This afternoon I gave a presentation at Gikii, one of the most remarkable of conferences, where law meets technology meets science fiction and popular culture. It wasn’t exactly a serious presentation – the subject matter is Disney Princesses, after all – but there is a bit of a point to it to… I’ve put a video of the presentation below – as well as some notes to accompany it.
What does every princess need? A dress? A tiara? Glass slippers? A palace? A fairy Godmother? A handsome prince?
No. What every princess needs – what we all need – is autonomy. Every one of the Disney Princesses struggles to get the kind of life they want, pushed in ways they don’t want by powerful forces, by established norms, and by systems that seem designed to control them. How can they break free? How can they gain the autonomy they want? One key tool for all of them is to have more control over their privacy and their identity.
Snow White, the first of the Disney Princesses, had a vital need to protect her privacy. She was under surveillance by her stepmother, the Evil Queen. The Queen’s magic mirror was every bit as effective as PRISM in its ability to search out every face and perform a detailed analysis in order to determine who was the fairest of them all, and give the Queen all the details she needed to locate her and then track her down.
Cinderella had a different problem – her identity was stolen by her step-mother, who forced her to take up a false identity, under her stepmother’s control. This false identity had a huge impact on her autonomy, blocking her from finding what she wanted and needed. To solve her problems she had to create a new identity – using the magical assistance of her Fairy Godmother in order to get the life she deserves and wants.
Princess Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty, had problems with both privacy and identity. She needed privacy and had to live under a pseudonym, Briar Rose, to protect herself from the wrath of Maleficent, the bad fairy. It wasn’t until her sixteenth birthday that Maleficent finally caught her – but Maleficent only had all the forces of evil working for her: if she’d had the NSA she’d have caught Princess Aurora before she was out of swaddling clothes.
Belle – the heroine of Beauty and the Beast – is herself struggling with autonomy, wanting find something different from the ‘provincial life’ that she leads, but privacy and identity really come into play in relation to the Beast. Belle wants to protect the Beast’s privacy, but inadvertently lets the evil Gaston see the Beast. The Beast is profiled by Gaston, and given the full torches and pitchforks treatment. It’s not just evil witch-queens that we need to worry about surveillance from – sometime privacy invasions from those we love can end up damaging us.
Jasmine, the daughter of the Sultan in Aladdin, finds her autonomy severely curtailed. In order to try to escape the marriage the norms require of her, has to try to create a new identity for herself. The same, in a different way is true for Aladdin – he needs the false identity of Prince Ali to get into the position to let his real identity shine through. Note that like so many of those on the Dark Side, the evil Vizier Jafar uses surveillance as part of his machinations.
Ariel, the Little Mermaid, creates a new identity for herself (as a human) to get the kind of life she wants. She was always fascinated by humanity – magic allowed her to experience it. Online, the ability to create and use your online identity can give you some of that magic – while policies such as that of Facebook that demands real names and ‘real’ identities take away that magic.
The issues for Pocahontas were all about identity – but a different aspect of identity, the need to be able to assert your identity. Pocahontas needed to say ‘this is me’, that she wasn’t the savage that the English settlers thought she was based on their inaccurate profiling and prejudicial assumptions. Assertion of identity – and overcoming these kinds of presumptions, is crucial to online autonomy.
Mulan’s problems were also about identity, but from a very different perspective. She had to create a new identity – as a boy rather than a girl – in order to protect her father from disgrace, and she needed privacy in order to protect this identity and not have her ‘real’ identity revealed. There can be good reasons to allow pseudonymity – and to protect privacy. It’s worth noting that Mulan’s eventual identity combines elements of both the original the created identities.
Tiana, from the Princess and the Frog, had another identity problem. When she kissed her frog, it wasn’t the frog that became a prince but the ‘princess’ who became a frog. Just like Cinderella, she had a new identity thrust upon her, one that she didn’t like and didn’t want – and it took a great struggle and a good deal of magical assistance to find her way to becoming human again.
Rapunzel, the heroine of Tangled, had a different kind of privacy problem: she had a kind of privacy forced upon her when she was locked away in a tower. She needed to find a way to escape: it is important to understand that privacy is not just about hiding, but about having the ability to decide how and when information about yourself is made available and to whom.
Princess Leia – now a Disney Princess since Disney’s acquisition of the rights to Star Wars – has a desperate need for privacy and for the protection for her identity, though she herself is not even aware of it. She needs the kind of privacy that many children need – privacy from her parents, and in particular from her father, Darth Vader! The way that children need privacy from their parents – indeed, that they have a right to privacy from their parents – is often missed or misunderstood. Not all parents are benign, and even if they are, children often need privacy from them.
Last, but by no means least is Merida, the heroine of Brave. Merida’s whole story is about autonomy and identity – she wants to forge her own identity, one very different from the identity chosen for her by her mother. She wants to claim her own kind of life, one in which she has autonomy. Merida is able to do this partly through the use of magic, partly through sheer force of will, and partly, in the end, through changing the law…
But they’re only fictional princesses…
Yes, they are, and yes, to a great extent they’re clichéd, they’re sexist and so on – though given the dates that many of them were created (Snow White dates back to 1937) some of that can be overstated, but even so they still resonate with many people. They hint at things we all need – particularly those of us who don’t feel in control of our lives, which ultimately is most of us! We all need privacy, we all need control over our identity – sometimes to conceal it temporarily, sometimes to forge new identities. We may not face evil magicians, dragons or worse, but even so we do face challenges that privacy and protection and control over identity can help to solve.
The analogies between what the princesses face and the online world are fairly direct. The way in which many face surveillance. The ways in which they often need magical assistance to gain control over their identities is analogous to the way that the technology of the internet can allow people to create and control their online identities. The forces that oppose the princesses are analogous to the forces that face many of us online – authorities wanting to get information about us and control our activities, commercial forces wanting to make us follow a particular line in order to buy their products or use their services, friends, relations (or even enemies) wanting to know more about us and so forth. The risks are analogous too.
It’s worth noting that as shown above, there are privacy or identity issues with all of the Disney Princesses. Every single one. It’s also worth noting that not only do the films come from a great span of time, but the stories from which the films are taken come from all over the world, and from many different times. Mulan, for example, was inspired by what is believed to be a true story from as long ago as the 4th century AD. These are perennial issues, and perennial problems. The need for privacy and the protection of identity really is a tale as old as time.