In 1928, a Soviet Formalist professor by the name of Vladimir Propp created an ingenious way to understand narratives. He realized that traditional folktales—skázka to him, fairy tales to you and me—could be broken out into component parts in much the same way that botanists understood plants by comparing their similar physical components in a study of forms called a morphology. He identified 31 narrative functions that feature prominently in nearly all folklore worldwide (though his primary focus was on traditional Russian fairy tales) and 8 broad character types, which he described in detail in his short but essential book Morphology of the Folktale.
Basically, what Propp’s method results in is a granular comprehension of why narratives function, in much the same way that a botanist understands why a particular plant produces a certain kind of flower. It can even reduce a narrative down to a code:
A18 C D9-E9 K4
(That’s Dracula, by the way: a supernatural creature sucks the breasts of a maiden at night [A18]; the heroes plan how to save her [C]; skirmish with the vampire [D9-E9]; the maiden is saved [K4], as per the appendix to Propp’s book. He doesn’t identify the story as Dracula specifically, but hello.)
"But wait!" I hear you say. "Doesn’t this method result in bland, formulaic stories?" And it would, if it were not for the amazing variety of characters found within them. As Propp notes, "this explains the two-fold quality of a tale: its amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color, and on the other hand, its no less striking uniformity, its repetition." It also explains why fairy tales have their own internal and easily recognizable logic and why they lend themselves so well to larger psychological themes, especially female sexuality and relationships.
The third graph is particularly relevant to this discussion.)
In the early 21st century, Disney has combined these narratives with a marketing juggernaut that is the simultaneous delight of many impressionable young women and the well-founded dismay of many of their parents. They are sometimes dismissed as “just princess movies,” especially in the wake of Pixar’s most recent contribution to the genre, Brave. It isn’t clear as of this writing whether or not Merida will be the eleventh official Disney Princess, but her movie clearly draws from and rewrites the genre formula common to the others, in ways that become strikingly apparent with the use of Propp’s morphology. To that end, a comparison of the plots and characters of all ten previous movies is in order. And yes, I have a lot of Howard Ashman songs stuck in my head after the past two weeks’ marathon. Truly, I suffer for the greater good.
Since presumably none of you have received a Magical Agent of infinite patience from a Donor, I will be focusing on only two Proppian elements: the sphere of the hero and the function of the interdiction. Likewise, I am focusing solely on the theatrical releases of the Disney Princess lineup and will not be considering the direct-to-video sequels, because hell no. Nitpickers may complain that neither Mulan nor Pocahontas are technically princesses, but 1) who are you to argue with the marketing power of the Mouse? and 2) Disney has carefully forced their narratives into the fairy tale framework with little regard for historical accuracy.
Propp’s definition of the hero has interesting implications for the Disney Princess movies in particular. In most narratives, the hero is assumed to be the protagonist, but in Propp’s morphology, he (and he is always a he, frequently named Ivan) is a pattern of behavior. He is the person who disobeys or follows the interdiction, the person who is harmed by the villain, the recipient of a magical agent, the primary combatant who defeats the villain in a climactic struggle, and/or the one who undergoes a physical transformation at the end of the story. Generally speaking, he also marries the princess, who exists narratively mostly to transfer her father’s power (the kingdom and all that comes with it) to him.
When Disney follows this morphology to the letter, it frequently results in a movie’s hero being someone other than the protagonist and titular character, with some disturbing implications for the intended audience, as plenty of cultural commentators have pointed out over the years. It is quite explicit—Maleficent even identifies Prince Phillip as “the destined hero of a fairy tale come true” in Sleeping Beauty—and it renders the princesses passive, occasionally static, and the objects rather than subjects of various interdictions. They are the ones who must be kissed, not the ones doing the kissing; they receive all sorts of horrible punishments for their physical qualities, not their actions; they must stand by (or sleep) while someone else defends them from the villain.
However, there are some notable exceptions, and they may not be the ones you’re thinking of. No less an authority on the subject than Walt Disney himself noted that Cinderella
… believed in dreams, all right, but she also believed in doing something about them. When Prince Charming didn’t come along, she went over to the palace and got him.
(Unfortunately, she then had to wait around for him to show up with a glass slipper. More on this later.)
If we define the hero as the one who follows or breaks the interdiction, Cinderella, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Merida are the characters in their respective movies who meet the requirement. If we define the hero as the one who battles with the villain, Tiana and Mulan are the only characters who fit the bill. Brave gets a little complicated in this regard, as you’ll see shortly, but first I want to point out something fascinating that becomes apparent when we assess it using Propp’s morphology. The three lords’ sons are examples of three broad types of heroes found in fairy tales:
To this end, Brave inverts the characterization found so frequently in other genres: the male characters are archetypes, stereotypes, interchangeable, or comic relief, whereas the main female characters have arcs, development, and unique personal qualities. It is not enough just to have a female hero like Mulan, who literally embodies a masculine role. Instead, Pixar makes a point of deconstructing Propp’s spheres and poking some well-earned fun at them along the way.
Brave also explicitly references a certain other film set in Scotland—the hyper-violent, anachronistic, ahistorical, we-don’t-need-a-bridge-at-the-Battle-of-Stirling-Bridge, Bechdel-test failing, and male-centric Braveheart*. However, it isn’t just redefining the Proppian sphere of the hero** as portrayed in the most successful bro-tastic woad-washed movie of the past 17 years.
Anyone who is familiar with Scottish history (like Mark Andrews, as he is prone to reminding us) will recognize the uneasy balance of power between King Fergus and the lords as well as the critical importance of harmony and unity between the clans, which Merida’s actions first disrupt and then preserve. In Braveheart, infighting and treachery among the clans results in disaster for Scotland as an independent nation and William Wallace personally. Brave presents a more nuanced (and historically accurate) depiction of the complications inherent in maintaining this balance. As Lili Loofbourow points out in her excellent essay "Just Another Princess Movie":
If the film rejects total submission, that is, sacrificing the individual for the sake of the group, it also exposes the perils of a radical and self-serving individualism. Mor-du is a monster not because he’s a bear, but because he has the strength of ten men and is acting in the interests of one… Mor-du isn’t the wild creature of the woods Fergus thought he was hunting. He’s human ambition and untrammeled self-interest. He’s what the new state could easily become without education, without history, without storytelling, and without love.
Braveheart is notably all about the virtues of sacrificing the individual—as bloodily, slowly, and agonizingly as possible—for the sake of the group. Its focus on Wallace (or at least a character by that name) and the personalization of his fight against the English also supports a certain self-serving individualism common to modern action movies: while the battles in the film are ostensibly about FREEEEDOM for Scotland, the film presents them more as Wallace’s personal, large-scale, amputation-riffic vendetta for his dead wife. Halfway through the film, another character explicitly accuses Wallace of being driven by this motivation, and he doesn’t deny it. Braveheart makes this individualism a virtue, whereas Brave demonstrates in the archery contest just how problematic this sort of blinkered, selfish behavior can be.
* Okay, so it isn’t Hello Dolly. For one, it has more Academy Awards. For another, it is far more popular among men.
** I suspect that the character of young Lord Macintosh—he of the impressively tousled hair, proud mien, violent temper tantrums, and supremely arrogant attitude—might also be parodying Braveheart’s director and star. You know, the guy who voiced John Smith in Pocahontas.
Brave also includes a clever visual reference to the most famous literary work set in Scotland, as many people on Tumblr noticed immediately. Queen Elinor’s dress is based on a costume worn by Ellen Terry while playing Lady Macbeth in the late 1880s. (The sparkly things that look like sequins? Jewel beetle wings. Seriously.)
It is an interesting commentary on Elinor’s position as a powerful woman in medieval Scottish society. She is not nearly as ambitious as Lady Macbeth, but her decisions have equally powerful ramifications for the kingdom.
It also reveals a certain amount of initial ambivalence, at least for any viewers who also happen to be John Singer Sargent fans. At first, Elinor appears to be positioned as the villain, as she and Merida spend the first third of the movie in pronounced conflict. However, she soon begins to behave in ways specific to the Proppian sphere of the hero, including receiving the magical agent (the enchanted cake), transforming into a bear (while shedding the symbolism-laden dress), departure, fighting with the villain Mor-du, triumphing over him, and finally transfiguration back into her human form. (That’s 14, 11, 8, 16, 18, and 29, for those of you counting along.)
Yet Merida is the narrator and protagonist of the film, and also behaves in notably Proppian ways: departure (into the woods), first function of the donor (the witch/carver), pursuit (by Mordu), branding (the cut on her arm), and liquidation (the resolution of the interdiction).
The answer, of course, is that both Merida and Elinor are the heroes of Brave. Notably, it is one of the few princess movies whose title is not a character’s name, though its early working title—The Bear and the Bow—emphasizes this point. It is remarkable for two reasons: first, because the function of the hero is rarely split between two characters in fairy tales, and second, because mothers are practically an endangered species in Disney and Pixar movies. This should not come as a surprise, given that at their core, all of these stories but one (whether movies or fairy tales) are about young women moving away from their families and towards romantic relationships of their own.
Those few mothers who are alive are problematic as hell: Rapunzel’s birth mother does not have a single line in Tangled, and Mother Gothel seems to have sprung straight from a thirteen-year-old’s conception of motherhood as a malevolent, controlling, undermining, and enslaving force. Aurora’s mother doesn’t even have a name—she’s just the Queen. Even the positive maternal figures have complicated relationships with their daughters. Notably, Tiana doesn’t bat an eyelash at the thought of staying ranine to be with Naveen, even though she presumably won’t see her mother ever again. Mulan goes to war to save her father, but cannot get it together for five minutes to impress the matchmaker and reassure her mother.
Even The Incredibles (which is arguably Pixar’s best movie in this regard prior to Brave) still relegates women to supportive members of a family unit or helpers… which is seriously questionable in a movie that stresses the importance of being individually special. Mrs. Incredible gives up her super identity both figuratively (no longer Elastigirl!) and functionally (to become a stay-at-home-mom), and when she regains it, it’s all in the cause of rescuing Mr. Incredible. Violet’s superpowers involve providing protective power shells around her family or literally disappearing. If she uses her powers for her own benefit, the circumstances involve a cute boy. Honey is merely a disembodied voice (though one with the best line in the movie), while Edna Mode is relegated to the function of Donor.
Brave is a new world unto itself in this regard for both Disney and Pixar. It positions the conflict between the two main female characters as the central mechanism for the plot, and it uses that conflict for a detailed, layered examination of what it means to be both a daughter and a mother in film and in reality.
While male characters often struggle to live up to their fathers’ examples, female characters frequently state that becoming like their mothers is a fate to be avoided at all costs. Very rarely does a woman acknowledge that her mother is someone who she might aspire to be like one day. Instead, our society tends to view a daughter becoming like her mother as a negative or frightening thing, to the extent that it’s a cliche for female characters to say, “I opened my mouth and my mother’s voice came out, oh God!” One of Brave’s strongest moments (for multiple reasons, as I’ll point out soon) involves Merida reasoning with the angry lords regarding the interdiction and her conduct. She does so with a pitch-perfect Elinor impression in terms of body language, vocal inflection, and diplomatic phrasing.
(Me, upon realizing what the filmmakers were doing.)
In keeping with the interdiction (and, in Proppian terms, its liquidation), this transformation goes both ways. The film’s closing montage of Elinor and Merida riding horses along the edge of the loch reinforces the depth of Elinor’s transformation even after the spell has lifted: she cares much less about the external trappings of ladylike behavior and much more about simply spending time with Merida in her preferred environment. In addition, as Lili Loofbourow has pointed out, Elinor is now wearing her hair down and loose like Merida’s rather than tightly braided—a visual cue of just how much has truly changed.
In some ways, Brave’s rejection of the traditional fairy tale marriage model (function #31 of Propp’s morphology) seems like a regression. Whereas the other movies are about young women separating from their parents (sometimes very early on), participating in their own relationships and starting their own families, the narrative structure of Brave instead focuses on the mending and strengthening the bond between Merida and Elinor. Crucially, it does not cast marriage aside, but it says, “Not yet. Not until you’ve learned everything your mother has to teach you about running a kingdom, dealing with men who behave in ways they think matter to you (even though you don’t care about any of it), and raising children—including learning what they have to teach you in turn.”
However, to understand why Brave represents genuinely new territory for a princess movie, we must first examine Propp’s function of the interdiction as each previous movie has presented it. It is either a prohibition or a command, usually uttered by a supernatural being or a powerful person, and is the central function of each story. (Sometimes, there are multiple interdictions, and the most successful stories involve them relating or looping back upon one another.) In the most basic terms, an interdiction can be thought of as the “rule” that drives the narrative when the hero follows or breaks it: all action proceeds from that point.
Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella are all classic examples of fairy tales with paired interdictions, and their movies follow suit. In each case, the title character becomes the object of two commands: take her into the forest and kill her/she can only be revived by love’s first kiss, she will prick her finger on a spindle and sleep for eternity/she can only be awakened by true love’s kiss; she can go to the ball if she’s dressed suitably/her foot must fit the glass slipper. The source of all of these interdictions but one is an older female antagonist. One character disobeys (the huntsman, who refuses to kill Snow White and instead substitutes a pig’s heart), and one character manages to slightly alter the initial interdiction but creates another (Aurora will not die but will fall into a deep sleep, as will the rest of the kingdom). Otherwise, they are the ironclad rules of the movies; no characters attempt to disobey or manipulate the parameters, and following the second interdictions to the letter results in happiness for all of the protagonists.
The late ’80s-early ’90s Princess movies (specifically The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Pocahontas) make a dramatic and odd change to this narrative function. At the end of each movie, the central character’s father reverses (or to use Propp’s terminology, liquidates) the interdiction: King Triton zaps some legs onto Ariel and sends her back onto dry land, the Sultan announces that from this day forth, the Princess can marry whomever she chooses, and Powhatan formally approves of John Smith and tells him that he is always welcome in the New World. Crucially, none of the fathers ask their daughters first; they just sweep in and deus ex machinanimously remove the complication as they see fit. It’s a weird reinforcement of conservative patriarchal power, even as it might initially appear to be a capitulation.
Beauty and the Beast inverts the formula, as the Beast is the subject of a fairy’s interdiction: he must love and be loved in return by his 21st birthday, or he will remain a beast forever. He is also the source of the first interdiction to Belle’s father (she must come live with him in exchange for releasing her father), which changes the power balance significantly.
Disney attempted to spin this plot element as a fresher, more modern twist—Belle has to save him, not the other way around!—but as anyone who is familiar with the original fairy tale knows, it’s both old and not exactly a profound feminist statement. It’s also a bit disingenuous, if examined morphologically: the Beast is both the subject of the second interdiction and also its object. His actions are the ones that matter, not Belle’s. She may fall in love with him, but the spell requires that he be the one to put in the effort.
Mulan is simultaneously fabulous narratively and somewhat frustrating from a feminist perspective, as her initial refusal of the first interdiction (get a man) results in her acceptance of the second and third interdictions (go to war in Dad’s place, save China from the Huns) which in turn enables her to fulfill the first. And what a man! Swift as the coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, and mysterious as the dark side of the moon.
(Actually, he’s pretty straightforward, but something has to rhyme with “typhoon.”)
Encouragingly, Shang finds Mulan attractive largely because of things that she’s done (save China, impress the Emperor) and not her physical characteristics. There is some improvement here, even if the central message remains the same: getting a man is more important than anything else you might do in life, including preventing your father’s death or dishonor and saving your entire country from barbarian invasion.
The Princess and the Frog is a traditional Disney Princess movie in every regard, including its strict adherence to its source fairy tale and interdiction. Both attempts on Naveen’s part to circumvent the requirement that a princess kiss him in order for him to return to human form (asking a woman dressed as a princess to kiss him, asking Charlotte the Mardi Gras Princess to kiss him) end in failure; only a rigid interpretation succeeds:
Mama Odie: Like I told y’all, kissing a princess breaks the spell. Prince Naveen: Once you became my wife, that made you… Tiana: …a princess. You just kissed yourself a princess. Prince Naveen: And… I’m about to do it again.
Disney’s main change to the story—that a non-princess would herself be trapped by the spell and become a frog—raised more than a few eyebrows, given that it turned its black protagonist into an animal for more than half the movie. It also resulted in a shift to the interdiction: the female protagonist once again becomes its object even as she is also its subject. Even though Tiana is clearly the hero in terms of Propp’s morphology, this change puts her in some very familiar and not-so-progressive fairy tale territory.
Then again, I will forgive a lot in a movie featuring man-catchin’ beignets and jazz-playing alligators.
Tangled is… a hot mess. After Rapunzel has defied the sole interdiction (don’t leave the tower), there’s still a good two-thirds of the movie remaining and nothing left from the original fairy tale to adapt. The filmmakers tried to fill the gaps with some hip dude-action in an attempt to pull in more of a young male audience, which resulted in a tonally jarring movie that seems dated barely two years later (and cannot compare with Pixar’s Presto hair-rendering).
Speaking of those overly plastic-looking locks, I have no idea where they were going with the hair-cutting scene. Given its importance to the plot, it almost seems as though it should be the second interdiction but… what’s the command or prohibition?
Disney’s addition to the traditional tale—that Rapunzel’s hair is magical—moves her from the sphere of the princess (already problematic enough, as it’s less a character and more a proxy for the king) and into the function of magical object. Awesome. What year was this movie in theaters, again?
The argument could be made that Rapunzel’s hair is the magical object, whereas she herself is a fully realized character, with her own independent goals (leave the tower, figure out where the lanterns come from) and opinions (Mother Gothel is mean, that Flynn guy sure is cute). The problem with this logic is that her hair doesn’t operate as a magical object once it’s separated from her, and the audience then discovers that her tears now function as the handy cure-all.
Regardless, it is weirdly sexualized: the bright blonde hair instantly changing into mousy brown, as is so common for towheaded kids hitting puberty, the transformation of Rapunzel from desired by everyone to nothing special, and the violent cutting action of the knife, wielded by the main love interest. Do I just have a dirty mind? (Well, duh.)
This is where Brave is truly revolutionary: Merida first tries to work within the interdiction to her own advantage (requiring that the contest be archery and shooting for her own hand). This fails miserably and makes matters even worse. She then tries to remove the interdiction by altering her mother via a spell, which fails even more miserably and demonstrates how little Merida understands the nature of the interdiction: it’s societal, not personal. Then, finally, Merida and Elinor change the interdiction. They still have to apply to the patriarchal forces controlling their lives (the lords), but crucially, they are the ones to envision the change and propose it. Unlike Ariel, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, they are not mere beneficiaries of omnipotent patriarchal forces’ magnanimous decisions to change their lives; unlike Aurora, they do not have another interdiction forced (however generously) upon them and their kingdom. Instead, they are the architects of the change itself.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this motif has appeared in a fairy tale/fable. (It does not appear in Propp’s morphology.) It is certainly the first time it’s appeared in a Disney princess movie. It is not particularly subtle, given that it’s referenced in the tag line on the movie poster, but reviewers seem to be overlooking it to a staggering degree.
If you want to change something—a cultural requirement, a law, the messages we give young women—the most effective way to do so is from within the system itself. That includes making a movie in one of the hoariest, oldest, most rigid and corporatized genres imaginable from fairy tale motifs that are practically steel girders—but making it quietly revolutionary within that structure.
Unfortunately, Brave is not entirely successful in this regard, as evidenced by its critical reception. It is tempting to blame male reviewers for simply not understanding a movie aimed at young women and their mothers, but a really successful movie would have been revelatory for even the Lord Dingwalls of film criticism. It wouldn’t have required either a detailed understanding of previous princess films or delving around in an 84-year-old Russian Formalism text to get its point across to audiences. It would have just… worked.
Pixar’s previous movies are famous for allowing audience members to share experiences most would never be remotely interested in, whether it’s working as a chef in a three-star restaurant, mourning the death of a lifelong love, getting lost on the Great Barrier Reef, or worrying about becoming a discarded toy. To that end, there is something profoundly depressing about critics’ lack of identification with mothers and daughters, even when put in the familiar context of a fairy tale or princess movie. This should not be difficult, especially when Brave presents its elements so clearly—at least, to this viewer. (Then again, I live for this stuff.)
Ironically, it’s possible that Brave’s greatest achievement—to effect change from within a rigid and painfully familiar genre—is precisely the thing that has left critics unimpressed. Perhaps the filmmakers needed to take a hint from their protagonist and be more adventurous in their choice of subject matter. If they had, however, Pixar wouldn’t have had this opportunity to critique and improve the genre. It may not be possible to split that particular arrow.
Then again, just as there are intangible things more valuable than archery skills or fancy table manners, the ultimate point of art is not its initial critical reception. (Remember, the perceived failure of Sleeping Beauty resulted in mass layoffs in Disney’s animation department and the studio didn’t make another princess movie for 30 years.) Based on the small Greek chorus in the row in front of me at the theater, the intended audience appreciates Brave just fine. As Svatava Pirkova-Johnson notes in her introduction to Morphology of the Folktale, “Certainly children ‘learn’ riddle structure almost as soon as they learn certain riddles… does the child unconsciously extrapolate fairy-tale structure from hearing individual tales?” If so, they may not need a detailed study of Formalism or morphology to understand how best to effect change in their own lives, if they end up watching Brave approximately six hundred times before they turn twelve.
However, they will be at a tremendous advantage if they have supportive and loving mothers who understand them and can help them make their own way.