Fairy tale interrupted

Feminism, Masculinity, Wonder Cinema

by Allison Craven (Author)
©2017 Monographs 254 Pages


Feminism, masculinity and fairy tale figure within an extended analysis of Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991), in light of the live-action remake, Beauty and the Beast (2017). The history of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast is compared with Disney's adaptation which centralises the figure of the Beast rather than the heroine, Belle. A flagship during a key period of Disney’s corporate expansion in the early 1990s, in the first section of the book, the production is situated with respect to gender histories in the corresponding period: the rise of post-feminism, and its implicit disavowal of feminism, the mythopoetic men’s movement and the crisis of masculinity. The following section canvasses views of masculinity in second wave feminism and the role of myth and fairy in key works of feminism. A critical discussion ensues of twenty-first century wonder cinema in which the influence of feminist ideas is seen to circulate within the pastiche treatments of fairy tales and enchantment.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Enchanted Rivals: Fairy Tale, Feminism and Wonder Cinema
  • Retelling ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in the 1990s
  • 1. Fairy Tale Interrupted; or How Disney’s Beast became Beauty
  • 2. Disney Business and the Rose Taboo
  • 3. For the Boys: Remembering Cupid, the Prince, and the Crisis of Masculinity
  • 4. Redux Beauty and the Belles: Feminism and Femininity in Disneyland
  • Arcade
  • 5. The Croaking: Enchanted Heroines and Post-feminism
  • 6. Patriarchy Dreaming: Imagining Masculinity in the Second Wave
  • 7. Beauty and the Myth; or Goddesses and Father Giants
  • 8. Facing the Sphinx, Leaving the Princess
  • Aftermath and After-Party; or the Return of the Unrepressed
  • 9. Transformational: Pastiche and the Princess
  • 10. Fairy Tales Alive: Reliving Wonder in Live-action Remakes
  • 11. Calling All Princesses and Forest Warriors: Empowerment and Inheritance in Post-feminist Wonder
  • Conclusion: (Not) Out of the Woods
  • Filmography and Stage Productions
  • Works Cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Index

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Introduction Enchanted Rivals: Fairy Tale, Feminism and Wonder Cinema

When the actress, Emma Watson, announced on her Facebook site her role as Belle in Beauty and the Beast (Condon 2017), the remake of Disney’s animated film (Trousdale and Wise 1991), the ‘internet’, in one description, ‘answered with endless praise’ (Cowden 2015). With her history as Hermione in the magical narratives of the Harry Potter films, and her off-screen status as a UN Ambassador for Women, and face of the ‘HeForShe’ campaign, one blogger saw it as a ‘win for feminism’ (Amable 2015). Elle Australia says their ‘hearts blew up’ to learn that ‘our favourite feminist and front-rower’ would play the ‘beloved bookworm and village bad-ass’ (Mclean 2015). Watson says that ‘“Belle and Hermione are my personal heroines”’ and that it seems like the closing of a circle, playing Hermione, as a child and Belle, as a woman (qtd in McLean 2015). Conspicuously, the casting of the leading lady gained greater publicity than the writer or director of the production.1

Praise for a Disney fairy-tale character as an avatar of human achievement reached an earlier apotheosis in the acclaim for Elsa, the heroine of Frozen (Buck and Lee 2013) who was described in Who magazine as ‘a pop-culture icon for feminism, girl power and independence’ and was ‘[n]amed Time magazine’s Most Influential Fictional Character of 2014’ (‘Best and Worst 2014’, 42). Disney, and similar corporate story tellers, have glamourised fairy tale heroines as icons and role models of modern femininity for decades. Disney has attracted criticism over the years for portrayals of heroines and villainesses alike, so it is something of a turnaround to find their heroines now icons of feminism. It is testimony to a long-term repositioning of Disney as a purveyor of progressive values, presumably in the interests of the maintenance of its market dominance. ← 9 | 10 →

The heroism of Belle and Elsa summons Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal, the third stage of the image in which the simulacra gains hold of reality (1983, 10–12). Consumer society, in this theory, is composed of a ‘precession of simulacra’, or images to live by. Disneyland, he lamented, is the ‘perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation’ (23).2 The fears of Baudrillard stem from the debates about technology in the earlier twentieth century, and the project of the Frankfurt School to problematise the material real in the face of the expansion of mass culture. Disney animation was a sometime object of their debates about the role of media technologies in the restructuring of subjectivity (Hansen 1993). These debates have long been overrun by cultural theory of spectacle that supposes the pleasure and discernment, rather than dupery, of the media consumer. Yet the capacity of media corporations to saturate markets with fantasy cultural products presented as heroic life stories, and with the voluntary intermediating support of global internet communications, is a spectacle of such disturbing power that only a fairy tale might match its wonder.

What’s a Fairy Tale, Nemo?

To speak colloquially of ‘fairy tale’, as above, is to widen the folkloric and literary uses. Fairy tales are ‘traditional narratives of wonder and magic’ (Greenhill and Rudy 2014, 4). They may contain fairies or enchantment, shapeshifting and transformation, a moral function, and a setting in an ‘imagined antiquity’, or ‘Once upon a time’ (Warner 1994, XV–XVI). It is part of the influence of Disney on popular culture that a fairy tale is assumed to resolve to happiness. But happy endings are arbitrary; some fairy tales lack closure altogether. It is the sense of wonder and the marvellous that sets fairy tales apart from other literary genres. The power of the narrative is in the mood, typically ‘optative’, or announcing what might be (Warner 1994, XVI). This optative quality gives rise to the potential for ‘subversion’ and ‘adaptability’ of fairy tale (Bacchilega 2013, 7). ← 10 | 11 →

This definition only partly accounts for the uses of fairy tale in wonder cinema. Belle’s return in the remake of Beauty and the Beast, and the vehicle of Elsa’s ascendance, Frozen, are among examples of the steady stream, or even a ‘deluge’ (Bacchilega 76), of Hollywood-generated, blockbuster-style feature films since the 1990s that retell or adapt European fairy tales, and which the term ‘fairy-tale films’ has come to name (Greenhill and Matrix 2010). This cinema of wonder has attracted a significant amount of scholarly attention, not least for the variably perceived influence of feminism in a number of the productions.3 Related observations perceive the tendency to treat fairy tales as in some way ‘real’, or ‘blurring the boundaries of and raising questions about the relationship between fantasy and reality’ (Bacchilega 109).

Hollywood has long traded in wonder, in enchanted narratives or traces of fairy tale, as amply demonstrated (Greenhill and Matrix 2010; Zipes 2011; Bacchilega 2013; Short 2015). Disney is no new player, and some might say they started it, or at least the blockbuster style fairy-tale film. This cinema of wonder pre-dates Hollywood and Disney in the film féerie of early cinema (Greenhill and Matrix 2010; Zipes 2011; Moen 2013); and extends well beyond it in contemporary national cinemas around the world (Zipes, Greenhill and Magnus-Johnston 2015). It proliferates in allied media, notably transnational television, in a range of enchanted, gothic and supernatural narratives. Indeed, the ‘rereading’ of fairy tales in television formats has been ‘even more extreme than in the cinema’, according to Greenhill and Rudy (16).4 In realist cinema, Sue ← 11 | 12 → Short (2015) and Jerry Griswold (2004) have argued that fairy tales form the basis of a number of Hollywood films since the 1990s, although neither of them specifically frame the trend as so dated.

In investigating the perceived influence of feminism on fairy tale in a selection of fairy-tale films, the focus of this book is on Disney feature films, animated and live-action, and some selected films produced by their major competitors, which, collectively, I term ‘corporate wonder’. The films in question all have the potential for sequel/prequel extensions, and were produced initially for theatrical release and transnational distribution. While these productions do not represent the full extent of what might be termed ‘wonder cinema’, which includes many more titles and an array of independent productions, I focus on a selection of the corporate oeuvre in the twenty-first century that is characterised by postmodern poetics of pastiche, and genre complexity and hybridity, especially the trend to parody or ‘remix’ fairy tales.

In an obvious sense these characteristics are not exceptional because pastiche and intertextuality are much in the nature of fairy tales, which always circulate as ‘intertexts par excellence’ (Greenhill and Matrix 2; and see Preston 2004). Furthermore, pastiche aesthetics are typical of Disney productions that routinely burlesque the fairy tale fictions (see Craven 2012). The fairy tale – in literary, oral or cinematic form – may even survive through mutating and adapting to ‘“hybrid genres”’ (Zipes qtd in Joosen 2011, 2). But this tendency is greatly enhanced and parodied in wonder cinema. Cristina Bacchilega, while pointing out that ‘genre mixing’ widely occurs in ‘counter hegemonic practices’ of fairy tale retelling, highlights how genre mixing has become a textual feature of fairy tale films, a means of generating ‘reality effects’, and placing the fairy tale in ‘new dynamics of competition and alliance with other genres’ (28). Within these remixes, feminism is filtered among the reality effects in films like Shrek (Adamson and Jenson 2001) and Enchanted (Lima 2007), to note two that have attracted much commentary. Indeed, Beauty and the Beast (1991) can be seen as a much earlier forerunner of this practice. ← 12 | 13 →

Wonder and Feminism

Of the twenty-first century examples, Bacchilega sees some of the films as evidence of the ‘impact of feminist critique on the production and reception of fairy-tale films’ (117) and within what she describes as a ‘postfeminist climate’ (18). Conversely, these films also represent the ‘underlying strength of the gender ideology’ contested by feminists (117). The nature of the feminist influence on these productions is more elusive. It is not a coincidence that the period since the 1990s corresponds to the aftermath of second wave feminism in which its influences have infused broadly into global culture. Vanessa Joosen looks back further in documenting an upsurge in interest in fairy tale since the 1970s which she attributes to the 1968 movement (in Europe) and second wave feminism as ‘societal factors’ that influence academic and literary publications on fairy tale (4).

These observations emerge in the field of fairy-tale scholarship in which a degree of consensus has emerged about the sources of interests in fairy tale in the second wave of feminism. A salient moment in which the connections were established, Donald Haase argues, was the debate in the 1970s between Alison Lurie (1970), who argued for the empowering potential of fairy tales, and Marcia Lieberman (1993/1972), who contested the embedded patriarchal values (Haase 2004, 1). It did not rest there as further contributors espoused a ‘middle ground’ (see Short 21–25; Joosen 53). Now an oft-cited marker of the advent of feminist critique of fairy tales in the second wave, not only did this debate occur at the height of the women’s movement but it also marked, Haase suggests, a convergence of feminism and fairy tale studies since the 1970s (31). This is not to overlook first-wave feminist interest in fairy tale (see Seifert 2004), nor that Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, as Maria Tatar observes, was one of the first to identify ‘the profound gender asymmetries in fairy tales’ (2014, 142).

The second wave of feminism was also the source of a particularly vociferous critique of fairy tales in some of the radical manifestos. Susan Brownmiller decried the regressive innocence of Little Red Riding Hood in Against Our Will (Brownmiller 1976); Andrea Dworkin attacked fairy tales in Woman Hating (Dworkin 1974); and Mary Daly, with one of her more explosive neologisms, posed connections between fairy tales and ‘gynocidal history’ in Gyn/Ecology (Daly 1978, 99), to mention a few ← 13 | 14 → instances. An abiding (but not the only) criticism concerns the correlation between beauty and passivity of the fairy-tale heroine. It is the main source of Lieberman’s complaint about fairy tales – that the heroine does not have to do anything to be chosen by the prince – and it is emblematic in Brownmiller’s account of Sleeping Beauty, the ‘beauteous princess’ who is ‘unresponsive until Mr Right comes along’; and of Cinderella as the embodiment of ‘beautiful passivity’ (344).

From the 1970s onwards, an abundance of research and retelling of fairy tales grew in response to these (and other similar) critiques. While Haase argues that the feminist critique of fairy tales ‘centred on depictions of the fairy-tale heroine’ (x), various trends and tendencies emerged in feminist criticism of the sexual politics of fairy tales. These responses arise in a range of creative and critical practices in various media, and with diverse reference to consumption by adult women and/or girls, and to a much lesser extent by men and boys.5 The vigour with which the second wave drew attention to the gendered structures of myth and fairy tale undoubtedly unleashed enthusiasm for the changing of these stories. The legacy of these works is, arguably, not only the insights on gender and culture, but fairy tale as a key medium for spreading knowledge of, and responses to, feminism. The relationship between feminism and fairy tale, therefore, has perhaps attained an appearance of symbiosis.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (January)
Fairy tale films Beauty and the Beast second-wave feminism third-wave feminism masculinity men’s movement post-feminism wonder cinema enchantment
Bern, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 254 pp.

Biographical notes

Allison Craven (Author)

Allison Craven is a Senior Lecturer in English and Screen Studies at James Cook University, North Queensland, Australia. She has published on Disney media, Australian cinema and children’s literature in education. She is also the author of Finding Queensland in Australian Cinema, forthcoming.


Title: Fairy tale interrupted