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Monday, 15 October 2012

First World Princess Problems: Disney, Entitlement, and the Hipster Movement

Hello hello!

I am back once again with the blog post I promised earlier this week. With a fairly sizeable American Apparel store on the way to work, hipsters are pretty visible as a part of my daily life. The movement wasn't one that I understood at first. I saw the fashion, heard some of the music--unless it was too obscure, of course--and set my brain to work, trying to comprehend it.

Source. This is pretty much half of your basic hipster wardrobe; however, fedoras, oddly-fitting 70s blouses, ludicrously high-cut pants, and chunky plastic jewelry are also mainstays. Oh, and those goddamn mustaches. Mustaches everywhere.

Part 1: Observing Hipsters

I could tell there was a trend going on, and I recognized the impact of Japanese fashion on its style, but there, my understanding ended. Thick-rimmed glasses and a mishmash of stylistic references to different eras that were combined into a decidedly unique look, generally involving Apple products. Hipster fashion was everywhere, growing each day, and yet, to be called a hipster was an insult. The look is praised and derided in the same breath. It has managed to retain an exclusive cachet even as overweight North Americans everywhere are trying to squeeze into sterility- and embolism-inducing skinny jeans.

Just in case you, dear reader, are confused by the term hipster, I'll provide a brief description of the word's application in most modern contexts. The current hipster look and attitude are stereotypically characterized by exclusivity, streamlined clothing cut for those with a lower-than-average BMI, expensive electronics, obscure music by mostly independent artists, and the traditional snarkiness every cool group displays at its zenith. Skinny jeans and an androgynous look are generally the norm, and a pseudo-worldly display of international interests combined with affected quirkiness are hallmarks of the attitude that matches the clothing.

Of course, this description is leaving out the history of the hipster, which is an evolving movement that takes its roots from Jack Kerouac and other Beat poets, as well as from Andy Warhol's Factory crew. Still, don't let the description fool you--most hipsters are, as with any trend, far less extreme than in typical descriptions, and quite a few people can make the fashions work without having to display the less tasteful aspects of the attitude.

I'm going to touch on a previous column, which dealt with cultural appropriation and skimmed over how to avoid it. I mention it because affecting 'tribal' styles without a specific ethnic origin and using 'first Nations inspired' designs, such as feather headdresses, are common to hipster styles. A lot of important touchstones for non-Euro-American cultures that happen to look cool get borrowed and recycled in the hipster look. I don't think I need to explain why using sacred or culturally sacred symbols for casual fashion is bad and pretty disrespectful.

Still, because I don't want to rehash what most of the internet has been bitching about for the last couple of years, I'm going to skip ahead to the part that involves Disney. We all love Disney, right?

Source. There's your overlap. You've been warned.

Part 2: Disney Princesses

A few friends of mine have started to rear their own offspring, and the rest--including me--still use this and any other excuse to enjoy some Disney nostalgia. There's no getting around it--ostensibly evil, money-grubbing, exploitative corporation or no, Disney is a company that makes a good kid's movie. I'm not going to get full-bore feminist on everyone's asses, and we'll talk more about why Disney is both very good and very bad another time, but the fact remains that good songs and good animation resulted in some good movies.

The princess movies in particular have done a surprisingly good job of surviving their over-marketing. In spite of being saturated with merchandise and sequels related to the roughly grouped stories based on carefully retold fairy tales, we aren't sick of them yet. The beauty of The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, or even the somewhat condescending Princess and the Frog film still remain, even with the faults of the films.

I hate to gut something that formed such an essential part of so many childhoods, and I hate to restate the obvious or oft-said even more, but the princess films have also done a fair bit of damage to our psyches. In addition to the body issues, the presentation of love as the end-all and be-all of life, and the easy solutions, the princesses generally had to put in only token effort to have the world delivered to their feet. Perhaps it is natural, then, that movies associated with white privilege and the style associated with white privilege have overlapped so neatly.

The thing is, the princesses always sought 'more', a certain meaningfulness to their lives that they just couldn't put in place. Belle was unfashionably intelligent; Ariel, curious about a culture she was restricted from interacting with; and Jasmine, unwilling to hide from the world once she'd gotten a taste of life beyond her castle walls. The older princess films were made in a time when marriage was the only thing that mattered, and the newer films have been made with Disney trying to compensate for its past failures, so they lack the soul-searching elements that made the 90s era Disney Renaissance films so good.

Source. More dress-up time, to give your brain a quick rest and some fashion candy.

Part 3: The Point

You were probably wondering how these two were linked, and whether the entire post was an excuse to show these drawings. (It wasn't, I promise.) The hipster movement's roots had to do with disaffectation with privilege, and its current manifestation is both reliant on Western wealth and Western discomfort with this wealth. Yes, we're currently experiencing a job crisis in America, but up here in Canada and down in the States, most people still have enough money for that iPhone, and will still make sure that their second-hand clothing is fashionably tight.

For young women at the moment, then, whether we're comfortably swaddled in the illusion of security that university provides or out and learning the joys of long-term work in retail, these films still resound. Those of us who were born into the 90s or 80s, we 'millenials', were promised the world. And, having gotten it, or having had it snatched away by , we want 'more', a thing we can't put a name to but keep searching for. Like the girls wandering around their family's gardens and singing about their discontent, many of us feel incomplete.

The hipster movement soothes these feelings nicely, with its concentration on aesthetics and arbitrary acceptance and rejection system. The stories that resounded with us as children still resound now, well after their appeal should have expired, for the simple reason that we are trying to find meaning, and failing.

At times like this, it's hard not to scowl and point to people like Malala Yousafzai, one of millions of girls who would kill for the educational opportunities that we grudgingly endure and even squander here. What the hell are we complaining about, one might ask, and not without reason. Privilege, though, and the easy access to money, social supports, and parental back-up plans, are their own traps. The disintegration of these backup plans as the economy has failed hasn't really fixed the problem of growing up in a world where life is easy and hard questions are optional.

Am I saying that the answer to our desire for 'more' is activism rather than indifference? Well, possibly. It certainly beats settling into that sufficient job and sufficient house and wondering why being able to afford most of one's wants just isn't satisfactory. The thing that gives someone's life a meaning may be something big, like getting equal educational opportunities for women, or it might be something smaller, like making art. Still, if there's one thing we can learn from the princesses and the hipsters, it's that ambient levels of wealth won't keep us happy, or keep us from looking for something more significant. Romantic love alone certainly isn't the answer, but there are answers out there. Looking, and looking beyond the next iProduct upgrade or temporary entertainment, is the only way to find that vague yet recognizeable quantity, "More". "More"--it's the new American dream.


Thanks for returning and patiently waiting for your late Sunday night fix. You can get "more" --and by that I mean MOAR, of course--Twitter and on Tumblr. Don't forget to check back for short stories, more politics, analysis, scraps of science, and even some reviews. This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!


  1. I swear, they must have read your article. How about a DIFFERENT look at princesses? :P

  2. They left out Mulan getting married to her commander, and fictional Pocahontas' NOT staying with John Smith forever, but yeah, this does a pretty good job of summarizing the progress the princess movies have slowly made. However, it really underlines that bit about mistaking love for the meaning of life.

  3. Hipsters, man. For a historical perspective on the evolution of self actualization (as a concept) the documentary The Century of Self is enlightening, and unsettling. It will give you a good perspective on why a big greedy corporation like Disney decided to give their princesses more agency. There's a good write-up and links here: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2010/02/01/the-century-of-the-self/


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