When the feminist discussion turns to things like AIDS and FGM and honor-killing I tend to get real quiet and depressed and all I can do is stuff like micro-loans and sister sponsorship and tell you how great and easy they are to do and how women have to change women’s lives because men can’t do it for us and you should go there right now RIGHT NOW.
So I hope this explains why I’m about to drop 500 words on Disney Princesses.
What the crap I am talking about when I say ‘Disney Princesses’
I read this New York Times article which conflates the explosive popularity of Disney Princesses with all sorts of other raising-little-girls-in-America issues:
More to the point, when my own girl makes her daily beeline for the dress-up corner of her preschool classroom â€” something Iâ€™m convinced she does largely to torture me â€” I worry about what playing Little Mermaid is teaching her. Iâ€™ve spent much of my career writing about experiences that undermine girlsâ€™ well-being, warning parents that a preoccupation with body and beauty (encouraged by films, TV, magazines and, yes, toys) is perilous to their daughtersâ€™ mental and physical health. Am I now supposed to shrug and forget all that? If trafficking in stereotypes doesnâ€™t matter at 3, when does it matter? At 6? Eight? Thirteen?
(Now, certainly there are other issues with the Disney Princess mythos, like how they’re part of a universe that remains hella white and hetero, but that’s for another day.)
It reminded me of arguing with my mom about “Enchanted,” which I confess is highly entertaining despite being highly irritating: I said the movie hammers the message that, for a little girl, it’s better to get married than to have a career. Mom said that when I got older I’d understand that a job isn’t everything and family is all you have.
Allow me to rephrase.
“Enchanted” hammers a message that it’s better for a little girl to get married than to be Marie Curie.
Allow me to rephrase.
The Disney Princess trend hammers a message that it’s better for a little girl to get married than to be a hero.
Ariel not cool you said you weren’t gonna wear pink OMG!
There is no heroism in a princess marriage. I think getting married in real life takes a kind of courage and faith that is truly heroic, but that’s not what princess marriages are about.
RAISING KIDS is certainly heroic; from what I can tell it seems like getting offspring through the day healthy and happy is a miracle on the order of magnitude of life itself. But princess marriage is hella not about raising kids.
The difference between a princess and a hero is why Pocahontas and Mulan rarely and barely make the cut, and why when they put Belle on the box they make sure she’s in that yellow dress she wore on that ONE DATE that ONE TIME.
What is that difference?
A hero is unselfish and takes initiative. A princess is self-centered and passive.
Let’s take a look at our princesses:
|Snow White||The originator of “some day my prince will come.” She’s named after the way she looks. Good-natured. Sensitive. Cleans a lot. She cries. She flees. A dude rescues her. How can she help anyone else when she can’t help herself? She cleans, which is helpful, but only fair for crashing at the dwarves’ place and nearly dying and stuff. Eh, whaddaya expect — it was 1937.||1||0|
|Cinderella||Also named after the way she looks. Good-natured. Sensitive. Cleans a lot. She cries. She flees. Magic old lady rescues her. Mice rescue her. Dude rescues her. Honk shu.||1||0|
|Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)||Good-natured. Sensitive. Gets born, gets cursed, sharks out. Dude rescues her. At least she gets places on time. Prime motivator seems to be following instructions.||1||1|
|Ariel||Ariel seeks help from Ursula, and TOTALLY RISKS HER LIFE TO SAVE A DUDE. Ariel may be shorter on wits than Jasmine, but have you seen the end of Splash? Still, Ariel seems insensitive to the feelings of others, being chronically late to family gatherings and nearly getting Flounder eaten by a shark.||5||7|
|Jasmine||Jasmine sneaks out of the house on her own impetus, which is bold but hella selfish. She reveals her identity to protect Aladdin, though it doesn’t work, and she outwits Jafar with kissy, which works for a second — and would have saved other people as well as herself. She’s plucky. She’s sassy. She’s a really interesting character. But the goal she has at the beginning (knowledge!) recedes into a different one at the end (kissy face!)||4||7|
|Belle||Oh man I can’t even talk about Belle. Belle rules.||10||10|
|Mulan||Mulan rules EVEN HARDER if possible, but I used my 10s already.||10||10|
|Pocahontas||The movie is a thudding, misguided mess, but Pocahontas puts her skull in front of a stone bludgeon to prevent war, and that makes Lysistrata look like a Democratic Senator.||10||10|
HOLY CATS I WAS TOTALLY WRONG! I was all cheesed off about Disney Princesses until I made this list and remembered that Ariel and Jasmine and Belle and Mulan and Pocahontas totally rule! What the crap. Even whatserface from Enchanted saves her man at the end. Yeah, they most of them end up in love and married and then the curtain drops like that’s the greatest goal a human can achieve, but the same thing happens to the dudes!
His whole life revolved around finding his one true love! At least Ariel had a singing career!
HEY WAIT A MINUTE I JUST FIGURED SOMETHING OUT.
If you look at the princes in these stories, they are exactly and only as boring and marriage-driven as their corresponding princess. Belle’s true love? Most interesting and complex character Disney every wrote. Snow White’s true love? DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A NAME.
MAYBE the problem is that kid-aimed movies with female leads seem to have love as their ultimate goal, and kid-aimed movies with male leads seem to have something BETTER than love as their ultimate goal. If kid movies really are teaching boys to save the world and girls to get married, that kind of sucks.
But is that true? Do boy leads tend to be more heroic than girl leads? And is that the whole story? I dunno. It sounds like I need to investigate further. A comparison of contemporary boy leads to girl leads will have to wait.
I leave you with this:
One — Overall I think the girl message of kid movies is definitely moving in the right direction. If you don’t believe me watch Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs right now. Or Mulan again. I don’t know what the heroine of The Princess and the Frog will be like, but it seems really unlikely she’s gonna wait in her room to get rescued. Which brings me to…
Two — Okay, yes, the Disney Princess toys are pink and sparkly and obsessed with fashion and being pretty. I don’t know how much damage that does, really. I have pretty good guesses as to why I made all my anti-social choices growing up, and they had ass-nothing to do with Cinderella. Plus I never met a little girl under 10 who cared enough about looks even to keep from spilling spaghetti on herself. No matter what marketers do to get adults to buy toys for kids, those toys are about fashion and being pretty for ten minutes and then either discarded or applied to more imaginative play. That’s what kids do.
Three — If you think a toy is going to rot your little girl’s brain, don’t buy it. If you think a toy is going to rot your little girl’s brain while she’s playing at the neighbor’s, don’t worry, she’s too busy rotting her teeth on the neighbor’s sugary cereals HOLY CRAP THEY HAVE LUCKY CHARMS AND WHOLE MILK THIS KITCHEN IS CRAZY.
Four — If your kid prefers Cinderella to Belle, your kid is TOTALLY BORING. THERE I SAID IT.
I also leave you with this:
- It’s still weird that Disney Princess tries to neutralize everything that was cool about the women. Belle gets no book? Mulan has to wear the dress she hated SO HARD? Weak.
- Did you know that the Disney Princess branding requires that they not interact, nor even make eye contact? They must pretend to be totally indifferent to each other, gathered together for only one purpose. Does this remind you of anything?
Lady equivalent of men standing next to each other at the urinal
The logic is that if they interact, it hurts their individual mythologies. Huh. If that’s so important, then I’m sure Disney would never have a show where LIKE EVERY DISNEY CHARACTER EVER HUNG OUT TOGETHER:
But to be fair House of Mouse was all the way back in 2003. Maybe things are different now. I guess if Disney women wanna play together they gotta be villains LIKE IN THIS AD THAT’S ON TV RIGHT NOW:
OOOOH WICKED BURRRRRN!
- Check out Sara Haskins, like, making all my points but better than me: