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In Defense of the Disney Princess

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I grew up with Disney films, and thus also with Disney Princesses. So it makes me kinda sad to hear that Disney is – at least for the moment – dropping fairy tale films. And since a good many of the most popular fairy tales revolve around princesses in one way or another, that’s basically the same thing as dropping princess stories; a point also observed in this article at GeekMom.

I know, I know. The Disney Princess is a stereotype, makes little girls think there is nothing more to life than finding a prince charming of their own, goes against the things feminism usually stands for, etc. I feel like I’ve heard all the complaints about the Disney Princess that exist. I’m sure all the people who rant about the problems with the Disney Princesses are delighted that Disney has apparently decided to move from fairy tales to more boy-oriented stories. (Wait, girls can watch boy movies but boys can’t watch girl movies?) But I still like Disney Princesses. They’re not all that bad.

princesses

The earliest Disney Princesses – Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora – were rather lacking in personality, for sure. But the others – Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, and now Rapunzel – certainly had strong characters:

  • Ariel was curious about the world above and even dared strike a deal with the devil in order to get to her prince… which was quite stupid, if you ask me. (I don’t actually like Ariel very much; she’s just the easiest to draw. haha).
  • Belle gave herself up to the Beast to save her father and was instrumental in the Beast’s reformation. Hardly a damsel in distress, that Belle. Except that bit where she ran off in the middle of the night and got herself almost eaten alive by wolves.
Belle

Belle, that bookworm, could read while walking. I can too. :D

  • Jasmine didn’t much like being thought of as a mere pretty face and a method of gaining her father’s kingdom, and had the guts to sneak out of the palace to wander the streets of Agrabah by herself (kind of silly actually, but that’s beside the point at the moment).
  • Pocahontas chose to look beyond skin colour and intervened to save John Smith from certain death. Technically, she didn’t even really have the typical happy ending since John Smith sailed away and she chose not to follow him because her people needed her. (Let’s not talk about the direct-to-video sequel of Pocahontas. That was kind of an awful movie.)
  • Mulan was unconventional – poor girl could barely get through a simple session with the matchmaker without causing chaos – and joined the army to save her father. Turned out to be a pretty good soldier too.1
  • Tiana was as career-minded as a girl could get – working so hard that she didn’t have time to socialise; all because she wanted to achieve her dream (and her father’s dream) of having her own restaurant.
  • Rapunzel was spunky and cheerful, which is remarkable for someone who’s been stuck in a tower all her life without access to the outside world. And she clobbered Flynn Rider with a mere frying pan, before basically blackmailing him into becoming her tour guide.

If you think about it, most of the Disney Princesses didn’t go around as though finding a husband was their ultimate goal. Except Ariel. She was kind of stuck on Eric and that was pretty much the whole point of the story. Sure, Snow White also sang about how someday her prince would come (if only merely singing that would ensure the appearance of one – that would simplify things greatly), and Cinderella longed to go to the ball. But it can be said that Snow White’s jealous stepmother drives the story of Snow White and Prince Charming’s father wanting him to get married is the catalyst of Cinderella, not the wishes of either princess to be married.2

Belle couldn’t have cared less about Gaston, who was actively chasing her, and she didn’t like Beast much at the start. Would you like someone who tried to imprison your beloved father or mother and who forced you to stick around in their place? Jasmine probably preferred her pet tiger, Rajah, to her earlier suitors. She thought “Prince Ali” quite an arrogant show-off at first too. Pocahontas didn’t really want to marry Kocoum, though her dad favoured the match. Mulan flunked How to be a Good Little Wife 101. And Li Shang thought she was a man for most of the film. Tiana had no social life to speak of and besides, Naveen’s kiss turned her into a frog, which is, of course, the best way to get a girl to like you. All Rapunzel cared about was getting out of the tower and seeing the lights; Flynn wasn’t her end goal, he was the means to an end.

The (Disney) princess ideal represented – for me – nobility and strength of spirit, some inherent charm or magnetism, sophistication and class, humility, intelligence, elegance, and good manners. Those were traits I wanted to have, though I don’t think I really succeeded in emulating them. haha. Yes, they were beautiful girls but I was never so stupid as to think I could look as beautiful, short of having some intensive plastic surgery and wearing corsets every day. I do adore Belle’s yellow gown though…

(Perhaps Ariel embodies these traits least of all and that’s partly why I’m not as fond of her? Rapunzel’s similar to Ariel, actually, but I like her better. She has nobler – or at least more interesting –  motivations than Ariel did and she’s an artist~)

I suppose at first glance – or first thought? – the Disney Princesses do present a very superficial image. They’re all gorgeous gals with amazing figures, perfect complexions, luxurious hair and aesthetically pleasing facial features. And they all end up with romantic happy endings (except Pocahontas). Maybe these fairy tales do give little girls the delusion that they can’t be happy without being beautiful and without a prince charming. Maybe you could even point to my current state of high cynicism and somewhat bitter feelings about my lack in those departments as an example of the aftereffects of such romantic fantasies. But y’know, for my part, I see it as being triggered by the slew of attachments, engagements and weddings going on all around me and the ever increasing feeling of loneliness as I “lose” both girl friends and guy friends to their significant others. It’s not the Disney Princessess’ fault. After all, prior to 2010, I wasn’t feeling this way.

Coming back to the Disney Princess thing… LaFevers at GeekMom observes:

The princess in pop culture has taken on all sorts of unpleasant characteristics: She is vain, materialistic, shallow, and far too focused on catching the attention of Prince Charming, often at horrifying cost to herself. Not to mention the whole helpless-and-needs-to-be-saved thing.

How did the Disney Princesses come to be linked with that pop culture stereotype of a princess, I wonder? Only Ariel was so obsessed with her prince to the point of giving up her greatest talent and rebelling against her father for him. And at that point Eric barely even knew she existed. Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora were very passive but you see, they are the minority. Aurora had the potential for an interesting character, but the story necessarily had her in a coma for a good part of the film. Blame the original storyteller for that. What of the other six? Jasmine, who is perhaps the most damsel-in-distress type of the “modern” Disney Princesses, isn’t exactly a passive little thing. (It should also be noted that in the case of Jasmine, she is not the title character. The film is called Aladdin, not Jasmine nor Aladdin and Jasmine. It is Aladdin’s story. Jasmine’s role is secondary to Aladdin’s. From a story point of view, she can’t very well be saving Aladdin – unless he saves the world or does something bigger. And heck, the fact that she has a name and a fairly major role is astounding when you consider how Snow White’s prince has no name and Cinderella’s is basically just known as “Prince Charming” and both of those guys did… virtually nothing except show up and marry the girl. Beast has a name too, just that it was never ever mentioned in the film and is more a trivia fact than anything else.3)

Jasmine

"You know, little bird, I get so much pressure from all those people; it's ridiculous. You'd think I was the star instead of Aladdin."

Rockinlibrarian‘s opinion is that what really went wrong with the Disney Princesses was the marketing, putting those few together in one group “being, uh, Princessy” and removing them from what made them awesome in the first place: their stories. “Because it’s what they DO that makes them interesting, and if you take them out of their What They Do, what fun ARE they?”

I think that’s why I don’t have as sour a view on Disney Princesses as some people do. I don’t generally consider them in terms of how they’re bundled together as a commercial package. I think of them in connection with the films or with the original stories. With that point of view, they don’t look all that terrible. I’m not even sure why people like to blame Disney all the time. The stereotypes were set by the original fairy tales. It wasn’t until recent years that people started to really turn fairy tales on their heads and put modern spins on them. But no one blames Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. Poor Disney gets all the flak. (I don’t think Disney is perfect. I certainly think the marketing has gone a bit too far. But they don’t deserve as much criticism in these matters as they’re getting. Or so I feel. haha)

So, is the Disney Princess really such a bad thing? It’s definitely over-promoted, but take the whole Disney Princess phenomenon on its own, put the princesses back in the context of their stories. Is it really so bad? Nearly all my girl friends watched a good many Disney films growing up – and some still look forward to Disney films today. These same girl friends are some of the most independent, strong-minded, career-driven women I know. Finding one’s prince charming, having a glittering ballgown, a happy ending – I’m sure most of us still cherish that little fantasy somewhere in some corner of our minds. But it is in no way the centre of our lives.

Maybe when we were children, there was far less Disney merchandise (and most of us were not in a position to be splurging on every toy we saw) and less influences from the media compared to today. Or maybe our parents just did exceptionally good jobs at raising all of us. And maybe being around each other helped – the positive sort of peer influences. And maybe we were fortunate enough to grow up in an environment where we weren’t pressured by the media to ‘grow up’ faster than we needed to.

This bit in the L.A. Times article scared me a little:

“By the time [little girls are] 5 or 6, they’re not interested in being princesses,” said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children’s lives. “They’re interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.”

Seriously, I find that more dreadful that all the frilly dresses, romantic fantasies and animal sidekicks put together. Little girls who are 5 or 6 wanting to be “hot”? If I was the mother, I’d be a great deal more worried about that sort of outlook on life, especially at such a young age. Does society value “being hot” and “being cool” (lol, paradox?) that much? Whatever happened to a noble heart, good manners and integrity?

I think… rather than constantly hacking away at the Disney Princesses and screaming about what poor role models they are, some of the questions people should be asking are: what other role models (in the media) do girls have today apart from the Disney Princesses? And are they really much better? Do girls today have good role models in real life to follow?

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1 Mulan actually isn’t a princess. But I suppose they added her to the ranks of the Disney Princesses for some international flavour. *shrugs*

2 Snow and Cindy are the title characters and the so-called leads, but really, they don’t do anything much on their own. To their credit, they’re hardworking and sweet and well-mannered. And get along amazingly well with animals. But if it wasn’t for the very colourful supporting casts of both films, there wouldn’t have been much to see.

3 His name is Adam, if you were wondering.

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Got anything to add or say? :D