Most people are agreed that Disney deserves a whole lot of criticism, and that there is a danger to young girls, particularly, in wholly embracing the Disney brands being marketed toward them today. I’m down with these thoughts myself, and generally live with the principle that nothing should be consumed passively and without poking at it really firmly with a stick to see if anything gross falls out.
As most often happens with any Issue, though, you get people really far away on either side who would rather yell at each other than think critically. “Disney princesses are awesome and there’s not a single ounce of questionable ideals being hocked!” vs. “Disney princess are THE DEVIL and leading our young girls into passive lives of twinkling laughs hiding blackened innards of self-hate!” “KILL THE WITCH!” one side cries, while the other shouts “KILL THE BITCH!” and who knows which said which.
Eventually, articles like “Why Drag Queens are Better Role Models Than Disney Princesses” pop up in the Huffington Post and then I read the following:
“When it comes down to it, I respect drag queens. They are artists. They are able to conceptualize an idea and transform themselves — without the help of magic, I might add. They are risk takers. They are punk. But Disney princesses? They are a man-made franchise created to sell cheaply made shit to our daughters. They are a perpetuation of the stereotype of the weak, dumb woman who obediently waits for a man to come along and make her valuable.”
Many drag queens are fabulous, and some of them maybe aren’t, because that’s how people work. This post is not about them, but about what Disney princesses perpetuate. Let’s look at the evidence:
Snow White was cast out by the person meant to care for her and taken out into the woods to be straight-up murdered. She was shown mercy at the hands of the Huntsman, but still abandoned in a dark wood. Did she lay down and die? No. She found a family, found a way to fit in, and kept a welcoming heart regardless of her terrible experiences. She survived and thrived. Yes, she was poisoned, and yes, someone had to save her after that – but that wasn’t a conscious passive act.
Sleeping Beauty was hidden away in the woods with a trio of sweet Old Granny Fairies because Evil Fairy McAwesome put a hit on Aurora for her parents failing to invite EFM to the birthday party. (Maleficent represent!) Aurora didn’t know she was royalty, was kept far away from civilization, and lacked access to useful things like needles. But she still greeted each day with enthusiasm for life. Yeah, she spent most of the story comatose, but again, not passive through her own acts. (Aurora’s not the best example. Still, just gonna leave this here: “Once Upon a Dream” doesn’t have a single gendered word in it.)
Cinderella was abused and downtrodden, but she still managed to find hope in her heart, friends in unexpected places, and the ability to endure. She may not have had the means to conjure a beautiful dress for herself, but there’s nothing wrong with accepting a beautiful dress from a magical granny benefactor and going to a fancy party if you want to. There’s not even anything wrong with happening to fall in love with someone at that party. Cinderella was the one with the power to reveal herself and choose her fate at the end, even if the prince did come looking for her.
Ariel went after what she wanted, found a way to do the impossible, made foolish decisions along the way… and paid for them, and learned from them, and then actually saved her Prince before the tale was done. She also saves herself by having enough dexterity to dodge bolts of lightning when she’s a fish-woman out of water at the bottom of a whirlpool. And, yeah, Eric kills Ursula– through his previously established skills as a sailor, not because he’s a man, baby.
Belle grows worried for her father, goes to find him when their horse comes home riderless, and sacrifices her future to save his life. She makes the best of a bad situation, and yes, there’s a whole conversation about Stockholm syndrome to be had here. However, let’s focus on whether Belle is passive, given to gasps and twinkles: when she’s locked up while the townsfolk go to kill the Beast, she finds a way out with the help of her friends and then goes after the angry mob. She climbs out on a rain-washed balustrade to try and defuse a fight to the death, and show the Beast she’s supporting him. Yeah, he happens to turn into a human prince and they get married. Presumably she spends the rest of her life in fabulous clothes reading a never-ending library, and what the hell is wrong with that? (The fabulous clothes and reading a never-ending library bit, clearly there’s a problem with marrying one’s former captor. Discuss Stockholm syndrome with your kids, folks!)
Pocahontas? Bad-ass tracker and protector of the people she cares about. Mulan? Hides her sex and goes to war, then saves the entire Empire through cleverness even while wearing a, gasp, dress. (Also promotes cross-dressing both ways!) Jasmine defies separation of the classes, refuses to marry a suitor not of her choice, and rescues both herself and Aladdin at least once. Rapunzel defends herself successfully against an intruder, and then hijacks him as a tour guide. Tiana maintains an amazing level of hope and industriousness in the face of a whole lot of bullshit, and builds the restaurant of her dreams through hard work AND the connections she forges through her willingness to take a gamble. Merida, the latest addition to the princess line-up, literally lives for archery and breaks a generations-old marriage requirement because it’s ridiculous– all while learning how to empathize with other people and knit her family back together.
In their actual stories, where’s the bit about them all just simpering in amazing dresses with big hair and doing nothing but gasping in the face of danger?
The actual princesses themselves have many traits worth emulating. Like all heroes, they are not above criticism. No one should ever be – you should always think critically about who you admire, and understand everyone has faults. It doesn’t mean the good things aren’t worth aspiring to.
It’s the Disney Princess Marketing Machine that tries to reduce them to fancier dresses than they originally wore, to generic looks reaching for some homogenized and disturbing ideal, to couture so they can sell make-up to adults and inspire fashion designers to advertise them in up-scale shop windows. It’s the DPMM selling them as Princesses (TM) who have their personalities sanded off and are meant only to be seen decorously standing about with awesome hair and fancy accessories.
That’s not Snow White with a broom in her hands, singing with a blue bird. That’s not Belle, climbing a ladder in a library, or finding a sunny field to read in. That’s not Tiana, with her sleeves rolled up and rolling out some dough or balancing her business’s accounts. That’s not Mulan helping her fellow soldiers learn to fight, or Ariel powerfully swimming through strong currents and ultimately deciding to be part of another world.
Check your hate for the Disney princesses themselves, and redirect your censure to the Disney Princess marketing machine. It needs dismantling far more than we need to destroy the stories it’s feeding on.
(Also, talk to your kids, and give them an Ada Lovelace doll for every Ariel mermaid toy, and a Marie Curie science kit with stern warnings about radiation alongside every fancy Merida dress. A dress which can and will go fabulously well with any bow of your choice. Our kids are bombarded with messages every day, but we can still be their strongest filter.)