MODERN FEMINISM AND THE MEDIA
At this point in history, we are on our fourth wave of feminism. We’ve come a long way from the 1940s—nearly any piece of media with women in it will find a way to say just as much. But while this wave has a strong focus on intersectionality, social mobility, sexual harassment, and the harmful impacts of a harshly gendered society, you wouldn’t be able to deduct that from much of the media that brags about their feminist messages.
See, the third wave of feminism (which centered mostly on the idea of fighting gender stereotypes and achieving workplace opportunities for women) is very palatable to mainstream audiences today. There’s no reason why it wouldn’t be—that fight was for the 1970s into the 1990s. While facets of those issues clearly still linger today, most of us are in agreement that it is good to have female congresspeople, female leaders, female CEOs. So that means that the media has to adapt.
A perfect example would be Disney, who had to face the realization in recent years that their Princess brand was in danger. Older films have trouble passing the ‘woke’ test. Take Snow White, a 14-year-old girl, whose stepmother is a vain lunatic who is so jealous of her youthful beauty that she tries to murder her for it. That, at least, is portrayed as bad by the narrative—what isn’t is the fact that the dwarves take on this child as a housemaid, and then she is kissed while unconscious by a near complete stranger.
These films are products of their time, of a different perception of what a woman should be. All of the Classic Disney Princesses (i.e., the ones made before the 1980’s) are delicate and passive, almost thoughtlessly kind, and lack any resemblance of a character arc. Their movies teach them nothing because they never did anything wrong to begin with; their faults are in being taken advantage of by older, uglier, jealous women, and that part isn’t a good look, either.
Disney can’t just get rid of their princesses, not even their kinda sexist ones. Disney Princesses made Disney $1.6 billion dollars in North American retail alone, and $3 billion globally. So while their princesses aren’t broken, the way to turn that one billion into two billion might be to take the princesses we already have and slap on some girl boss paint.
Take Beauty and the Beast, which was recently remade in 2017 while frontlining feminist activist Emma Watson, a rather fitting choice. Belle is already heralded as a more progressive Disney heroine, though she still is a product of a lightly ingrained Third Wave Feminism.
There is much harm you can find in Beauty and the Beast—many have likened the Beast’s relationship with Belle to Stockholm Syndrome, and while that’s up for debate, the narrative of the film insists that the Beast must use Belle’s sick father as a means to keep Belle as an unwilling captive. Belle herself isn’t the perfect feminist protagonist, as she spends much of the film’s first act asserting that she is better than the people of her ‘poor provincial town’ because she . . . reads.
But it is very Third Wave of Belle to wish for a better life for herself, and to seek education. It’s also very Third Wave that she holds herself to a higher esteem than the people around her (especially the women around her, as we see her flippant disregard to the blonde women who have the gall to find Gaston attractive, perfectly called the ‘Bimbettes’) because of her education.
The film is the perfect example of a good first draft. There is good, there is bad, and regardless of both, people already really love it. Surely it would be easy for Disney to update the story somewhat slightly for the Fourth Wave.
Marketing feminism when you don’t understand feminism
Except they don’t. While the original Beauty and the Beast quietly referenced Third Wave feminism, the remake more or less screams it at you. Belle still talks down to the people around her—most pretentiously, the script changes the book Belle talks to the baker about in the opening number from Jack and the Beanstalk to Romeo and Juliet. The plot also halts for Belle to teach a young girl how to read, and the people of the town are insulted and appalled at this notion.
But what is this added scene meant to prove? The townsman that thinks that women shouldn’t be able to read is never punished by the narrative, nor does he learn the error of his ways. It also attributes sexism to the acts of one rude man, instead of acknowledging structures that prevented women’s access to education. Not to mention: it doesn’t say anything of merit. There is no current fight for women’s literacy, and nobody who is going to disagree with the statement that women should be able to read.
This is a type of feminism that is extremely palettable, and by extension, marketable. There is nobody in the Disney audience who is going to disagree with the phrase, ‘women should be able to learn how to read.’ It’s feminism, but in the same way that a child’s t-shirt saying ‘Girl Power!’ is feminism. It’s feminism that argues that girls are good, but does not ask you to reanalyze the society that you live in. It’s a watered down version of the movement; it’s comfortable.
Disney isn’t the only culprit. Game of Thrones spent seasons with a severely relaxed attitude towards sexual assault, with the only apparent message in this frequent abuse of women being that doing such a thing is wrong. Its women suffer often to enhance the backstories of their male counterparts (like Oberyn Martell; the murder and abuse of his sister fuels his revenge plot, while the sister in question never has an onscreen appearance of her own). Worse so, the only woman in the series shown to successfully climb out from the depths of rock bottom, Daenerys, once heralded by many as a feminist icon, is rewritten as a villain in the show’s final season.
Fans of the show say that Daenerys’ fall from grace was long foreshadowed, and to that I say: sure, maybe in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. But I find it unlikely that the creators of the Game of Thrones TV series had their season finale in mind when they were making and selling Mother of Dragons t-shirts.
Before the show writers changed their mind, Daenerys was a feminism power story that was very easy to lean into. It’s, again, a Third Wave feminism idea that may have been revolutionary in the 1980s, but is par for the course nowadays. Xena: Warrior Princess might have been revolutionary for the 1990s, but now the ‘attractive white woman with a sword’ trope is so popular it’s included in nearly every fantasy-related piece of media that’s released.
White feminism and its marketability
It’s important to note that this watered-down, marketability lens is only applied to feminism. The original Beauty and the Beast is a movie of the 1990’s, because while there’s at least an attempted focus on making Belle appear more feminist, there is not a single person of color in the entire movie. The remake only slightly changes that—people of color are in the movie, but only in minor roles. The character of color with the most speaking lines spends the majority of the film’s runtime as a wardrobe.
There is also no line in the film addressing the racism of 18th century France, not even the kind of racism we all agree is bad. Feminism has gained its marketability because of White women, but there is no discussion of racism that won’t make its White viewers just a little bit uncomfortable. There’s no ‘Girl Boss’ way to approach racism, so instead of repainting their movies to include it, Disney opted to write it out entirely.
Take Disney’s original movie Dumbo, an incredibly racist production. If you’re a child who grew up watching Dumbo, you probably remember the crows, a horrible example of racist stereotypes in film. The crows aren’t repainted to be not-racist; Disney doesn’t even take that chance. Instead, the characters are written out of the script entirely, and the audience can happily, comfortably pretend that that never even happened in the first place.
What this does, all in all, halt conversation. Protests and movements are meant to disrupt, and making feminism marketable while you pretend racism never existed doesn’t disrupt anything. It argues for a fight that was won a decade ago, all while somehow managing not to question the societal structures that put women there in the first place. It’s safe, and lazy, but most of all, it’s meaningless.
That being said: I can’t wait to see how they’re going to apply this Girl Boss feminism to their upcoming remakes. I’m sure I’ll hate it, but it’ll at least be a wild ride.