I’m well aware, before I even begin this piece, of the mass of criticism – much of it well-deserved – the Disney corporation faces. There’s enough of that to fill several hefty volumes, but I’m going for a lighter, more optimistic tone for this piece. The past few generations will have had increasing numbers of children raised on Disney movies; you probably have a favourite yourself. Since the films were usually based on well-known fairytales, they were classically appealing and simple enough for young minds. This isn’t to say they were unintelligent, or lowest-common-denominator films – Hollywood has left those to Adam Sandler. But Disney, and, more recently, Disney Pixar, succeeds in sweeping, charming, sometimes saccharine stories…and then there’s the music.
I have a vivid memory from my younger days. I am nine years old, my little sister is six. We share a bedroom, and sometimes we opt to sleep beside each other on the floor rather than in our separate bunks. We never could get straight to sleep, and would talk and laugh until our parents yelled at us to shut up and get some shut-eye (for our health, obviously, not for the fact that they were trying to watch NYPD Blues in peace).
We would lie in the almost-dark (those glow-in-the-dark stars you affix to the ceiling giving the room a weird alien glow) and sing to and with each other. It was always Disney songs, since we weren’t watching much else besides cartoons at that point, and Disney always had the best songs. We would bang out the classics (‘Part of Your World’, The Little Mermaid, 1989), the lesser-knowns (‘After Today’, The Goofy Movie, 1995) and the much-loved but difficult (‘Friend Like Me’, Aladdin, 1992.) It was a bonding experience for two sisters who grew up in often dire financial straits and an increasingly splintering parental situation. As working-class kids, we made our own fun.
Something I always wondered back then- and, to be honest, sometimes these days- was, why weren’t these singers famous? I mean, I thought they were better singers than Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson and they were on every damn magazine cover! Where were the cover stories about Jodi Benson (Ariel), Lea Salonga (Jasmine) or Paige O’Hara (Belle)? It seemed so unjust. Of course, as I grew up, I realised how different voice acting and performance was/is, and how the worlds of pop music and soundtracks were/are wildly different, etc. Before all that, I was just sad that such talented women weren’t household names. I loved them, as much as I loved each Spice Girl or Backstreet Boy.
The women of Disney have always thrilled, delighted and moved me with their voices; as the strong-willed teenage mermaid Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Jodi Benson slayed me with her strained, desperate ‘Part of Your World’ (‘Whaddya call ‘em? Oh, feet…’); Paige O’Hara, playing Belle- my all-time favourite- gave stunning performances in Beauty and the Beast as a lonely, bookish girl in a small, gossipy village, especially in the opening number, Belle; young Kathryn Beaumont’s Alice (Alice in Wonderland) and her gorgeous English lilt was like creamy butter in my ears. Although the men of Disney have their share of talent (opera singer Richard White of course nailing the role of Gaston in Beast), the popularity of these films comes from the talent of the women behind the characters, which is probably what made me, in my current life, love and gravitate towards both musicals and feminism so damn much.
I assume that the words ‘Disney’ and ‘feminism’ together in a sentence have perhaps triggered your gag reflex; the commodification of Disney characters, namely the ‘Princesses’, used in a ‘go-girl’ feminist vein has been a great source of joy, glee, confusion, ire and disgust amongst femmo camps. On the one hand, many of us grew up with these characters and love them in a way that may challenge our modern views on gender, race and women; on the other, we no doubt do find something powerful and joyous about these women following their dreams and going independently and headstrong towards a goal. It’s complicated.
Sure, these women may end with the Prince at the end (in a massively heteronormative move, granted – I, as much as anyone, would love to see a same-sex Disney Couple), but that doesn’t take away from Ariel’s bold moves in tracking down the man she fell in love with, or bookworm ‘oddball’ Belle rescuing her father while constantly rejecting the aggressive romantic demands of horny town Prom King Gaston to avoid becoming ‘his little wife’ (‘There must be more than this provincial life!’) or Jasmine going against her father and society’s demands that she enter into a loveless arranged marriage. In terms of what we want young girls to see and experience, there are definitely worse examples of independence, individuality and strength of will.
I fell so hard for these characters: Alice’s whimsy, Belle’s strong sense of self, Jasmine’s independence. It was only when I was old enough to scavenge the internet day and night that I also found out about the people behind these songs- not just the voice actors, but the creators.
For a time, much of the Disney musical content was created two men: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Menken was the man behind the score, and Ashman wrote the songs. Talk about a partnership; these two had some of the most classic animated films in their wheelhouse: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin (as well as the amazing live-action non-Disney Little Shop of Horrors, another favourite) until Ashman’s death in 1991. Menken went on to collaborate heavily with Tim Rice, with whom the two had worked on Beast.
I know it isn’t cool to like these things; no matter how many Etsy store fills their online shelves with modern re-imaginings of these classic characters, it is always going to be acceptable to enjoy them only ironically. I also know that is seen as un-feminist to like these things- the very notion of whether something ‘is’ or ‘is not’ feminist in its essence being the Be All and End All of the thing itself.
In the same way that we strive to separate art from the artist in order to allow ourselves creative enjoyment, I tend to distance the products of the giant Disney Corp from the conglomerate itself. And this I must do, because Belle and Jasmine and Alice all had a profound effect on me as a young’un that I cannot deny; from them I learnt to be passionate, daring, bookish, strong-willed, daydreamy, brave and odd, and nowhere was this more fully realized than in the sweeping climaxes and tumbling poetry of their songs; their yearning, their wants and dreams, their determination to succeed. If it seems juvenile to you to be a grown woman and still harbour enjoyment for the cartoon drawings of yesteryear, then I am afraid you and I may have to talk about something else.