“Fantasize about that wedding, four-year-olds! Doesn’t matter how young you are, you get those priorities in line early!…But really now, I think there’s just something insidious about getting little girls to fixate on romance so early. I mean this is one of those things which freaking rules your life as an adult, must we start on it before [they hit puberty]?”
The above quote is from a video by the Nostalgia Chick concerning Disney Princesses. This quote touches on exactly the issue about burrowing certain ideas and priorities into the heads of little girls, and why at the heart of the problem, nothing has changed with these new interpretations. The message lingers on, just in a less potent form.
But enough about that, let’s talk about pants. Or at least Snow White’s relationship to pants in these media.
What is it about being in a dress that just makes a woman go, “Nope, it’s frilly dress-up time. No rough-and-tumble today”? Is it just an accepted fact that once a character slips into anything but pants, she’s reduced to little more than dead weight with a smile?
Many gamers refer to it as the “Zelda Principle” – in the Legend of Zelda games, when Princess Zelda is in her pretty Hyrulian dress, she’s about as useful as a jar of marmalade is to a serving of fries most of the time. But when she puts on a pair of pants and masquerades as a man called Shiek, she can take on any enemy, do almost any task, and essentially save herself. And then we have an even more confusing conundrum with Tetra, a pirate queen who’s an expert thief, marksman, and overall master of the high-seas, but the second it’s discovered she’s Princess Zelda, she apparently forgets all her skills and needs rescuing. All this from the tri-force of wisdom, mind you! And there are no other major reoccurring female characters but her – the game’s even named after her despite the fact that she does next to nothing.
Yes, if you are a lady and you want to be a hero, pants are essential. But it’s not just the garment itself, it’s the attitude associated with the garment. You have to act like a man as much as you dress like one, while retaining your femininity so the audience can relate to you. Often, these portrayals fall into one of two ways: too masculine, or too feminine.
Once Upon a Time’s Snow White is ping-pong match of both. When she’s in her dress, she’s shy, sweet, kind but ultimately a thing to be protected. Her strength is purely internal and emotional. But when she’s wearing pants, she’s tough, athletic, overly aggressive, borderline obsessed with victory. Mirror Mirror’s Snow White slouches, spits, grunts, and even fights like what one would expect of a man – but she’s still overtly feminine. Even Snow White and the Huntsman version of the character is so androgynous-looking that she could be easily mistaken for a man, even though her personality remains mostly unknown.
The problem with this first half of the portrayal is that we know better. It’s the 21st century, and yet screenwriters stick to these archaic models of princess-hood and femininity while trying to make her more like a modern woman. Except their definition of a modern woman is more man than woman because otherwise they seem to like the stereotypes of old. And then that’s what women grow up into: you want to be frilly and socially acceptable as a woman, but you recognize that view of femininity is all wrong, and must somehow tightrope-walk across the thin gender divide. Rather than blurring this line to have these stereotypes blend into each other until they disappear all together , screenwriters just keep making it thinner and thinner, until it’s nothing more than hair’s breadth between being butch and super-girly.
“You want to be the pretty princess, but you recognize you have to be self-sufficient first! ‘I want my prince charming but I want to be independent! Argh, I’m so confused! I’m going to go watch Sex in the City to confuse myself even more!’” – The Nostalgia Chick
One example of a perfect balance is Mulan. As the only Asian Disney princess, who is technically not even a princess, she is probably the only one whose saved a whole country and gone to war. She takes the place of her sick and elderly father in China’s war against the Huns, but she can only do so as a man. But the apt thing about her character was that she was already pushing the limits of femininity with her active work on her family’s farm, intelligence, and felt completely out of place in the role society doled out to her. She didn’t need the pants to be active and strong – she needed the pants so her strength could be socially acceptable. She was a woman, but that doesn’t so much define her character as just act as a miniscule fraction of her background.
Another is Sarah Connor of the Terminator film franchise. She’s a very popular, and extremely-well written character because she’s a warrior first, filled with character depth and real growth. That’s not to say she doesn’t act like a stereotypical woman every so often, but she wasn’t entirely defined by that one aspect of her being. It felt like they wrote the character first and then chose her gender, like how it should be. Only problem is that she isn’t the savior of the world— that’s her son. And while it’s an honor to be the mother of the messiah, she’s still not the messiah, who gets all the honor and glory in the stories. Why couldn’t Sarah Connor prevent the uprising? Why couldn’t her heir to salvation be a female?
There’s a good handful more of the female characters whose sex is not their defining trait: Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. These women don’t need “pants” i.e. stereotypical masculine traits, to be strong and self-sufficient and their femininity rarely, if ever, is portrayed as a hindrance to their goals. They are strong, skilled, and great characters because of their personalities and minds.
So why can’t we have this with any of the Snow Whites? Why do we get some weird hybrid, or a character that can’t make up their mind when it’s clear that it doesn’t have to be that way? Why can’t we have that pretty, frilly pink frosting cake and eat it too?