Categories
Essay

FAIRY-TALE FEMINISM: RECALLING FEMALE AGENCY IN THE SWAN PRINCESS

Sabotaged and overshadowed by a resurgent Disney Animation, this forgotten fairy-tale empowered at least one person

Words by Savina Petkova

I grew up in a seven-floor apartment building, a Soviet-style concrete squeezing. As the blocks tower up, within the lower, darker echelons is a dusty basement that gave shelter to a VHS player. My father had acquired it just after the fall of Communism in 1989. Strangely enough, my VHS copy of The Swan Princess (1994) still sits in that wrecked old player today. As the transition from VHS to DVD marked the schism between my adolescent and teenage years, it is this otherwise forgotten animated feature that will remain forever fixed as the last film of my childhood. 

Released in the US in 1994, the year I was born, The Swan Princess made its way to Bulgarian VHS in ’97, three years later. It’s an animated adaptation of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s most famous ballet Swan Lake (1876) but was financially unsuccessful on its theatrical release in 1994 — the same year as Disney’s The Lion King (1994) roared and soared. The film’s title song, “Far Longer Than Forever” was nominated for “Best Original Song” at the 1995 Golden Globes but lost to Elton John’s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”. The swan was forever in the shadow of the lion, but not to me.

Tchaikovsky’s ballet has its origins in Russian and German folk-tale traditions, combined to produce the tragic story of Odette, cursed by the evil sorcerer Rothbart to become a swan until a man of pure heart — Prince Siegfried — declares his love to her. The Swan Princess renames Siegfried to the Anglicised Derek, and turns Rothbart’s wicked daughter Odile into a nameless old Hag that is made to look like Odette, thus deceiving the love oath, so the curse could last forever. Ultimately, Swan Lake is the story of feminine fragility and the masculine desire for power, and the end is tragic. However, Rich’s 1994 animated adaptation turns the tale into a fairy-tale, according to anthropologically delineated syntax, with structured roles and components. 

Fairy-tales are enchanting to a child’s mind, with their allegorical richness in which rites of passage are masked as periculous adventures. Evil witches and wizards lend their personas to express interior psychological processes, all of it wrapped up in a digestible happy end. Frankly, fairy-tales (although they may go by different names) appeal to grown-ups too for the exact same reason: as a sense-making tool. In adult life, one comes across an article or two in an attempt to render the fable mechanisms and narrative structures comprehensible, and ultimately, translatable. Scholars have coined the term “fairytale morphology”, listing the formulaic common tropes. Famed folklorist Vladimir Propp was the first one to claim that a finite number of tropes compose the whole of a fairy-tale, and categorised the existing combinations. Every character has a function, yet there are far more characters than functions, which account for a fairy tale’s multiformity and nuance, as well as its uniformity and repetitiveness. We love fairy-tales because they affirm a coming-of-age process in a ritualistic manner. It guarantees the victory of good over evil.

Growing up under the traumatic shadow of a Socialism never lived, born four years into “freedom times”, this fairy-tale weaved its magic to empower me towards agency, challenging the rigid gender oppositions I would encounter in adolescence.

The Swan Princess (Richard Rich, 1994), Columbia TriStar, USA, 35mm, colour, sound, 90 minutes, Princess Odette (Michelle Nicastro), Jean Bob (John Cleese)
The Swan Princess (Richard Rich, 1994), Columbia TriStar, USA, 35mm, colour, sound, 90 minutes, Princess Odette (Michelle Nicastro), Jean Bob (John Cleese)

I could argue that fairytales leave their mark in a secretive and somewhat prolonged manner. I could compare it with a long-forgotten memory of cosmological value, something that has structured a world different from the one outside of your doorstep. I do not know what fairy-tales my parents had to guide them into the years pre-1989 but maybe one turns to their structural influence whenever reality feels worn-off, or badly crooked. Growing up under the traumatic shadow of a Socialism never-lived, born four years into “freedom times”, this fairytale weaved its magic to empower me towards agency, challenging the rigid gender oppositions I would encounter in adolescence.

Delighted with the classical literary canon I indulged in growing up (I didn’t watch too many movies at this point), I often asked myself: Who could sacrifice the cosmic harmony inaugurated by a suited marriage between two aristocrats in love with each other? The Swan Princess provided an answer. In the prospect of a matrimonial union, the main character, Odette (Liz Callaway), asks her fiance, Prince Derek (Howard McGillin), the specific reason he wants to marry her.  His reasonable reply: “You’re everything I ever wanted! You are beautiful!” Odette, taken aback, challenges the facticity of being loved as the natural corollary of being “beautiful”. When the prince fails to produce an acceptable answer to her self-conscious bidding, she questions “What else? Is beauty all that matters to you?” Resonating with the pathos of Naomi Wolf in her book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1990), Derek’s statement equates to a braggadocious acquisition: he seems to have bought himself a pretty thing. He stutters: “Well…what else is there?”. As damnation to all who equate someone’s appearance as akin to the multiverse that we call “love”, Odette makes an iconic gesture to young women spectators. With the lines delivered, her character delivers a meta-critique of competing Disney fairy-tales for its interchangeability between being beautiful and being loved, as self-evident. 

I grew up, similarly to most of my generation, accustomed to Disneyfied exposure: safe confines of a beautiful Princess, the charming Prince, and the freedom granted by his masculine courage. A character’s beauty assured her condemnation in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Cinderella (1950). Things took a turn when Disney made Beauty and the Beast (1991), presenting Belle, a “little town girl”, and her go-getting ability to not only save herself but to save the bitter, cynical Beast from his curse. Within the confines of the name of its character, Belle meaning “Beautiful”, the 1991 Disney film is mostly favoured as an empowering experience (Emma Watson’s remake asserting even more of a self-conscious feminist streak), channelling an active agency within the Disney heroine’s (usually) “standstill, look pretty” attitude, even as some argue for a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome and codependency. Since then, the tough heroine trend has been exerted within countless live animation remakes, and newer gender-conscious fairy-tale films, such as Mulan (1998), Enchanted (2007), The Princess and the Frog (2009), Brave (2011), et al.

Perhaps it deserves reappraisal in our times of “Fourth Wave Feminism” and #MeToo as a precursor in the genre seeking a reconfiguration of gender dynamics within the conservative confines of fairy-tales, monarchy, and marriage.

The Swan Princess (Richard Rich, 1994), Columbia TriStar, USA, 35mm, colour, sound, 90 minutes

But before Disney’s supposed discovery of feminism, The Swan Princess depicted the power of a woman saying “no” and marry on her own terms. It presents a fantasy tale that is self-reflexive and empowering. But the film flopped at the box office, making less than half of its budget, and it received lukewarm responses from critics. Today, it’s largely remembered as a distant phenomenon only by the fact that it was followed by seven (!) sequels (both cel-animation and CGI). But perhaps it deserves reappraisal in our times of “Fourth Wave Feminism” and #MeToo as a precursor in the genre seeking a reconfiguration of gender dynamics within the conservative confines of fairy-tales, monarchy, and marriage.

We’re introduced to a Kingdom with a thin veneer of peace. The malicious wizard Rothbart has just been exiled to ensure the Kingdom’s safety. Yet, evil never disappears until it’s won over. This is why it reappears in a moment of weakness, when the marriage to join the two big Kingdoms of King William (Dakin Matthews) and Queen Uberta (Sandy Duncan) falls apart following Odette’s marriage refusal. It is the disruption of the patriarchal norm that has attracted the vile wizard to test out the dame’s revolutionary gesture. Her “no” is the catalyst which fuels Rothbart’s will-to-power, as he murders the King and abducts the princess.

Entering a classic narrative of the damsel in distress at this point, The Swan Princess exemplifies the folkloric model of “obstacle-before-marriage”. This particular one entails passively waiting on the outcome of supernatural powers, performed by evil figures, or for the saving grace of a worthy suitor. An extrapolation of that thought would be to say that princess characters in this type of narrative do not construct their own fate, they undergo it. That said, The Swan Princess becomes a contradiction of its own driving forces when it encounters the typified plot, and some examples may be of use to explicate how the film challenges its own form.

Femininity is, to a large extent, restricted in The Swan Princess. Odette is the principal female character, yet her mother is never mentioned. As the opening sequence of the film recounts a “once upon a time” when the desperate King William was childless, one day he suddenly acquires a daughter. No news of the mother’s life or death, so motherhood is deemed an unimportant theme for the present story of womanhood. Odette is a motherless child, just as Derek is a fatherless son. By erasing the controversial same-sex formative figures from the children’s lives, the narrative invites Freudian interpretations of realised Oedipus and Electra complex. Childhood is important to the theme of passivity and activity here since a conscious decision unites King William and Queen Uberta in the desire to merge their two kingdoms, potentially making a family whole, as well as one kingdom. Within this context, Derek and Odette develop mutual disdain and every summer spent together backfires, foiling their parent’s attempt to suitor them. As the song about their growing up together concludes:

However, anyone could see // The only point on which they didn’t disagree // Was that the very thought of summertime // Was dreaded. 

At the beginning of The Swan Princess, we see Odette and Derek grow up into young adults, sharing the same dread of the forced marriage, experiencing puberty, pranks, and gender-based exclusion. As Derek confesses it’s “boys or none”, Odette wins at cards, shows considerable wit, and flirts with the castle guards. This song sequence guides us into a world of monarchial stereotypes, yet it is a grounded observation of a brother-sister rivalry, in which gender proves the only differential trait. With the significance of musical tropes, when protagonists burst into song to mark an important narrative shift, The Swan Princess guides its audience through the couple’s relationship step by step.

Despite contemporary conflations of feminism with socialism, it was hardly possible under a socialist regime and at that time (just after the fall of the Wall) and at that place, to be bred a feminist. 

The Swan Princess (Richard Rich, 1994), Columbia TriStar, USA, 35mm, colour, sound, 90 minutes

When the film brings together the couple as grown-ups, both Derek and Odette sing a duet about the grief of arranged marriage in a split-screen sequence, which affirms them as having more common ground than previously believed. After being pushed from two opposite doors, the prince and the princess take a glance at each other as adults, and their song changes the tone from boisterous frustration to gentle confession. Derek’s facial expression widens in a smile as the song confesses “She started as such an ugly duckling // and somehow suddenly became a swan”, anticipating both his own attachment to looks and Odette’s transformation into a swan. As the sequence becomes a saccharine dance, fading out the celebratory surroundings, Derek and Odette tenderly kiss in a close-up. From this sequence, one gathers that Odette was conscious about the gender dynamics growing up, yet was never afraid to act a tomboy, win at “boys” games, climb up trees, and get broken limbs. At the same time, Derek confessed his disgust for physical intimacy (“You make me kiss her hand again // I swear I’m gonna be sick”), which apparently lasts only to the point when Odette grew up to be this statuesque, alluring beautiful woman, with long blond hair and a thin waist. The notion that women have to grow into beauty to spark an urge for intimacy is, to say the least, problematic, yet a closer look at the “What else is there?” sequence, mentioned earlier, can provide some worthy explanations. 

As soon as the couple kiss, Derek proclaims the wedding. A classical fairy-tale would not linger over this moment: it is his monarchic right and a mutual love confession. Yet, Odette’s utter confusion disrupts the caste celebrations and stops the orchestra from playing the presumptuous wedding march. Her rebellion opens up space for the question of consent. On the one hand, marital consent is part of an engagement ritual that our culture undoubtedly values to the point of fetishisation — the ring, the one-knee, the “I do”. This sequence resonates within the context of contemporary discussions around sexual consent and the politics of the body. In the medieval context, the royal body equals the body of the state, hence the necessities of ritual practices to inaugurate power, as well as the power-establishing features of insignia — crowns, sceptres, thrones. Odette’s silent demand to be asked turns into an examination of what love is. When Derek cannot justify his love in any other manner than her beauty, everyone knows this is the wrong answer. 

Upon rewatching the film recently, I felt proud of Odette. It also seemed natural to my partner to comment on how the prince forgot to actually ask the princess to marry him before proclaiming the wedding. In our days, this is probably a must for a fairy tale film, to point out the missing consent and to stress its importance. Yet, I remember in my adolescence I couldn’t understand why someone would reject a Royal Wedding — the tale’s desired natural end — merely because of Derek’s clumsy inarticulacy. Despite contemporary conflations of feminism with socialism, it was hardly possible under a socialist regime and at that time (just after the fall of the Wall) and at that place, to be bred a feminist. 

The young boy, by disavowing reason as a pathway to love and the superfluous role of beauty, has become a man by recognising precisely this woman in front of him.

The Swan Princess (Richard Rich, 1994), Columbia TriStar, USA, 35mm, colour, sound, 90 minutes

It was Odette who helped me to assert myself, to consciously discover and identify with feminist rhetoric and reject hegemonic behaviour, words, and submissive strategies. Retrospectively, when taking into account the whole narrative of the film, Odette’s demand of Derek caused a separation, which proved crucial to the Prince’s character development. In his urge to prove his love to Odette and the world, he had to learn to express the least causal thing in our world — love. Laws of nature, even chaos theory, are consistent, describable, and causal. Love, on the other hand, is the closest thing to an accident, a leap off the page, a blind spot, for no reason. “I love you because I love you”, a tautology that proves itself right, since love is far more complex than any reason given for it.

In a similar manner, The Swan Princess concludes with Derek weeping over Odette’s unbroken curse, after defeating the monster that held her captive, vowing eternal love over her kindness and her courage. Love equals beauty seemed self-evident for him, but then came the woman to make him question ingrained assumptions. The young boy, by disavowing reason as a pathway to love and the superfluous role of beauty, has become a man by recognising precisely this woman in front of him. He has deemed her courageous and kind after she has guided him in saving her, and the fairytale can happily end. Prince Derek’s rite of passage is initiated by love, it is love-driven, and its ultimate realisation is love. Like all coming-of-age rituals and initiations, this one presents its character with self-awareness and gentle understanding, as well as courage and heroic acts. A simple lesson awaits, one about toughness and tenderness, about unbearable lightness, about magic, and, strangely enough, about feminism.

As a film that allowed viewers to build a long-term relationship in the form of VHS and DVD, rather than the cinematic experience, The Swan Princess recalls the specific bonding of rewatching a film over and over again on tape, taking in new delights, learning the dialogue by heart or, in the case of musical animations, singing along to the original soundtrack. As I take a step back to early childhood memories and dip my senses into the magic that, I believe, cinema inherently is, I have reclaimed what I’ve already known, but latent. Fairy-tales provide a regression to a time and space governed by the symbiosis of magic and solid reality, to reveal what is an intuitive, dormant strive to question, rather than know in assurance, how the world should be structured, and if one, personally, can build it anew with a newly-found self-empowerment.  


Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.