Miss Bianca: The Ultimate Disney Princess

Miss Bianca: The Ultimate Disney Princess

Is Miss Bianca the greatest of all Disney Princesses?

WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT!!!

Disney Week is NOT OVER!

It’s been a long time since I wrote a standalone piece for Overthinking It (ask me about my hiatus at fenzel AT overthinkingit.com). I wanted to pitch in on a Think Tank ordering the Disney Princesses from most admirable to least admirable, when I realized I had something I wanted to share with you on its own (and my triumphant return to writing, and not just podcasting, for the site).

As for the Disney Princess ordering, I internally debated whether Pocahontas went at the top or the bottom of the list when I realized I didn’t care. And here’s why:

As far as I’m concerned, any conversation about admirable characters in Disney cartoons has to start with The Rescuers, and any discussion of admirable female characters in Disney animated features has to start with Miss Bianca. Miss Bianca is the Hungarian delegation to the Rescue Aid Society, a non-government organization founded by mice in Ancient Greece that, among other things, fights human trafficking, poaching, and child abuse. Their headquarters is in the shadow of the United Nations on the east side of New York City, and they appear to be the most single-minded, cooperative, and earnest international organization for the greater good in history.

Miss Bianca’s nationality is notable because, when The Rescuers was made in 1977, Hungary was a Warsaw Pact nation living under Soviet domination, still struggling with poverty and oppression in the aftermath of the failed 1956 revolution. Given her status as an international diplomat of sorts, as well as her obvious wealth — as shown in very tiny bottles of very fancy perfume — and no sign of interference from the pro-Soviet Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, Miss Bianca is most likely an emigre or living in exile, leaving her home country to swear her fealty to an organization to help the helpless and serve the greater good.

From the way their society hall is organized, it is apparent that least some of the function of the Rescue Aid Society is parliamentary as well as operational- that it deliberates policy and supervises a large infrastructure of informants, birds, and other related resources to help them execute on their decisions. Miss Bianca is clearly prominent in this organization from her place of honor at the meetings.

However, unlike the United Nations, when the Rescue Aid Society needs to go, say, rescue a little girl from slave labor at the hand of diamond smugglers, the delegates go themselves, flying on the backs of albatrosses, to physically extract the targets and return them to safety.

So, Miss Biance is a Cold War refugee/freedom fighter who helps run an international organization with the loftiest and most admirable aims ever, and when the situation calls for it, she personally flies anywhere in the world to conduct commando raids, despite being effectively unarmed, and a mouse in a world full of humans.

Representational versus figurative

In a historical, representational sense, The Rescuers asks, “What if, in addition to our institutions that look after the interests of the powerful, we had another, better institution the that looked after the interests of those nobody else looks out for – the truly helpless, the truly desperate, those in the direst of straits and the most grim of circumstances? What if the whole world got together and did that? And what if they were mice?”

The wold Miss Bianca is saving these children from is truly horrible. The scenes where Penny has to climb out of the cave before the tide rushes in are some of the scariest I ever saw in movies as a child. This isn’t a rose-colored faux-war against “the other” told in musical numbers with Eddie Murphy –

…Penny has to deal with legit, starchy, but played-straight child abuse.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-DU-64LI8w

In a figurative, artistic sense, The Rescuers asks, “What if you took the warping and distorting childhood horror and trauma at the heart of every Stephen King novel, and you put it in a cartoon, and you fixed it? What would it take?”

The whole childhood is a secret. The whole childhood is a nightmare…

It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, when there really is no haystack, but really just a big pile of needles.”

– Stephen King

What would it take to overcome that?

It would take courage, but also kindness. We would have to be as mice — think of ourselves as small — see in the suffering child our own potential helplessness — be the mouse taking the thorn from the lion’s paw.

The Rescue Aid Society is a shadow United Nations that represents what we might be — the unattained potential for good — the hope of salvation — the dream of a Rescuer.

Miss Bianca is a bit materialistic, a bit heteronormative, and yes, she is a mouse that wears fur (which is badass as well as creepy, if you ask me, but nobody did), but she is pretty much the awesomest person/mouse ever. Calling her to task for caring for enjoying luxury seems inappropriate given her life of sacrifice and the huge risks she so casually makes on behalf of the people who need her. She seems virtually fearless in the face of near-certain death (until actual certain death comes around, then she gets a little scared), and inspires courage and hope in all around her.

As so many, she too has a stupid love-plot where she sells herself a little short (heh mice) for a schlubby janitor. But she’s always the high-status person in the relationship, and she does seem to actually like him, so I’m not so sure it’s quite so bad to engage in some relationship choreography. Oh, and he also turns out to be the Will Hunting of janitors-turned-rescue commandos, so maybe she is just a good judge of character.

Next to Miss Bianca, the seriousness and scale of the Disney Princesses seems way off. You want to be Mulan, you play soccer as well as the boys. You want to be Belle, you read a lot and maybe marry somebody your friends don’t like. You want to be Miss Bianca, you take the foreign service exam and go on to be Secretary of State.

Oh, and she flies over New York city with Bob Newhart on the back of a talking bird, and if that’s not your dream I don’t know what you’re eating before bed.

I’ll add that Disney Princesses often have trouble reconciling their beauty with their personal agency — prettiness is normative and demands certain things of the people who have it. Miss Bianca is very attractive for a mouse (It’s implied by the narrative! The narrative!), but she is also very accomplished and capable, and she is able to have and enjoy the former sincerely without it too seriously impacting the latter.

And in The Rescuers Down Under, which isn’t quite as sophisticated as The Rescuers, Miss Bianca also shows she is mature enough to handle the presence of a mouse (kangaroo rat?) she is clearly attracted to, with that attraction being troublesome, but not some horrible huge sin. Yeah, it causes anxiety for Bernard, but Bianca shows an emotional independence from Bernard that almost no Disney Princesses shows without forcing themselves to do it. She’s much more emotionally mature and nuanced than a lot of other Disney characters.

The Princess is in Another Castle

Belinkie asked me about what it means that I attributed greater humanity and a greater degree of admiration to a Disney mouse than to a Disney Human Princess.

To me, iconography in cartoons is a major factor. The main point of a cartoon is to use animation and a reducing, simplifying visual style to offer easier-to-absorb representations or presentations of characters or ideas. This doesn’t necessarily mean the underlying ideas are simpler – in fact, cartoons can approach very complex ideas by making it easier for the brain to process the elements. Cartoonish character design tells you a lot about the characters before you even speak, because the visuals – the shapes, the colors, the style of movement – tell you a lot about the character before you meet them (a lot of triangles usually means mean or aggressive, a lot of circles usually means friendly, a lot of squares means strong).

Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is a seminal work of Overthinking, and I recommend it as fiercely as I recommend any work of criticsm.

You can use cartoons to articulate complex ideas, but the simplification has to happen somewhere. The Disney cartoons that depict animals are often more representational and dramatic than their cartoons depicting humans — perhaps because using animals gives the cartoon that extra space for stylistic removal from reality that otherwise you would get from simplifying the character design or depiction of the human. A simplified mouse that serves as a metaphor for a human is less reductive of a human than a simplified depiction of a human. A lot of feminist thinking is around the idea of “objectification” – and that’s kind of what cartoons and puppets do – represent people as objects – except when they represent them as animals.

But yeah, Perdita, Lady, Nala, Bianca, Bambi’s mom, all of these characters are richer, more textured, and “fairer” per minute of screen time than Belle, Ariel, Jasmine.

To Sell, and to Be Sold

“Disney Princess” isn’t a tool of the stories, it’s a marketing designation, which to me says it refers to the way mothers see their daughters and girls see themselves in an “anxiety relievable by purchase” sense. That is, you dress the girl up with a Disney Princess backpack because you want to assign value to her — you want her to see value in herself, you want to reflect the value you see in her to everybody else. The anxiety is that other people will not appreciate her value and she’ll be a mundane, unremarkable, unvalued person.

This anxiety runs afoul of a belief in the inherent dignity of humanity — if you are worried that if don’t identify yourself or your daughter as special, then people won’t value her enough, that tells me you don’t sufficiently value people who don’t self-identify as special or whom you don’t identify as special – and that you’ll cling to whatever you think makes you special out of the fear that if you lose it you will be normal and therefore not good enough.

Being defined by romantic love here is a form of requiring external validation — that you aren’t good enough just being you. This is also why Mulan fits in as a princess despite not being a princess – the archetypical Mulan Princess (as in, somebody who identifies with Mulan, Disney Princess and dresses in her schwag — not just somebody who likes the movie or character) isn’t comfortable with the role society wants to give her, so she denotes herself as special by challenging society, which turns out to show a lack of respect for people who aren’t sufficiently iconoclastic – which isn’t the most sincere way of going about fighting for social justice  – if that’s what you say you are fighting for (Mulan was just fighting the Huns, right? She was one imperialist against other imperialists?)

They can solve all this by making Rosasharn Joad a Disney Princess, including a Grapes of Wrath animated feature and a breastfeeding doll with old man accessory.

11 Comments on “Miss Bianca: The Ultimate Disney Princess”

  1. Timothy J Swann #

    Wow, this really puts my attempts to put Mulan at the top of that list in stark perspective.

    Reply

  2. linnea #

    Yes, Miss Bianca! I haven’t even thought about her in about twenty years.

    Whenever I see this stuff about Disney “princesses” I always wonder why Megara isn’t included. She’s from the right era (after Pocahontas and before Mulan), and she wears purple (a princess color), and we get the idea that she marries the son of Zeus, so why doesn’t she qualify? This is the woman who’s first line is “I’m a damsel. I’m in distress. I can handle this. Have a nice day!” Is this the wrong attitude for a Disney princess? Or is it her shady past/dealings with the devil (Hades) that get her cut?

    And, in spite of her opening line, is she an admirable princess? She seems to make a lot of her life decisions based on the men she’s interested in. She also shows some bad faith tendencies by denying her ability to stop herself from falling in love (“I won’t say I’m in love” becomes “at least outloud I won’t say I’m in love”). This is a dangerous spiral–from ex-boyfriend to Hades to Hercules, who she sacrifices herself for. Kind of leaves you with the question of whether she can really “handle this.”

    I want to see the list of princesses from most admirable to least admirable and I want Megara to be on it!

    Reply

    • cat #

      Well, mythology aside (which is very difficult for me as I need to pretend Hercules has nothing to do with Greek mythology to enjoy it) I would say that she probably doesn’t qualify because Hercules gives up being a god/demi-god to stay on earth with her. Also, all of the Disney princesses either start out as princesses or are the stars of their films (Cinderella, Tiana, Mulan).

      I don’t think Megara is supposed to be “admirable” exactly. Well, she’s supposed to be human and flawed and admirable because of how the plot resolves itself. It’s one of those grown-up Disney relationships like in Pocahontas. Sure, it’s a vague hinted at past but here’s a Disney heroine with a past who doesn’t have to stay a “fallen woman”. It’s about realizing that you don’t have to have one great love in your life and it doesn’t make you any less intelligent to try again. See: I Can’t Believe My Heart

      Reply

      • Gab #

        In Megara’s defense, though, two things when it comes to the “Disney Princess” brand itself.

        1) I do believe a few years back, there was a brief attempt at including her in the lineup. I recall a number of girly Meg items in the same area as the other Princess paraphernalia. Why it didn’t take, I couldn’t tell you.

        2) I don’t think the “adult relationship” works as a reason for them not including her if Pocahontas is the other example. She’s getting inserted into the uber-girly Princess stuff a lot, too, and the way around her indigenous history is marketing her in the British clothes she wears in the sequel- because hey, it’s a ball gown, right? So they have those group pictures of all the Princesses, and she’s sometimes in the background in a big pouffy dress (and she and Mulan seem to take turns being the Diversity Representative of the group). For example, while this is actually a fan site, it runs similar to some of the products out there now:

        http://www.disneyclips.com/beautyparlour/beautyparlour547.html

        Reply

        • cat #

          I wasn’t saying that the “adult relationship” was a reason she wasn’t included. I was referencing it as going towards the question of whether she’s an “admirable” character.

          I remember owning a Megara doll when I was little. She had a nice outfit with a string that you could pull to transition from a long gown to a short skirt and vice versa.

          Reply

          • Gab #

            Oh, I misinterpreted you, then. Sorry!

            That Megara doll was definitely in our household, too, as was the accompanying Herc…

  3. Crystal #

    I vehemently disagree with this representation of Mulan. Mulan aim to make her family proud by impressing the matchmaker. She fails because she doesn’t fit into her culture’s idea of femininity but she never shows any desire to act in a masculine way–circumstance forces her to assume a male persona. She risks her life to save the life of her father, then later risks her life to save the Emperor and all of the soldiers who had previously abandoned her.

    Saving your father’s life is damn good motivation. Perhaps not as admirable as saving innocent children, but it’s still up there.

    Reply

  4. Linden #

    I don’t know if it adds to the discussion of Miss Bianca’s movie portrayal to reference the books her character comes from, but I do think the differences are substantial.

    Miss Bianca is aware of the Rescue Aid Society in the books, but doesn’t want to get involved at first. She is the pet of a diplomat’s child (she’s not Hungarian, I think they made up that backstory for the movie to justify using Eva Gabor for her voice), and as such, the Rescue Aid Society recruits her to gain her access to diplomatic channels. There’s a great scene in the book where Bernard, the Aid Society’s liaison, calls on Miss Bianca at her home and is astounded by its luxury.

    Miss Bianca’s character evolves during the series to where instead of being just a pampered pet, she becomes a crusading badass whose main weapons are cleverness and charm. She has a great fondness for Bernard, but almost never allows her feelings to breach their class barrier. He, for his part, doesn’t try to convince her otherwise because he feels he’s beneath her. Much more complex than the movie, but generally that’s how it is when books are made into movies.

    Reply

  5. Frodo Baggins #

    This post convinced me to start regularly reading Overthinking It. Kudos.

    Reply

  6. Spankminister #

    It seems odd to accuse Bianca of essentially marrying beneath her station with “a schlubby janitor.” Isn’t part of the charm of the Rescuers that in addition to circumventing the usual sorts of international and cultural boundaries real organizations have, it also eliminates the class boundaries? Doesn’t the story show that every last member of The Rescuers, even the janitors, can show bravery and dedication to their cause?

    Reply

  7. Gab #

    I think you’re onto something with how the female animals are “better” females than the princesses in a number of ways. And not just in the movies, either. I’d much rather have a daughter take inspiration from a character like Gadget or Rebecca than Ariel or Snow White.

    Reply

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