Save the Witches, burn the princesses
The princess is an idealized fiction. As a genre it amounts to little more than love stories to an elite, but individually helpless, class of woman who centers their life on whatever man might offer excitement or the possibility of feeling a sense of achievement. In children’s animation, it becomes a kind stand-in for the lack of social imagination. Disney fails because it cannot find a creative and fun way to show how a woman (or anyone for that matter) might live an awesome an amazing life in the world in which we inhabit.
Instead, the princess films focus on imagined pasts, in which rulers were accompanied by pearled and pink lovelies, who met the stares of male lust with quivering eyes and could do no wrong, because they did nothing. They had no effect on society, and the only energies they expelled were in pursuit of a man either consciously or unconsciously.
In contrast, the world of the witch is one of action, experiment and the conjuring of possibilities. Witches don’t long for masculine approval and affection, nor do they sing for their own rescue. Their songs are about making and remaking, digging into the dirt and making something happen. They can be glamorous or cringe-worthy in their grossness, but since they serve themselves and their communities –it’s not the surfaces that matter so much.
If you were going to save the world, you would choose a witch to be among your assembled heroes. Let the princesses stay home. In fact, if you were to save the world, you might as well burn the princesses.
I imagine how much more free and progressive the world would be had the residents of Salem burned those girls alive for their glass slipper-ed appeals to a return to monarchy. I imagine school children everywhere tediously being forced to read Cotton Mather’s accounts of the Memorable Providences that led so many young innocents into the purple-lined fray of coronations and divine rights.
It is with this in mind that my wife and I manage the release of pre-school pop culture into our home. With a daughter at the age of 4 and just a few small weeks to 5 years of age, we have seen of late the insidious creep of Disney into our home. It starts innocently, a pair of branded slippers here, a pack of crayons there, and then suddenly a tiara arrives and with it the particularly pinkish hell of princesses. And of course with the merchandise comes the beautiful, but rather awful films and their backward looking devotion to elitism and gloss over substance.
In our case, we do believe we have uncovered an anaphrodisiac to the pinked-up sexuality of the Disney princesses. And it has come in the form of a young witch named Kiki in the film known in English as Kiki’s Delivery Service.
This film, a classic of Miyazaki Hayao’s Ghibli Studio, is based on the novel by Kadono Eiko which is rather well-known and appreciated in Japan. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a tale very clearly placed in a time much like ours (albeit an idealized now). And Kiki herself is a balance between a respect for past traditions – she knows she is a witch, and she knows what that means for her, and a desire to break molds and push into the future – she cries to her mother about the traditional clothes she is required to wear.
The story, much like witches, is the opposite of a princess’s tale. Kiki leaves her family behind to go and find herself, to make her way in the world. There are no old debts from her parents hanging over her, no kidnappings, or evil entities conspiring against her. There is only the world, and herself and her talents. Kiki’s tale unfolds like the rosey-eyed memoir of an entrepreneur or artist, she survives not by her magic, but by building relationships, hard work, and a keen eye for possibility.
Kiki doesn’t quiver her eyes to some potential prince, quite the opposite, she instead opens a business and makes a life. The stories greatness is in Kiki’s battle with herself and her confidence. The romantic interest in the story is a young boy more interested in talking with Kiki about what she can do, and their shared interest in flight, rather then in pursuing romance. And Kiki can only contemplate the relationship once she gains some confidence in herself.
I feel Kiki meets the challenge laid out by Gloria Steinem when she said that “Far too many people are looking for the right person, instead of trying to be the right person.”
My daughter has taken to Kiki quite intensely, and it does warm me to see her leaving the tiaras behind to attempt to fly on a broom, which in our house is often in fact a swiffer, but we have convinced her that this is an acceptable in-door alternative. Outside though she has full broom access, and we have a nice traditional straw broom – no fake colored nylon here. She does long to emulate Kiki’s clothing, and her familiar, and we oblige to the level we can and to the level we agree is acceptable – ie. one does not get to sleep with the swiffer.
My daughter I think understands that while the princesses dress well, they ultimately just wait around, they are played on by others, and then wait some more. Kiki, in contrast, acts. She moves and makes decisions, she is free and she fucking flies.
We are not without a little fear of this however. My daughter will gleefully chat up anyone onto the merits of Kiki and her familiar, Jiji. And we always have to question whether these listeners don’t subscribe to the podcast of some modern day Cotton Mathers. The princesses are historically speaking, the torch wielders. They are loved for their beauty, and most definitely their quiet. Witches of course as we all know, stir the pot, and that makes them very likely to be on the receiving end of flames.
We also have our trepidations about the commercialism and the directed accumulation of things that is certainly apart of Kiki’s world (in Japan at least), and we certainly don’t imagine Kiki to be the be all end all of stories. There are quite a few witches left for my daughter to explore, and I certainly wonder what she will make of Miwa Yanagi and her Fairy Tale Series. In any event, We do though recognize the princess-y alternative as the dim road to narratives to the past.
The world is what it is, and the longing for greater status, or romantic relationships as its salve, seems both foolish and sublimating. The future of girls (and boys) belongs to the witches, those willing and able to set out on their own, find their own way, find themselves, and create their own magic.