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Some Problems With Princesses

Back in March, I wrote about my frustration with reading Disney's princess books to my daughter. Instead of reading her the actual words of the Snow White tale, I've taken to freestyling an alternative storyline where Snow White is an empowered dance instructor who also loves fresh fruit. A lot of people responded that they were also annoyed by the all the helpless princess storylines, but others noted that the princesses have evolved. "Disney princesses have come a long way in the 70 years since Snow White," wrote one reader.

In some ways, this is true. In other ways, the princesses are worse now than they were in 1940.

First, the good. There are a couple princesses these days that serve as better role models than the classics. Last year's Disney Pixar film Brave, for example, is the first of the Disney princess stories that doesn't view marriage as a happy ending. My daughter is three. Themes of romance and marriage are not appropriate. I want her books to be about friendships, families, kids in school, animals, teams that go on adventures, people solving conflicts and triumphing over oppression. 

But Merida from Brave is the exception. These days, Disney princesses are still mostly about romance, sparkles, and wedding wishes.  My toddler and I can't go into a drugstore, toy store, or bookstore without being bombarded by Disney merchandise. The other morning, my daughter came to me and said she wanted a princess doll. "I want Belle!" she said. I told her I needed to think about it, which really means, "Over my dead body will you be playing with a white doll that has cleavage and marries a monster."  At one point I considered making a counter-offer with Brave's Merida or the African-American Tiana.  I prefer for my daughter to have brown dolls that look like her, but Tiana's movie itself isn't perfect.

Now, the bad. One of the things that has gotten worse since Snow White is the physical representations of the bodies of the princesses.

Consider this image of Snow White, circa 1937:

Snow White, looking like a normal woman.

And now consider the more contemporary image of Snow White:
Snow White, looking skinnier and sexier

The original Snow White looked like a teenager in a modest dress.  However, starting in the 1950s, Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty's Aurora were both drawn with more extreme hourglass of the girdled starlets of the era.

Sleeping Beauty, who has a tiny waist and relatively large breasts.

This trend continued and even intensified with the princesses of the 90s, Jasmine, Ariel, and Pocohantas had disproportionate shapes and showed more skin.
pocahantas, wearing a short skirtariel, in her clam bradisney's jasmine

The 21st century princesses are definitely a better mix of shapes and colors.  But all the skinny, sexy Disney princesses are kept alive in their theme park, merchandise, and constant re-packaging and re-releasing of the original films. 

Here is the princess lineup.  Many of these characters have waists smaller than their heads.  I'm just not going to promote my daughter in building a relationship with a doll who reflects those distortions of the female body. 

disney dolls collection

Another problem with princess stories is that they reinforce our national obsession with royalty and celebrity culture. As far as my daughter is concerned, you could draw any woman of any body shape in a big poofy dress with a bright sparkly crown and have her attention. She's part of a rich history of obsession with princesses. Our fascination with monarchy is inherited from the US's British and European roots.  On this side of the pond, it gets translated into a preoccupation with the owning class and celebrities.  I'll never forget when Paris Hilton's sex tape came out.  I had not been paying attention to media for several years.  I recall asking people who Hilton was…an actress?  A singer?  No, just an heiress.  Then why do we care who she's having sex with?  But everything about wealthy people is supposed to be inherently fascinating because they, by virtue of being born with money, are superior and deserving of our constant preoccupation.  We play this out with celebrities, as well, but at least they have actually accomplished something (success in the entertainment industry) as creating some degree of merit in our collective worship of them.

The biggest disappointment with the princess narrative, however, is that the most interesting promise of monarchy is the opportunity to govern.  Even in the most progressive Disney princess stories, the princess never actually moves into a position of leadership. Generally, the powerful women are portrayed as evil.  The princess is naïve and good and pure.  She's locked into an outdated narrative in which she is the daughter of a powerful man or marries a powerful man, but there's never a question of her becoming a ruler. Is it about the glass slipper or the glass ceiling?

I know complaints about Disney princesses aren't new. But if I ever had a doubt that the way women look in media—even fictional ones who live in fairy tales lands—has an impact, I've found proof in my daughter.  She loves watching videos about women and immediately thinks of them as real people in her life. When we watched videos of Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, my daughter told me she wanted to go over to Gabby Douglas' house for dinner.  We went to see the UC Berkeley women's gymnastics team compete recently and she hoped we would run into Gabby Douglas. In her head, she's building relationships with people in videos. 

One day my daughter will pick her own heroines, but as long as I have control here, I'll be favoring the athletes over the princesses. I can't bring myself to give her a Belle doll, a Tiana doll or even a Merida doll, but I can create conditions for her to be a powerful, creative girl, taking leadership in her sparkly pink princess tutu.

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Comments

18 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Goldieblox?

You're probably already aware of this, but just in case -- Goldieblox toys were created by a woman to encourage girls to get into science/engineering. I got a box in their recent Kickstarter campaign and it's fantastic. The primary character (Goldie) is an inventor who loves to make things, solve problems, have fun and there's nary a prince in sight ;)

I wrote a children's book

I wrote a children's book about a princess that becomes a leader on her own terms !

http://www.etsy.com/listing/119497380/lalita-childrens-book-about-a-cour...

Even Merida has gotten the

Even Merida has gotten the disney princessification makeover :? Check out more here: https://www.change.org/petitions/disney-say-no-to-the-merida-makeover-keep-our-hero-brave

As an adult, I agree with

As an adult, I agree with everything that you are saying. I have a younger sister (she is ten; I am twenty-six) who is very much into the princess culture, and I find myself trying to make a point to introduce her to better role models.
Having grown up very into Disney, though, I am not sure that the movies had a lasting harmful impression on me. Beauty and the Beast was the first movie I ever saw in theatres, and I'm pretty sure there was a period of time where I watched the video weekly. My fascination with Belle, though, was with her love of books, and as I got older I looked to her as a role model of my own, that girls could be bookish and nerdy and this could be something that a partner would love about them. The scene where the Beast gives her his library made me swoon.
I guess what I am maybe trying to say is that girls raised with a variety of positive role models in their lives can still consume this sort of media and find positive aspects in it for themselves. I never wanted to grow up and look like Belle or fall in love with a jerk like Belle - I just wanted to hang out and read books with her and maybe run through meadows sometimes. You know?

Agreed

I rewatched The Little Mermaid recently and was horrified to find that Ariel is 16 years old! The princesses with their tiny waists and vague wishes for freedom are quite annoying and I've had the idea that if I ever have a daughter to ban them from the house.
But then I remember that I was a Disney kid. I loved Ariel for her tail and her love of singing. I was actually much more interested in the TV show that took place under the sea with little to no romance involved. Her age did not register as anyone over 10 years old was "old" to me (I remember fighting with my mum that Judy Garland as Dorothy was so not a kid.) I loved Belle and Jasmine and Pocahontas, too. I had all their dolls in a bin with the rest of my 30 or so Barbies.
I also had Jo March, Anne Shirley, and Alice in Wonderland. I had American Girl dolls and read all the books. I watched Wishbone with tomboy character Sam on it (she was the reason I joined a soccer team.) Later I found books about lady knights and wild mages. I self identified as a feminist by age 12.
I think sometimes princesses are seen in a vacuum, as if exposure to them will push every other interest out of a young girls life.

I have to agree with both

I have to agree with both commenters above me. Sometimes I think it's easy to forget how young girls see these characters; as adults we see them with all their sexist, racist, backwards baggage, but kids do see them differently, I think. I was exposed to Disney princesses as a child, but I also enjoyed many other toys and media, and my feminist mom made sure I was never hampered by gender stereotypes and let me play with what I wanted.

Like dearilou above, I loved Ariel because she could swim fast and breathe underwater and because she liked to collect old, weird stuff. I also remember really liking that she saves the prince from drowning, and this act overshadowed the whole sacrificing-her-voice-to-be-with-him thing that I would later find troubling. But I think kids are pretty good at picking out what they like about characters and reinventing what they didn't. Anybody else remember the three floozies that hung around Gaston in Beauty & the Beast? I loved them, too, and used to make up stories about their adventures as friends--without Gaston because he was dull. I think I even named them,

Disney princesses and Disney media are full of problems, but I don't think that banning them outright is necessarily the answer. Rather, I think girls (and boys) should be encouraged to explore their own narratives and create their own meanings and relationships with these characters.

Like dearilou, I also grew up

Like dearilou, I also grew up as a Disney kid (loved the movies, had a bunch of toys and books and soundtracks, visited Disneyland with my family and loved it). I still enjoy many of the movies and Disneyland as a woman in her late 20s. When I was growing up, the female characters hadn't really been grouped into The Princesses yet; they were very much grounded in the worlds of their own stories as I remember it, and maybe that makes a difference.

But also like dearilou, I had Addy and Samantha American girl dolls, an Anne Shirley doll, a (non-Disney) Alice in Wonderland doll, etc., etc. My dolls all played together and weren't limited to their film storylines, and romance rarely played into their adventures, especially when I was younger.

I understand the concern with the princess mania that's going on right now, and to some extent I share it. I am concerned at how many girls and young women in their teens and early twenties seem to especially love Ariel, whom I find to be one of the more troubling princesses (from an adult perspective; I loved her as a little girl). Also, I should say that I cannot and will not have children, so I will never have to face this question on the same level as those who are parents. But it seems to me that refusing to allow princesses into the house is probably not really the answer. I know there are many women like myself who loved these characters who grew into strong, independent women without princess complexes. I feel that in this situation, I would fall on the side of valuing a balance of toys and stories that my child is exposed to... Some 'she married the prince and lived happily ever after' storylines probably won't hurt as long as there are other narratives available to her as well.

What about Vanellope Von Schweetz?

What about Rapunzel in Tangled? (She didn't get married, she whupped ass with her frying pan and she ended up saving the leading man, defeating her kidnapper and reuniting with her family and her kingdom). Then came Mereda, whom you mentioned but briefly -- adventurous, headstrong, independent, and not bound by convention, she changes not only her parents' minds but that of all the clans (she is already leading and making a difference.) You also missed Vanellope Von Schweetz -- voiced by Sarah Silverman in Wreck-it Ralph she's a video game racer gal who is treated as an outcast but who perseveres, believes in herself when no one else does and helps other outcasts to believe in themselves as well. There is NO romantic love relationship involved in her storyline whatsoever and when it is revealed that she is a princess (complete with cotton candy pink dress, scepter and tiara ) the wise-cracking Vanellope eschews the dress and tiara for her hoodie and ponytail and calls for a "constitutional democracy" which she will lead, for starters.

The truth is Disney is trying and as for the dolls, put 'em up against Barbie and you'll see they look much more like prepubescent girls than Ms. B ever has.

Great post! If I ever have a

Great post! If I ever have a daughter, I will probably be terrified. Seems so hard to keep all the bad influences (like Disney princesses, or sometimes kindergarten teachers) away.

Feminist Fairy-tales

I really enjoyed reading this article, thank you for writing it.
I'm currently editing the final draft of a fictional book (actually a fairy-tale from the godmother's pov) that I've written on the topic of the pervasive narratives of fairy-tales and romance stories in general. It's interesting though how difficult it can be to subvert what has become so inbuilt into our cultural short-hand - good girls must be pretty, subservient and marry a prince. Though of course this attitude is and has been being challenged, I wonder exactly how deep the stereotype goes. It is very difficult to critically reflect on things that are seen as common sense, and though I am not arguing that these ideals are sensible, they are perhaps still all too common, sadly.
In my book, the fairy godmother is trying to get the heroine to marry the prince, and the story follows the godmother's journey as she realizes that what she is attempting to do is not only misguided but potentially very damaging. I have deliberately filled the main roles with women, and the two male characters fulfill what have arguably been the 'female' tropes - they are love lorn and directionless, in need of rescuing etc etc. I wonder though, when I come to approach agents, if what I have tried to write will be considered too out of the genre as a result of deliberately trying to subvert these attitudes towards gender roles and ambitions.

Let's Face It

I'm not sure exactly how I turned out differently but I loved Barbies and princesses when I was a kid (let's say 9 and 10). I went to Disneyland often. I have come to the realization that almost all feminists played with Barbies and were in some way told to conform to whatever standard for women was in state at the time. They didn't. It didn't matter that they played with those toys at a young age.
I don't think the dolls and media are the influence to watch out for-- if she were my daughter, thinking she'd had dinner with an Olympian, I'd worry about her boundaries and explaining the difference between reality and fantasy. It's really nice that she has an active imagination that can include dinners with her favorite people.
Maybe it's just me but I think the most important thing is how parents interact with their kids and what they teach them about the media and themselves, especially about fitting in with other people. Don't kids go through phases? It could be a phase that she likes princesses before she likes science or art or cooking or stamps or whatever else kids get into. Sometimes kids go through really annoying phases (like adolescents).

Perhaps balance is key. I

Perhaps balance is key. I remember that I was brought up on a combination of Barbies, Disney princesses, Star Wars, and legos. Then again, I also had a headstrong, independent mother who convinced me that women can do whatever the hell they want. I'm convinced that this is the main reason I turned out as I have today.

To the author: I'm sure that even with influences out there like the Disney princesses, your daughter will be a strong, independent woman. After all, she has you as a mother.

I see several above making

I see several above making statements like "I survived Princess Culture and came out ok." Good for you, no sarcasm I promise. It is great that Feminists were smelted *in spite* of these things.

Let me frame it this way: If the Princess thing is the unquestionable, Default Culture... that creates a hump to clear. Perhaps many can, perhaps many have cleared it. That is not the point. Think of it as a poll tax for voting... let's say it's only $10.00 and 90% of the populace can afford it. The hump is there and simply should not be. And you can be assured of the 10% that could not afford it, a few of them somehow saved the money and told similar bootstraps stories. Great for them, but again not the point. Let us remember that.

Calm Down

If its really that much of a problem, move to China or Russia and become a Communist. If you can't handle that, stop complaining,

Hi, I think you are focusing

Hi, I think you are focusing too much on this stupid skinny disney princesses. The whole point of the disney princess stories is for children to believe that there are happy endings in life and so enable them to think positively. As a child, I never EVER thought about the princesses being disproportionate, this is taking things out of context and as an adult, it is not right to believe that this is why Disney has created the princesses that way. It is more appealing and it's only a story. Stop being such a hypocrite! The princesses are fine as they are, its a just a little harmful fairytale which we eventually grow out of. No child even notices how 'perfect' the princesses are; they like the fantasy and so watch it. No point trying to ruin a child's childhood by not letting them enjoy the classics and enjoying their little fantasy world and freedom for a while.
Personally, I COMPLETELY disagree with this article. It is very much wrong.

Being European, perhaps my

Being European, perhaps my perspective is different. I did spend quite a bit of time in the US, in Arizona to be precise, and European "western society" and American "western society" are very, very different. It even differs per European country. I am from The Netherlands, perhaps one of the more progressive European countries. So again, perhaps things look different through my eyes.

First of all I know race is a very different and difficult issue in the US. I know that my mother is half Asian, my father is half Russian, and they simply never made a big deal about race, nationality or appearance. The only thing I took note of as a child was that my parents both had black hair and brown eyes, and I had neither. Besides that I did not even notice race because it was not pointed out to me until I was aged 9 or older. I personally am of the belief that because race was never MADE an issue to me, I never cared for it or about it. My parents always made sure I had a doll of each, but never refused me dolls due to their color. Again, that may just be a difference in culture. I realize race is a much bigger issue in the US.

With that said, I also grew up with Disney and though I do believe it told me as a child that the ultimate happiness for a girl was to find her prince, I do not think it harmed me. I think reality sinks in pretty quickly once you hit the teens. Teenagers these days make sure to tell you such an attitude is not cool, "slutty" was the new cool when I was in school (some 10 years ago) which in my opinion weighed on me far more heavily than the princesses ever did.

The only thing I felt I missed throughout my childhood and teenage years was in fact little to do with dolls, cartoons or even peer pressure. It was my mother. My mother was emotionally checked out, overly concerned with the opinions of others and far from empowered. THAT almost had me miss my inner voice, there. That was the ONLY make and break for me - my mother.

I think it is important we discuss these princesses and influences amongst ourselves as adults. But I do not think they are make or break, and I do not think refusing a child something will make them see the world differently. Once they hit the teens and are subjected to the cold social reality of the world, and peer pressure, and fashion trends, and magazines, THAT is when they are made or broken and the only thing that can stop that is loving parents.

Oh and for the record - "us

Oh and for the record - "us Europeans" are hardly obsessed with the royals. Most people think they are outdated and irrelevant.

Princess movies set expectations for romantic relationships

I think there is yet another problem with the Disney princess movies. They set up expectations (perhaps you think they are subtle, but I don't think so), that girls will find their true love, their Prince Charming (Some Day My Prince Will Come, for example), and that inevitably when you fall in love, there will be a wedding. The prince will rescue them, and then it will be happily ever after. You will be the center of your prince's world, and he will bend over backwards to fulfil your every desire.

I see lots of women waiting for their prince, their wonderful true love, the ONE. It is a fantasy, people! There is no happily ever after. Marriage can give you happiness, but it is hard work, fighting, and compromise, as well as love.

The movies set girls up to expect a script that the boys have never paid any attention to. The boys are busy watching movies where the strongest, most violent character wins the hot girl, through macho actions, not chivalry.