Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Medievalist Place on Earth

I just got back from a day at the Magic Kingdom at Disney World which, for those of you who do not know, is built around a series of areas. Each area has a different motif, and is a "land" within the Magic Kingdom. For example, there's Fantasyland (medieval fantasy motif), Tomorrowland (futuristic motif), Main Street (early 20th-century small town motif) etc.

The overall layout interests me. Cinderella's castle does not dominate Fantasyland as you might expect. Instead, it is the centerpiece of the entire park, the hub around which everything else revolves. Main Street, then, does not open up onto the county courthouse, but onto a medieval castle.

It would be wrong, however, to over-read this as a medieval image. Instead, I think the dominant idea is one of the fairy tale, which is then associated with medieval architecture. The park is innundated with fairies and princesses, but you're hard pressed to find a knight, or happy peasants working the fields, or a monastery, or any of the other popular images associated with the Middle Ages. Fantasyland does have Excalibur in a stone that you can pose with, but there is little else Arthurian.

Consider too the cosplay. Little girls are dressed like fairies and princesses, but little boys dress as pirates -- not princes or knights or kings. Swords are either clearly pirate cutlasses or lightsabers (for nighttime play) -- but consider all the various Prince Charmings, and Robin Hoods, and other fairytale male characters that boys could be dressed as.

All of which leads to my point -- are fairy tales necessarily gendered feminine? Most of the medieval/fairytale images at the Magic Kingdom are gendered feminine. Even though it's called a "kingdom," there's no king to be seen, not even a Mickey & Minnie in a crown. Instead, the castle is Cinderella's Castle (Snow White's at Disneyland, I think), named for the princess rather than the monarch. Who is the king/queen? Since it's the "happiest place on Earth," and since Cinderella is awake, presumably it's not Malificent (the evil stepmother/queen). Are we to assume the kingdom is ruled by the newly-crowned King Charming?

I'm not trying to pretend that Disneyworld has a functioning political monarchy. These slippages, though, are big, and I think work to show the way the fairy tale is gendered (at least in the Disney conception of it). The only truly important part of the Middle Ages to Disney World is the princess -- the image of the princess is the hub around which everything else revolves, just as the castle is the hub of the park.


  1. Great thoughts. A lot to pick apart in your description, and in the ways that it hints toward the underlying (female-?) gendered nature of fairy tales.

    Your description esp. seems to point to a matriarchal nobility & rule: no princes or king(s) present, but the central figure of a Princess turned Queen--who has overthrown the previous power figure of the Evil Enchantress (who had power over the whole realm de facto through her sorcery). No doubt this matriarchy is yet another factor built into the gendered fairy tale.

    All this reminds me of some significant work done on the female-gendered ideas of fairy tales that I've used in teaching a composition course based on fairy tales: for instance, Gilbert & Gubar's piece in Madwoman in the Attic (though a negative view of the female role in such stories [New Haven, 1979], 36-43); and Maria Warner's "The Old Wives' Tale," exploring the origins of modern fairy tales in the oral tales of women tellers (in From the Beast to the Blonde [London, 1994]). Both essays are found in The Classic Fairy Tales, ed. Maria Tatar (New York, 1999), which also contains interesting introductory commentary that often hits o female-gendered issues in fairy tales.

    In light of Warner's piece connecting fairy tales to female tellers, I wonder if some sort of matriarchy might actually be built into the tales themselves--and the world it constructs. Possibly some gender power issue there? In any case, it's interesting that so often the central figures (whether misogynist portrayals, dominant or weak princesses) are female, and the males are often periphery. In the end, it's the Princess who gains the ultimate control of the Kingdom--and, in the case of the Disney theme park creation, she is the central ruler.

  2. A couple of things.

    1) As I'm sure you know, the castle's architecture is based on that of the Bavarian King Ludwig, whose own castle was supposed to capture the majesty of fairy tales and of Wagner's operas. Perfectly appropriate given Neuschwanstein's proximity to the Black Forest. Still, one could write a book about how a castle from the late 19th century became the representation of "medieval" castles.

    2) Several times a day, a boy -- at least historically it was a boy -- gets to draw the Sword Excalibur from the Stone. Upon succeeding, the boy is named King for the day. Thus the monarchs of Disneyland (the park I have visited over 50 times) are the children who walk among the crowds. Men are usually chosen to be those who fail to draw Excalibur and could be viewed as knights.

    3) The princes, though rarely kings, can usually be seen at character sites throughout the park or during the parades escorting the princesses. So the princes are present.

    4) I think the shift away from Prince cosplay has more to do with what films resonate with the popular culture of the young visitors, than it does with the inherent "femininity" of fairy tales. When I was a kid, there were costumes for both Robin Hood and Prince Charming (from Sleeping Beauty) and some Robin Hood paraphernalia as well. There has always been pirate stuff, but with the success of the pirate movies and the pushing aside of princes in the recent animated fairy tales combine to make them less appealing to young boys.

    Who would you rather be? a) Charming from Sleeping Beauty who slays Maleficent. b) Charming in Little Mermaid?

    The Charming prince, in recent Disney fare, has become less masculine as the female characters have been given more powerful roles -- at least in the female driven stories like Mermaid and Beauty -- since Aladdin, Tarzan, and Mulan all had excellent and "manly" "princes".

  3. Anonymous1:18 PM

    Another, more esoteric view of fairy tales is that the feminine/princess figure represents the soul working to come into harmony with the spirit/male figure/prince. More on that in Rudolf Meyer's The Wisdom of Fairy Tales.

    However, I'd ascribe the lack of Disney princes to pure marketing: girls in US culture are socialized to be consumers of bright pink, sparkly tchotckes galore. Ergo, the Disney Industrial Princess Complex. Boys get Matchbox cars and Nintendos!

  4. I concur with Christian's explanation of a shift from princely cosplay and anthromama's marketing angle. I also think that viewing fairy tales thru a Disney lens may be too narrow. For instance, what would the kids be wearing and what kind of characters would be prevalent in the park had SHREK been a Disney movie?

  5. Very interesting analysis.

    I wonder if this sheds some light on the role and popularity of Romance novels in both mainstream and Christian publishing?

    The boys as pirates, hmmm. I wonder if part of that is timed with the big Pirates of the Caribbean promotions over the last few years.

    How did they dress in the 60's, 70's, and 80's? Has it always been pirates?

    Certainly it says something about a boys desire for adventure, and also about the kinds of books boys are attracted to.

    I'll have to think about this for awhile...

  6. Oh, and NO KING ARTHUR?? How could they!

  7. Lots of interesting points!

    Note that in the Disneyfied Faerie Princessdom, there is very little for boys / men of arms to do. This is a land of sanitized Romance, essentially without enemies or other challenging tasks within or without -- quite unlike Medieval or any other period. It is no wonder that boys would rather be pirates, who at least have potential in a realm that recognizes action.

  8. All the Disney castles are "Sleeping Beauty's Castle," just for the record.

    The fairytales are all Disneyfied and therefore cater to the female. The men--the Prince Charmings--are all one dimensional and not too interesting. Even Disney's young King Arthur was a bit of git. Only the pirates exude the proper testosterone needed for proper play.

  9. What this overlooks is the heavy focus on marketing for Disney which has been a lot more successful focusing on the inherent misogyny of the process (i.e. making women feel they lack something important unless they buy buy buy) aided by the omnipresent Disney Channel, Disney radio and Disney stores in malls, all of which create the artificial "princess ideal" as well as fake pop stars from Britney to Hannah Montana. Making little girls feel insecure is not only shooting fish in a barrel -- it's a profitable game as well.

    Says the woman's whose primary association with pink is Pepto-Bismol.

  10. It's also ignoring the persistent Disney motif: adult (i.e. sexual) women, bad -- virginal girls, good. Might as well link up with CS Lewis.