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A Mishmash: Writing with Students and Resistance

I always do my best to write with my students. I do not like assigning writing tasks that I have not attempted myself, and I have never felt right asking students to write in class if I am not writing as well.

One of my current classes is a first-year honors writing class themed around the cultural rhetoric of Disney. Students are preparing to begin extensive research projects, and yesterday we began brainstorming different lines of inquiry they might consider using Disney as a jumping-off point. Like the students, I made a list of areas of interest, from disability and Disney to Disney’s most recent release, Moana. But the item on my list that I decided to pursue this year as I conduct research with my students involves what I decided to term the “princess resistance movement.” A few years ago, when my colleague and I began teaching this class, we both bought tshirts boldly emblazoned with “Self-Rescuing Princess,” and I recently went crazy with retail excitement over the tshirt in this picture—purchasing one for myself and each of my daughters.

It occurred to me as I was making my list that this was a type of resistance to the master princess narrative that critics of Disney often explore. It also occurred to me, however, that this might not be terribly effective resistance and that I might be complicit in some sort of retail/armchair feminism and guilty of not being inclusive in my “statements.”

My students have to write “emerging” research proposals and post them to our course Tumblr. They will write more developed proposals later this semester, but I want them to spend some time now writing about easily accessible conversations related to their initial ideas, the potential stakeholders in their research, and their actual research questions. Essentially, I want them to brainstorm outloud. So I thought I would give it a go as well, and here is my non-academic, process-based, emerging proposal for my Disney research this semester.

As both a Disney lover and a critic/scholar, I have always been interested in the ways princess culture influences our society. So it is probably not surprising that I also find myself investing in consumable goods that make statements about this culture. From “you can pee by me” tshirts to “rogue NASA” tshirts, there are an infinite number of ways to express political opinions via memes and consumable goods. Indeed, I am still waiting for a “nevertheless, she persisted” tshirt that I like and where the money goes to a real charity. There is a significant market for clothes and products that somehow acknowledge an interest in Disney but also make “feminist” statements. Thus my goal for this project is to think about what I am calling the “princess resistance movement,” to explore whether or not this can even be called a movement, its relationship (or not) to feminism, and the ways such a movement—and, therefore, I—might be complicit in a form of protest that serves only capitalism.

I became interested in this topic when I glanced down at my #squadgoals tshirt that listed the names Moana, Scout, Hermione, Moana, and Anne Shirley and realized that I was wearing a whitewashed version of what it means to be a strong female character (we will have to consider Moana something of a token minority), and it occurred to me (after I had purchased three of these tshirts) that the hashtag “#squadgoals” has an interesting, even if relatively recent, history of being another example of a phrase co-opted from black culture. See this Slate article, or this one from the Guardian for interesting perspectives. Thus, I decided that before I purchase yet another “statement tshirt,” I should think about these purchases a bit more extensively (damn if FB ads don’t get me every time though).

I googled “princess resistance movement” and I didn't find much to make me feel like this was actually a movement. There were a lot of Google images available, but most of them include Princess Leia (arguably Disney owned, but probably not the intent). Changing the search to “Disney princess resistance movement” meant more hits, the first of which I simply must share. But the few sites that popped up and included interesting information were, for the most part, blogs that critiqued Disney princesses. This suggests to me that while there is certainly a scholarly critique of the Disney princesses and there are personal blogs that take issue with Disney and gender identity, there is little in the way of a feminist movement that considers the heteronormative influence of Disney on gender identity and make it consumable for the public at large—except, that is, for actual products for consumer consumption.

This suggests a gap in scholarly and public discourse about what it means to resist, and through my research project, I hope to find ways to address what this type of “resistance” means, whether or not it is effective, and how we might encourage both more active resistance but also more productive resistance related to consumerism. Here are some of my initial research questions: What are some of the similarities between the princess resistance movement and other feminist online movements (e.g., “smash the patriarchy,” “nevertheless, she persisted,” etc.)? Is this a form of feminism? In what ways is the princess resistance movement open to the kinds of critique leveled against the feminist movement for not being inclusive? Does this “strand” of feminism further reinforce heteronormative identity politics? In what ways might we view this movement as just as $ driven as Disney itself? What is the demographic of people who participate in these types of critiques of Disney? Are there ways we see this movement taking place other than via consumer goods? In what ways has this movement been successful in pushing Disney to rethink the ways women are portrayed?

My research is going to include both popular research related to Disney (Disney and feminist blogs, as well as more mass marketed texts such as Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter) and academic research related to the Disney Princess movement, consumer culture and resistance movements, and recent critiques of feminism. I will also have to consider some research involving online movements and their effects. I think this project has a lot to add in terms of our understanding of what it really means when we hit “purchase” for the latest t-shirt we believe makes a statement. Here is the one I want to buy next, for preorder only (I just found this tshirt today). Maybe I am not the only person who had a moment of perspective when I put on my first #squadgoals shirt.

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