My Emcee Battle Against the Disney Princesses

Before I became a mom at the age of 41, I was many things, including a hip-hop artist. Mostly, I did hip-hop theater, a solo show about fighting sexism in music.  But I also rocked many a mic in the club.  Little did I know that these skills would come in handy in my new battle against sexism:  children's literature.  

Last year, when my daughter was not quite two, we loved to go to this Salvadoran restaurant that had plenty of toys and books for families with toddlers.  

As I sat on the couch by the kids' table, my daughter handed me a board book about the size of my palm:  Disney's Snow White.  The classic story was cut down to just eight pages, but it was the usual gist:  Sweet princess, evil queen, apple, sleeping forever, kiss from the prince.  You know the drill.  This was before my daughter could even say the word princess.  I was in charge.  I had the power to define her world.  Maybe that's why, without a shred of defeat, I just offered up an alternative freestyle narrative to the pictures.  

As the restaurant activities bustled around us, it was as if my daughter and I were in a little bubble of our own. I looked at the first picture, and tried to imagine a caption where the princess was a badass instead of a sweet young thing.  I took a breath, and said the first thing that came to my mind: "Snow White was an animal rights activist..."  With no one to contradict me, my daughter accepted my version and we turned the page. 

With each new photo, I freestyled an alternative storyline. 

 

The Snow White story reworked

snow white's aunt gave her a nice snack

Snow White takes a nice nap.

Snow white goes to her job as a dance instructor

So my story doesn't really make sense, I know. But when you think about it, the original Snow White story doesn't make sense, either. Why would a powerful queen care if a young girl in the forest were fairer than her?  Why would men be able to heal women by kissing them while they slept?  The original is not only nonsensical but disturbing.  And the experience opened my eyes to the fact that, until my daughter can read, I have the power to control the narrative of everything we read together.  

I have lost some media battles--I've relaxed my zero screen time policy to let her watch b-girls and women's gymnastics videos while I cornrow her hair. I'll even allow the occasional Sesame Street and Teletubbies. But the Disney princesses are poisonous. Girls' lives in the US are saturated with Disney princesses and, with few exceptions, they all reiterate an identical storyline: female passivity and competition, ending in a male rescue finale. 

So it turns out that Disney Princess freestyling is a skill that I can often deploy. This year, we were at a kids' party and one of the little girls had a Disney box set of books. The mom sort of cringed when her daughter brought them out.  My daughter pounced upon the brightly colored books with the big-eyed girls, and demanded that I read them.  As I began to freestyle, the mom grinned at me.  I was horrified to find that every one of the princess stories ended in marriage, dancing with a prince, and a kiss (Brave wasn't part of the set).  Halfway through the stack, one girl piped up, "That's not what it says!"  I smiled at her, "I'm reading it a different way." 

I freestyled every single one of those books.  It got harder to explain the relentless dancing and kissing, but I just insisted that all of these women were very friendly dance instructors.  The goal is just to keep alternative possibilities open in my daughter's mind.

I can't help but believe that re-writing the Disney stories aloud will help my daughter become a freestyler herself.  I just want to encourage her in the business of making up the lyrics to her own life.

Yes, one day my daughter will learn to read and she will watch television shows and movies.  But she won't have me co-signing on each of those insane messages, she won't have me passively accepting the narrative like a kiss on a sleeping woman's lips. 

Comments

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I hope that I become this

I hope that I become this kind of mom one day. You're rad.

What a brilliant woman! I now

What a brilliant woman! I now want to hear all the princess tales as interpreted by her. I also want "re-written fairytales" to become a meme.

I love the creativity the mom

I love the creativity the mom demonstrates here. But I also want to point out that a fascination with princess stuff (or exposure to mainstream media) doesn't automatically doom a girl to a life of primping and deluded rom-com fantasies.

I was obsessed with the Disney princesses as a kid. I loved the pretty girls and fancy dresses and the helpful singing animals. My parents would have been in deep trouble had the princess merchandise blitzkrieg happened 25 years earlier. Even now, I wistfully wander down the princess aisle at Target and consider buying a Tiana doll.

Still, as a child, I was very conscious of the roles female characters played in books, television and movies. I would count the number of male characters vs. female characters and note whether or not the girls got to do cool things like fight the evil guys. I got my elementary school librarian to stop buying "Choose Your Own Adventure" books when I pointed out the "You" was always gendered to be male. And when I played with my extensive set of Disney dolls, the princes would inevitably be sent away on some long foolish quest while Ariel, Belle, Aurora, Snow White, et al ran the kingdom.

I remember the day I proudly brought my Indian Barbie for show-and-tell, and my teacher huffed, "If I had a daughter, I wouldn't let her play with Barbies. They're bad role models." I was crushed. My mom responded, "Well, why would someone have a doll as a role model?". I credit her, along with other amazing women, for providing me with examples of strong, successful women throughout my life.

There are definitely rampant issues with portrayals of women (and racial minorities and LGBTQ and people with disabilities) in the media. I guess I get slightly defensive whenever particular topic comes up, because I consider myself unapologetically feminist. I plan to raise unapologetically feminist daughters. I just don't think I'll panic if they go through a princess phase - because I will be there, along with the other strong women in my life, to add context.

Thank you for writing this piece.

This mom is amazing, and I

This mom is amazing, and I love that she creatively embraced the power to change the narrative her little girl hears.

I also want to point out that a fascination with princess stuff (or exposure to mainstream media) doesn't automatically doom a girl to a life of primping and deluded rom-com fantasies.

I was obsessed with the Disney princesses as a kid. I loved the pretty girls and fancy dresses and the helpful singing animals. My parents would have been in deep trouble had the princess merchandise blitzkrieg happened 25 years earlier. Even now, I wistfully wander down the princess aisle at Target and consider buying a Tiana doll.

Still, as a child, I was very conscious of the roles female characters played in books, television and movies. I would count the number of male characters vs. female characters and note whether or not the girls got to do cool things like fight the evil guys. I got my elementary school librarian to stop buying "Choose Your Own Adventure" books when I pointed out the "You" was always gendered to be male. And when I played with my extensive set of Disney dolls, the princes would inevitably be sent away on some long foolish quest while Ariel, Belle, Aurora, Snow White, et al ran the kingdom.

I remember the day I proudly brought my Indian Barbie for show-and-tell, and my teacher huffed, "If I had a daughter, I wouldn't let her play with Barbies. They're bad role models." I was crushed. My mom responded, "Well, why would someone have a doll as a role model?". I credit her, along with other amazing women, for providing me with examples of strong, successful women throughout my life.

There are definitely rampant issues with portrayals of women (and racial minorities and LGBTQ and people with disabilities) in the media. I guess I get slightly defensive whenever particular topic comes up, because I consider myself unapologetically feminist. I plan to raise unapologetically feminist daughters. I just don't think I'll panic if they go through a princess phase - because I will be there, along with the other strong women in my life, to add context.

Again, thank you for writing this piece. You rock.

I loved your post, even if it

I loved your post, even if it showed up so many times!

Erm...The Princess & the Frog

Erm...The Princess & the Frog still ends in marriage. If she's giving her daughter broader horizons than inevitability of marriage & that being a woman's ultimate goal then this movie is hardly progressive. I was personally disappointed in that movie.

love

this. you inspired me, and got me to hate disney a bit more :)

Disney princesses have come a

Disney princesses have come a long way in the 70 years since Snow White. Rapunzel saved the guy and won all the fights. She related to the thugs in the pub and helped them to achieve their dreams. The Princess and the frog teaches the value of hard work and tenacity. Sophia teaches manners and appreciation of people for their qualities, not their status. Pocahontas, Mulan was a friggin warrior! It seems you've missed all the princesses of the last 30 years. I give Disney credit, they modernized the princesses and made them independent women who overcome. I have no issue with the messages coming in a fancy dress and tea party, so long as it gets across.

Although I can't say I've

Although I can't say I've seen the more recent Disney movies (Brave, Tangled, etc) your comment reminded me of this video I stumbled across recently... nothing overly radical but some interesting points (especially as it related to some of the more recent princesses you reference)... just some things to think about and add to the analysis... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXZVjUyMsI8

on fairy tales

It's not just Disney of course - fairy tales in general, especially those packaged for children's books, are often problematic. And of course it's when the fairy tale is simplified down to 8 or so pages that the Princess Problems become more apparent - in the movies generally I find that there is a lot more nuance than in the tie-in merchandise, and that's a pattern I see across children's television and films generally.

Yes, there's a long way to go with telling gender balanced stories for kids on screen, but it's deeply irritating when TV shows and movies do pretty well in this regard, only for the more interesting bits to be sliced out of the story for a picture book or a toy range.

Brave, Mulan, Lilo & Stitch and other 'no marriage at the end' Disney stories get a lot less merch than the ones that fit that model.

I often found myself reading fairy tale stories to my daughter with added commentary - I couldn't bear Snow White for example without pointing out how weird it is that the dwarves happily hand over the apparently dead body of their trusted friend to some random dude who has taken a shine to her. THAT'S CREEPY.

My favourite is still my version of Red Riding Hood - which substitutes the passive fairy tale grandmother with my Mum, whom my daughters call Glammer. She's the kind of tough, independent lady who does her own wood chopping thank you very much, and it's amazing how much better the story becomes with a real person's reactions superimposed over the storybook version.

Being German I knew the

Being German I knew the Grimm's version of these fairytale (and Andersens original stories) before I ever watched a Disney movie, which made the movies seem all wrong and boring. I never understood where all the princes came from, because the princesses I knew were usually saved by circumstance or their own power. Snow White waking up from a kiss, but the poisoned apple still in her throat? Not the fairytale logic I knew. And Disney's "Arielle" made me just really angry because it didn't mean anything anymore with an happy end.
So I highly recommend reading the old versions of these stories. Yes, some fairytales have helpless objectified princesses, but there are also a lot of strong female characters and much more creative, complex storylines which challenge childrens fantasy instead of giving all the answers.

lovely. thanks. i'd add that

lovely. thanks. i'd add that its not just about positions and roles, it's also about stereotyped looks. figures and hair and everything....one look at the young girls trying to look either b/older and hotter is enough to tell us that something is wrong with the narrative we are communicating to them. why cant they be what they like - not just 'heroes' but women with whatever bodies, hair, skin they are born with - why try so hard to change it because u r supposed to look like something else. why should there be only certain ways of being 'hot' or 'cool' or woman?

Apart from being a dancing instructor...

she could take her best gay friend for a night out dancing :)

I've done that before! I

I've done that before! I used to volunteer at a nursery and some of the books (especially the older, outdated ones) got some remakes, and the kids didn't care.

I do agree that kids can like princesses and barbie and not end up messed up, but it has to be balanced by other views of women. I loved barbie (terrified my dad once by saying I wanted to be just like Barbie when I grew up, what I meant was that I wanted hair to my waist) and enjoyed Disney movies, but I also saw my mom go to work every day, my parents share parenting responsibilities, and read books like "The Paper Bag Princess". Basically I was never taught that I had to sit around to be rescued, and as I've gotten older, I've realized I've assigned a lot more agency to the Princesses than most people. Admittedly, Snow White and Aurora are rather passive, but Ariel defied her father to follow her heart and actively pursued her dreams (which was more than just Prince Eric, but a fascination with humans generally); Belle was defied the entire community to pursue her passion of education, recognized that the town hunk was an asshole and refused his advances, saved her father, recognized that the town outcast had a good side and defended him (that's a bit sketchy, but how I interpreted it); and so on.

Respect!

As a father of one beautiful little princess, I really love this and admire you for your gumption, foresight, and skill. I wish I had half the brains and talent that you have. Whoa! Did I just admit to female superiority? Gasp...I guess I did :)

Lots of love and respect for you and your little princess, from Pakistan.

I'm a freestyler too!

I'm a feminist mama of an almost 4 year old. He is currently obsessed with fairy tales, but like your kiddo, my boy only knows my freestyled version! Thanks for sharing.

www.facebook.com/Browneyedgirelle

FUN!!!!!

So kickass! I think you

So kickass! I think you should totally go into the business of using these same images and drawings and rewrite the damn books...and publish them! I, for one, would totally buy them for my kids, girl or boy, and I think so would many others.

I think that while you're doing a fantastic job for your own kids, you should take it one step further and professionally rewrite them for the rest of us whose imagination and wit might not be as sharp or who simply don't have the time to do this but want to impart your values to the next generation.

Somebody please take this up!

And super job by the way!

Snow White- dancer

Proof that you were correct about Snow White being a dance instructor! http://www.buzzfeed.com/kmallikarjuna/here-are-the-real-life-people-your...

Right on!

Thank you for an insightful and valuable lesson. I have had many discussions with friends about Disney's depiction of females. One thing you didn't mention, is that they are also almost invariably white or light skinned. As an African-American woman who plans to have children in the very near future, I found this article so helpful. You are empowering your daughter at a young age while she is impressionable and emulating your behavior, actions and words. Brava to you for not slacking off and taking the easy way out. I am inspired!

real folk tales vs. disney

I've been looking for and finding folk tales with strong female characters for years. I have a list at http://www.sisterschoice.com/heroines.html
Disney selected a few that fit his stereotype of women. I love your freestyle versions of Disney, but kids should hear the traditional, non-Disneyfied stories as well.

fairytales are serious business...

I think it's important to remember that in the Middle Ages, and earlier, fairytales reassured little girls, who had very few options to look forward to when they grew up, that a husband would help them survive a harsh world. And the lesson for little boys was to grow up and be strong and take care of women, also an important lesson at that time. Also, many fairytales exist across cultures; Cinderella, or a story close to it, shows up in countries all over the world.
While it’s absolutely true that these stories are not completely relevant to our experiences today, I can tell you when I read the Grimm’s versions to my high school classes, they are spellbound. These stories still speak to our primal need to believe that all will be well in the scary future when our parents are no longer there to take care of us.
So how do we update them and still make sure the message still makes girls and boys feel safe?
I have no idea.

How Creative!!

That is awesome. Not sure if I would have thought of that, I would've probably said, "no" lets read something else and then tortured myself by having to sit through a temper tantrum! I totally agree, the story lines of Disney books and the characters are a disservice to our daughters. My daughter just turned 2 and one of her aunts bought her a toddler version of little mermaid. It had been a long time since I saw the movie and I didn't really remember the story-line. After reading it (come on, she gives up her voice!) I promptly threw it in the garbage. It wasn't even worthy of being donated in my mind.

Cheers

That's hilarious and inspirational. Thank you.

Striving for the impossible.