#LetsTalkAboutIt: Remixing Disney Princesses

#LetsTalkAboutIt: Remixing Disney Princesses

So the whole ‘Disney princesses as…’ meme seems to have hit its absolute zenith recently with a Buzzfeed article entitled ‘Groundbreaking Artwork Reimagines Disney Princesses As Office Supplies’, featuring Ariel as a staple remover and Pocahontas as a tape dispenser. ‘Groundbreaking’ scarcely does it justice.

Obviously it’s a pretty funny parody of an overworn meme, but it’s hard to work out where and when the practice of re-imagining Disney princesses in different guises came from, and harder still to see when it might end. But why does the trope resonate so much with millennials?

On one level, it’s a way for fans to participate in and prolong the cultural life of characters which formed a part of their cultural awakening. Every time internet users make or view a ‘new’ Disney princess twist, they relive that time. The word nostalgia comes from the Greek ‘nostos’, meaning homecoming, and ‘algos’, meaning pain; indeed, it’s an almost masochistic compulsion which keeps artists and viewers returning to these characters and their stories, dredging up their own cultural past to fleetingly inhabit a particular moment and state that longing to return to it.

Of course, the feeling doesn’t last, so another reimagining is always welcome. Fans yearning to see these characters with the same sense of freshness and surprise as when they first encountered them. There’s a kind of analogue for this in the burgeoning trade for oldies and reformed bands who bury the hatchet and go on tour, selling a slice of the recent past in near-mint condition to fans who remember it the first time round, plus newbies who want to sample the borrowed nostalgia and see ‘the real thing’. There is always the odour that these events are a reification of a vague sense that one’s tastes and reference points must always be relevant, because you definitely understood popular culture once and then, as Abe Simpson once said, “they changed what ‘it’ was, and now what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary”. So it is with the Disney princesses.

(One does wonder what it is exactly people go to reunion gigs for, especially when there’s no new material to hear. Is it to rerun their youth as exactly as possible? To feel once again a part of a zeitgeist they understand, even if it’s a reheated one? To get some sense of validation that their tastes are still relevant? To see how fat the band have got since retirement? The first three questions are relevant to the Disney princesses. The last isn’t so much.)

You might also see it as a condition of contemporary postmodernity: the attitude that there’s nothing which isn’t ripe for a revamp or reboot; the mangling of old cultural tropes and signifiers with anything else which comes to hand. In his study of pop’s tendency toward auto-cannibalism, Retromania, Simon Reynolds points to the theorist Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory of post production as a descriptor of where we’re headed culturally. Using DJs as an example – curators who “don’t engage in quotation, citation, or even referencing; they just ‘wander’ through history and take what they need” – Bourriaud suggests that actually all this remixing and collaging of culture to create new from old is entirely healthy. According to him, “overproduction is no longer seen as a problem but as a cultural ecosystem”.

Most relevantly, Bourriaud says that postproduction and its adherents seek to break down the division between production and consumption of culture: that’s exactly what’s happening with the Disney princesses and their many, many new guises.

There are few cultural figures which are guarded more fiercely and marketed more aggressively than the Disney princess stable, but given how broad the ‘remixed princess’ trope has become it’s clear that normal rules of authorship and ownership don’t really apply in the digital age.

Once, if you wanted to control how Disney’s characters looked and acted, you had to spend years training to be an artist, then get a job as an animator at the studio, then somehow wangle your way up into the editorial and commissioning process and get your own film. Now, you just need about 20 minutes, a ripped-off version of Photoshop, and some Flash animation software to make an interpretation of the princess’s’ adventures which reflects your reality.

While some re-envisioning of the princesses are banal, many make sharp political points. For instance, by redrawing the princesses as black women, artists highlight the Disney princess stable’s historic lack of ethnic diversity. Others show them with realistic body hair, realistic make-up, realistic waistlines, having their periods. It’s all deeply subversive of the rigid creator-consumer relationship (or seller-customer relationship, if you’re feeling particularly cynical) enjoyed by Disney and its fans.

By dismantling these paragons of innocence and a certain outdated version of virtue, at a time when millennials are coming to terms with their own adulthood, these postproduction artists are making the ultimate statement of fan ownership, and saying a great deal about the destabilised place of the author in meme culture. The princesses are no longer being sold to the fans; fans are remaking them in their own images.


Written by Tom Nicholson,

Features Contributor


Images via: DesignTaxi and LuckyPeach