In a presidential campaign where fantasy and reality are constantly clashing, the memeification of Bernie Sanders is a strange phenomenon. The fervent need to declare Sanders the most authentic presidential candidate falls somewhere between hysteria and deification. But now the Sanders phenomenon has reached a climactic moment. Sanders statistically probably won’t be the Democratic nominee but his perceived authenticity is still attracting rabid support.
Birdie Sanders, the meme that emerged after a bird landed on the podium as Sanders gave a speech in Portland, illustrates the spectacle surrounding his candidacy. The audience reaction, seen above, is mesmerizing. It is unreal. It is literally the unabashed fandom reserved for Tumblr manifesting itself at a political rally.
It’s also reminiscent of a trope commonly found in several Disney Princess movies.
The visual comparison between Birdie Sanders and Disney Princesses found its way into the subsequent meme; Buzzfeed posted several “amazing” examples. Like anything driven by nostalgia and the Internet, people were entertained by the comparison. But Birdie Sanders is not an adorable intersection of politics and pop culture. These memes do nothing more than show how the Disney Princess movie is almost always perceived as a charming fairy tale. The false nostalgia from childhood clouds the memory and value of deconstructing these movies.
Disney films and the role of the Disney Princess are a representation of prevailing American ideologies and myths. This is especially true of Disney films from the 1930s and 1940s which reflected the national mood at the time. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) elevated the fairy tale and debuted the “fantastical power of Disney’s animation”. According to Tracey Mollet, “[Walt] Disney used a focal point in 1930s culture, the tradition of musical film, to rally Americans to the cause of his fairy tale” (121). And so, the film popularized myths about the character of the American people, beginning with Snow White who “infuses hope and positivity into a society struggling with the Depression” (111). As Mollet explains, Snow White simply accepts her situation with patience and virtue until in the absence of material wealth, her spirit and love for Prince Charming triumphs (116).
Moreover, in Snow White, we see how the Wicked Queen is the embodiment of selfish individualism. The Dwarfs represent the success of collective work, stemming from the New Deal. They are also heroes, who adopt Snow White’s positive outlook and together, they defeat evil. Most tellingly, the Dwarfs cottage is a reimagining of the Jeffersonian pastoral, promoting “rural idealism” and “a utopian vision that could never and would never be attained” (120). This is all the American Dream in a sanitized Disney format.
Beyond its representation of a Depression Era mentality and the American Dream, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuts the myth of the Disney Princess. Snow White is introduced as “the fairest one of all”. By the time she and some woodland animals sing “With a Smile and a Song,” with surprising optimism for someone who almost just murdered, the myth has been fully realized for every Disney Princess to come.
Snow White is marketed as the first Disney Princess and since the early 2000s, the Disney Princesses have become a media franchise like no other. It encompasses movies, animated tv shows, dolls, clothes, home decor and anything else you can imagine. It’s a $5.5 billion set of squad goals that directly clashes with postmodern feminism and causes you to pause when a 4-year-old asks you to dress her Princess Jasmine Barbie in a wedding gown. (You hate it, but you always dress that Barbie, don’t you?)
Like all Disney fairy tales, the Disney Princess takes part in the reformation of the American dream. She is valued for her kindness, her beauty, her bravery, her special connection to animals who become her protectors. But only because she alone can save the patriarchal rule of a kingdom through marriage and eventually producing a male heir.
The Disney Princess is a fantasy that shapes cultural gender ideologies.
Bernie Sanders is a Disney Princess, too, and not because a bird anointed him one. His campaign is a fantasy, capitalizing on the anxieties of marginalized communities and the ideals of progressives. It is not a political revolution.
Is it wrong to believe in the Sanders fantasy? No. What Sanders is selling is a good idea for the future of the United States. It’s a shift from the ideological narratives that have shaped the American national consciousness. There has never been a collective questioning of what that really entails until this election. It’s exposing the systemic issues plaguing the United States. It’s a dream that could (don’t tell Trump) actually Make America Great Again.
But the Sanders campaign promises are also “fantasy football for wonks“. These promises, as Ezra Klein wrote for Vox, suggest that Sanders: “isn’t very interested in learning the weak points in his ideas, that he hasn’t surrounded himself with people who police the limits between what they wish were true and what the best evidence says is true, that he doesn’t seek out counterarguments to his instincts, that he’s attracted to strategies that align with his hopes for American politics rather than what we know about American politics. And these tendencies, if they persist, can turn good values into bad policies and an inspiring candidate into a bad president.”
Sure, it’s just as plausible that Sanders supporters aren’t dreaming, they’re thinking. It is also plausible that maybe this election, which feels more like the apocalypse every day, will push Americans to vote in droves, fully participate in democracy and transform America so that it is “a government of the people, for the people, by the people”. But real talk, voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election broke records; by 2009, voter turnout was business as usual. If you don’t engage with the political system beyond presidential campaigns, then political revolutions cannot happen. Fantasies remain fantasies.
When this election is finally over, what will resonate is the rise of authoritarianism in American politics, the creation of a culture of fear reminiscent to the climate after 9/11, and the revelation, once again, that gender politics in America can derail a woman from ever being president.
There are no Fairy Godmothers to guide the Princess to the ball and the Happily Ever After promised by any presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, isn’t attainable.
For more see: “With a smile and a song…” Walt Disney and the Birth of the American Fairy Tale, Tracey Mollet, 2013.