I have a long and troubled relationship with the Disney princesses. I used to know exactly what to think: as a feminist and a mother of daughters, the princesses were terrible. Unfeminist. Passive and appearance-centric, romance the central motivator in their lives, they were full of nothing but terrible, regressive lessons, and I should keep my house clean of the Pink Demon as much as possible.
I've had a lot of changes of heart over the last decade. One of them was an embracing of pink. I spent so many years rejecting the feminine on the grounds that it was icky and inferior, without ever realizing that was itself a kind of misogyny.
And yet that sort of circular thinking is everywhere: if it's for girls, it has to be bad, because girl stuff is bad. It's bad to have Rebelle archery sets, because the plain black Nerf ones should be fine for everyone. It's bad to have Lego Friends, because girls should just be able to play with the same ones the boys do.
So I've been thinking: I know I would have loved pink and sparkles and ruffles and True Love Overcoming All when I was that age. Sometimes I love it now. And I started wondering if the princesses were actually as anti-woman as I'd always been taught to believe.
And I've started to think: no, actually. Princesses aren't the evil plaguing our daughters, and you know what? They might even be doing some good.
Two Sides to Every Story
You can get a pretty terrible moral out of any given princess story.
It's sort of true that The Little Mermaid, for example, is about how finding a man is important enough for self-mutilation. But that's a very uncharitable reading, and overlooks the film's significant and overt themes: how young women need freedom and agency apart from their parents, so they can make their own mistakes and live their own lives. Similarly, Beauty and the Beast is as much an allegory about the difficulty of loving someone who has suffered a past trauma as it is about Stockholm Syndrome and abusive relationships.
You could play that uncharitable reading game with just about any movie. The Wizard of Oz is about a murderer who will do whatever she has to to get what she wants. Sherlock Holmes is about a fatally obsessive man with a terrible drug addiction. Star Wars is about a group of criminals and terrorists trying to take down the government.
Let's look a little closer at one of Disney's older films: Cinderella. In this one, the princess does literally nothing to affect the outcome of the movie, beyond being pretty and pleasant at a party. She's a victim of circumstance who gets out of an oppressive situation by capturing the love of the right man.
But look, even Cinderella is fundamentally about how the hopes and wishes of a woman could matter, be important, even transform her life. Against the grand backdrop of history, that strikes me as not a terrible message. Remember, when Cinderella was created, it was totally cool in contemporary entertainment for Desi to spank Lucy for being naughty... and he wasn't alone, either. When Cinderella was made, Disney didn't hire woman animators.
Sure, Cinderella didn't have much agency. Sure, everything is handed to her. But that's a very compelling fantasy, the fantasy of being taken care of. And for people who are in an oppressive situation, a story where you don't have to struggle more than you do already to get what you deserve -- that everything will just magically resolve -- that also has value. It's a story of hope. For a child who has basically zero agency in their own life, the message that someone in authority could help to make it all better if you talk about your problems is... you know, maybe not the worst thing.
Ah, but they're all still romances, right? Disney propagates the idea that being in a relationship is the most important thing. Look, there's nothing wrong with romance, and suggesting that a story fundamentally about love has cooties and is bad is its own kind of misogyny.
i'm pretty damn feminist, both in word and in action. I can write a book, change a tire or a diaper, repair a toilet, apply liquid eyeliner, grill a steak, deliver a talk and a bedtime story both, and on and on. And I loves me a good romance, because love is a powerful and important part of the human experience. Remember, the idea that being a feminist means hating men is abject slander from the 1970s. You can be a feminist and a loving wife and mother all at the same time. You can be a feminist and still want to fall in love.
Disney: Keeping Up With the Times
Cinderella might not be the most progressive story out there, but looking at the arc of the princesses -- from Snow White on to Belle, all the way to Frozen's Elsa and Anna, we see a track record where Disney is constantly iterating and doing better. The princesses are increasingly feisty, decisive, smart. They desire and they think and they act.
Disney is to some extent chained to its traditional princesses and stories that were palatable to their times -- remember, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were a product of the 1950s and 1930s, respectively. (...And based upon fairytales that are centuries older; the films aren't true to tradition, sure, but making them more traditional makes the feminist angle worse, not better, what with all the rape and all.)
But progress has been made, and lots of it. When we look at the modern princesses, we have Mulan and Merida, both warriors. We have Tiana the entrepreneur. Belle the bookworm. Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa are all complex and well-drawn characters that defy being pigeonholed by any single descriptor at all. Disney's not perfect, but they're trying as hard as they can, I think. The princesses get more interesting as characters and people, and not just as fashion dolls, with every passing princess film.
So is the problem that the legacy princesses keep hanging around with their not-feminist-enough messages? Disney's had the good sense to lock away Song of the South with its racist streak. Should we demand the same treatment for Snow White?
I think not. The goal of feminism -- my feminism, anyway -- is that women should be free to make the choices they want for themselves, with no judgment for wanting "the wrong things." The win state is not that the damsel should never be in distress, just that she shouldn't have to always be in distress. By now, Disney's actually drawn a pretty broad variety of situations and characters.
It's true that princess culture is complicit in keeping in place many of the troubling stressors women and girls suffer. But when you talk to me about impossible beauty standards and eating disorders, I'd point to Photoshop and the "obesity epidemic" before I'd point to stylized animation. When you talk to me about early sexualization of children, consider the retailers selling padded inch-thick push-up bras in the kid's department before looking at Disney's chaste kisses between adults. (Unless you think a kid shouldn't see their parents kissing, in which case... I don't think we'll ever be on the same page.)
These are problems, sure, but they're not problems Disney created, and Disney isn't the primary villain here. At least not while my seven-year-old is walking by billboards for Victoria's Secret the size of a school bus.
It's also true that Disney has an imperfect track record when it comes to diversity, to put it kindly. I can't defend that, and I won't try. It's worth noting that to this day, when you go to the Magic Kingdom during the holiday season, there's not a Chanukkah decoration to be found for sale or on display for love or money.
And while they've tried to make a racially diverse array of princesses, those efforts have smacked of tokenism, the worst kind of stereotyping, and appropriation. I was incredibly disheartened to see that there wasn't a single person of color in Frozen. (Unless you count rock trolls or snowmen, which... I do not.) And as for heteronormativity... well. Let's just say I think we've got another twenty years to go on that one.
And indeed, it's true that Disney is contributing to a consumerist culture that is environmentally damaging at best and destined to cause the annihilation of our species at worst. To fix that one, we have to look to government and economics; Disney (and Apple, and Sony, and on and on) are only playing to win by the rules we've given them.
These are real problems. Upsetting problems. But these are not the arrows that (mostly white) feminists throw at Disney when they say we shouldn't let our little girls play at princesses.
But all of this is just theory. So here's the thing. Princess culture as we now know it has been in full swing for a solid twenty years. So if there were an epidemic of girls taught to be passive spectators to their own lives, to swing for a man and get him to the altar as fast as possible, then we'd be seeing it happen by now.
And if you see a little girl in the throes of a princess obsession, do you see a wilting wallflower waiting for someone to notice her? No, you do not. Think of the pejorative use of 'princess': it means 'a woman willing to fight to get it her way.'
No, coming out of princess culture, you see girls who know what they want and are determined to go after it. You see girls who stand their ground, girls who use their voices. You see girls who have been catered to, girls who have been told that what they like matters.
This is no small thing, my friends. Women are now more likely to aspire to go to college than men... and to actually graduate. Marriage rates are at an historic low, and women are getting married at the oldest age in more than a hundred years. Perhaps this isn't in spite of princess culture. Maybe, just maybe, it's because of it.
Because we've spent a couple of decades telling little girls that what they hope and dream and wish for is important. And the value of that message simply can't be overstated.