Walt Disney—and by that I mean both the individual visionary and the corporation he led and which straddled the globe in his wake—has been one of the most influential and formative drivers of the way we view women for the past century. From the 1937 Snow White that my grandmother saw in a movie theater to the Mulan and Belle from Beauty and the Beast my daughter grew up watching on DVD, Disney has been ever-present across mediums and generations in wildly divergent eras. And whether or not you hold out hope that someday your prince will come, those animated heroines, fairy-tale archetypes, and (later) pop stars have shaped our imaginations—love it or hate it.
The animated fairy tale, long the staple of the Disney dream factory, had been on a decades-long hiatus when The Little Mermaid film revived it in 1989. In 2008, Ariel became the star of a Broadway musical, the mermaid who dreams of being human and trades her voice for a pair of legs. But in true fairy-tale fashion, to find love with her prince and begin a new life above the waves, she must regain her ability to sing.
On the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres stage, The Little Mermaid promises virtuosity and fun, full of crackerjack tunes and an expert staging combining whimsy with romance—a show not at all reserved for kids. And it’s no small matter that Ariel triumphs through her own heroism—a counter to the rightfully maligned rescue-me passivity of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, and a sign that after half a century Disney was dreaming of girls and women who could look after themselves.
This decade’s best-known star who emerged from the Disney pantheon, Miley Cyrus, is clearly embroiled in her own process of transformation (she takes the stage on March 10 at Xcel Energy Center). She arrived on the scene as Hannah Montana, a fictional girl who led a secret life as a massive pop idol. Not yet 14 when her first single was released, she was at the time a TV star and the center of a massive Disney multimedia enterprise. Cyrus was also the product of packaging, marketing, and a commercial apparatus that dwarfed and drowned out whatever distinct identity she might have possessed—all while reportedly earning hundreds of millions and on a collision course with adulthood that rivaled the Titanic and its iceberg.
What’s behind the twerking and the tongue, and the tabloid salaciousness that she’s seemingly both endured and cultivated for years before she could legally buy a drink? I wonder if it’s simply a matter of Cyrus seeking a parallel control over her own destiny, her own story. Her Bangerz tour is a cultural event, an awfully self-conscious kind of spectacle and a form of growing up in public that hopefully will incorporate a sense of big fun, with its girlish animal motifs and high-fashion costume design. Miley Cyrus’s early roots, after all, uplifted millions of girls for all their plastic contrivance; it would be a shame to grow up into less celebratory terrain.
Between Ariel and Miley, we have one Disney princess our daughters grew up with, and one that we worry they might grow up like.