Q&A: Author Emily Zemler Dives Into The Rich History Of Disney Princesses In Beautiful New Book

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The long and storied history of Disney princesses may seem like a topic that has been touched upon deeply. But under the skilful disguise of author-turned journalist Emily Zemler, it turns out there’s still a lot to discover.

In Zemler’s thoughtful, thoroughly researched, compelling and beautifully illustrated new coffee table book, Disney Princess: Beyond The TiaraZemler explores the long history of iconic Disney characters, from Snow White to Ariel, through a myriad of lenses, from marketing and how they fit into their eras to today’s perspective.

I talked at length with Zemler about which princess she wanted to be as a child, how princesses have changed over the decades, why everyone wants to be a Disney princess and much more.

Steve Baltin: When did you start the book?

Emily Zemler: In January 2021 I was approached about this book, which was a perfect moment for me because nothing happened at all. So much had been interrupted during the pandemic and so much work had been lost. I had worked on a lot of stuff for Disney Publishing, and [a publisher who is at their Disney licensee Portal] recommended me for this book. The whole idea was, “Can we write a book about the cultural history of the Disney princess? And if so, what does that look like?” And that was it. I had a marketing copy and then I had to think, “What kind of book is this?” That took some time. And I did a lot of writing last spring, there was a really long review and editing process last summer, and then there was a long process of selecting layouts and photos and writing captions, and we were honest about this until the day it went to the press earlier this year.

Baltin: What princess did you want to be when you were growing up?

Zemler: I think my answer is very generic, but it was Ariel, I was absolutely desperate to be Ariel. I loved The little Mermaid so deep, and she was so feisty and such a little rebel and she just went about doing what she wanted. But not only that, her hair looked really good in the water. And like everyone I know, any girl I know, maybe guys too, would step in the pool and you’d wave your hair like you were Ariel. Yes, she was my first right away. I loved them all, but she was the one I really bonded with. So obviously it was crazy that Jodi Benson wrote the foreword to this because Ariel called my cell phone, and she sounds like Ariel.

Baltin: Do you know why they approached you to do this? Did you write a lot about princesses or Disney?

Zemler: I had a lot of things that I had done with Disney. So I wrote the “Art” and “Making Of” aladdin for the live action aladdin movie, The Guy Ritchie movie, so I had one of their “Art” and “Making Of” books done. And then Disney hired me. You’d never know I’d written this one, but on Blu-Ray special edition DVDs, I’ve written these little mini “Making Of” features. So if you own the live action Blu-Ray Mulan, you might come across something I wrote. So they knew I had a long understanding of Disney properties and how Disney expresses them. I think they were just looking for someone to take a fresh look at it because there are a few writers who have written all the books about Disney princesses. I won’t name names, but there are only a few men who have written most of the “Making Of” books for the movies and the other Disney princess books, so I think they were ready for a younger and more feminine perspective on it. topic .

Baltin: What were the main things that came out that surprised you while writing the book?

Zemler: You start to remember seeing all those movies and then you realize you know all the rules and all the numbers, and that can take you on different paths. But I literally re-watched everything. I’ve rewatched every animated movie, every sequel, every live action, every TV show spin-off, every weird interpretation, like Disney Channel descendants. And so I realized that I knew all the characters very well, but I didn’t necessarily know the extremes of their influence. So I wasn’t that familiar with how far they had gone in the culture. And I remembered watching several “Making Of” videos, so you learned a little bit about the animation and you learned who spoke them. But honestly, I had no idea how far the Disney princesses have gotten themselves into our culture.

Baltin: What makes everyone want to be a Disney princess?

Zemler: It’s not just women who feel that, because I’ve also talked to people who identify as men, especially Ariel is a gay icon. And why we want to be them is because they make dreams come true, and it’s a way for us to live vicariously through them. So like Ariel is a fantastically beautiful creature who is a mermaid, and she has a talking fish friend and a talking seagull friend, and how nice is that? But then she also dreams of something bigger. And I know The little Mermaid can be characterized as, “Oh, she’s giving up her voice for a man.” But I don’t really think that’s what happens because she knew about people and wanted to be human long before she saw Prince Eric. So I think Disney princesses are keys to what we want to be, and they show us that we can dream really big too. As we too can wear a beautiful ball gown, which many women then do on their wedding day, trying to evoke a Disney princess. Or celebrities do it on the red carpet, in their Cinderella dress. So it’s like this idea of, “Wow, that’s a great character with a great journey. What if I could have that?”

Baltin: Which princess do you want to be now?

Zemler: I have to say that I really admire Tiana. Really like Tiana. The Princess and the Frog came out after I was no longer a kid, so I had a different experience with that movie. But when you go back and see that, it’s really nice. The songs are really nice, the characters are really nice, she gets a great dress. And I really like that she’s presented like this, like, “If you work really hard, you’ll make your dreams come true.” I think you and I can both relate to that. Work very hard, you will probably make it. You have to make an effort. So I really like her. I really like Rapunzel in confused. I think she just has a fun, free-spirited vibe to her. Some Disney princesses have those really dark stories and you’re a little worried about them. And Rapunzel’s backstory is a little dark, but she’s just so optimistic and carefree.

Baltin: What was your first Disney movie growing up?

Zemler: I think it was in the theater Sleeping Beauty. It was reissued because they re-released the films in theaters every few years. If I remember correctly, I was taken to see Sleeping Beauty at the theater, and I got so scared of the dragon that I had to be knocked out.

Baltin: Remember the first time you were wiped out?

Zemler: In terms of being in the theater, it was probably The little Mermaid. Because I remember going with my uncle, and we had to sit in the front row because it was so packed. So I was probably literally immersed in it because I was stuck in the front row. And then of course I would have seen some of the others on VHS at home, but I think that’s a different experience than being in the theater.

Baltin: Could you have imagined that all these years later you would have a book about Disney princesses?

Zemler: No, absolutely not. I never, never thought that. And I’ve done these interviews, and people said, “How has this book enabled you to fulfill your Disney princess dream?” And I don’t really know the answer to that. Because when I was a kid, I didn’t want to be a writer, I wanted to be a filmmaker. And obviously I was always in touch with film, and I always felt like a resonance of a story on the screen. But yeah, I don’t think I ever thought this is where my career path would have taken me. I think my writing career has taken a lot of weird turns. I wrote the obituary of the Queen of England. As if, you know, that’s a little unexpected.

Baltin: Tell me about the pictures in the book.

Zemler: It’s a coffee table book that’s very visual. I was pretty involved in sorting out all the pictures, and there were some pictures that I fought for in the book because I just felt you don’t understand the scope of the range unless you see a picture of Snow White branded ammonia. If I just say to you, “Yeah, there used to be Snow White cleaning products.” You’ll say, “Okay, that’s weird.” But if I show you a picture of Snow White ammonia and Snow White bleach, that’s crazy. That’s how much that movie sold, and that was before Star Wars was sold.

Baltin: Are there any princesses before you that you are amazed at the way they have aged?

Zemler: One of the most important things for me to write this is that I think I’ve come to appreciate each of the princesses more. When you grow up it’s kind of those cute characters that you like and you want to wear their outfits and be friends with their animal friends. But if you look back at them with a more critical lens, you can understand the idea that they were a reflection of time. So when Snow White was created, it wasn’t necessarily that society expected women to be housewives, it was just considered a certain kind of ideal, that a really good cleaner and a friendly companion would be the ideals of women at the time. been. So that doesn’t make her problematic, it just means she was made at a certain time. She was created at the same time as Shirley Temple, which doesn’t necessarily resonate with the same values ​​we have today. So I really appreciated each of the princesses that I might not have, like I said with Ariel and the prince, she doesn’t just give up her voice for a man. She is giving up her vote because he represents a world she wants to be a part of. And that’s, I think, a better way to look at that story. And it’s not that you can’t criticize the characters, or say, “We don’t want those kinds of characters on screen anymore,” but I think it’s helpful to see them as the product of their time, and Disney is watching like that too. You can tell by the way they have adapted them to the current era. So when they created the Disney Princess franchise, which is the kind of official grouping of the characters for marketing purposes, they were able to customize the characters and highlight some of their more important traits. So the characters get a little more adventurous in the marketing, or they get toys that reflect characteristics of the characters that might not have been highlighted at the time. They’re really starting to make collections that are more inspired by the character of the movie. Recently there was a Frozen shoe collection for Frozen 2. That was Ruthie Davis. Those were really cool. They also did a Mulan collection with Ruthie Davis that they are just like these giant platform heels, they are really funky. Really cool. In the toy chapter, I try to think. I really liked the Lego sets. One that I really liked, and which you can still find in Target or Walmart, is a bow and arrow for Rapunzel. I couldn’t find guns when I was a kid, they were for boys. Like boys should have light sabers or bows and arrows, but girls don’t. And I love the idea that a young girl can go into the store and get a bow and arrow from Rapunzel.

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