By this point, Naveen has nothing to fear from Tiana: he has demystified her on enough occasions, concealing the fact that he had been cut off from his parents’ riches in order to get Tiana’s kiss and pretending to propose to her best friend. Charming.
As much as I used to love The Princess and the Frog as a glorious piece of Disney magic, classically captured in its original hand-drawn format, my heart does sink when I look more closely at it. It does seem that the film repeats the same psychoanalytic mechanisms of pleasurable viewing in popular Hollywood narrative cinema. Although at first sight Tiana does promise a more progressive idea of royalty, using Mulvey’s ideas can show how little ground has been covered in the years since her work was first published. Sorry all.
[Editor’s call: I would love to see one of you, Dear Readers, applying a somewhat younger classic of feminist film criticism, namely Bechdel Movie Test. Any takers? ☺ You can email your ideas to: ania.ostrowska[at]thefword.org.uk]