Like almost every mother of a young daughter in North America today, I have to contend with the constant onslaught of one of the most powerful invading forces in world history: The Disney Princesses. These coquettish, long-lashed cartoon beauties could put Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler to shame with their unabashed lust for power and their ability to invade, conquer, and subdue even households run by resolutely feminist moms.
Emma loves the Disney Princesses. I tolerate them in moderation, though I do subject her to a fair amount of sarcastic subtext and ironic questioning of the story whenever we’re exposed to them. Today I was dozing on the bed while she watched Cinderella III (not a video I bought, in case you were wondering). A trailer at the beginning blared its relentless sales pitch through my sleep-fogged brain, promising even more Disney Princess movies with “more great stories, more great lessons.”
This is one thing about the Princesses: they are also unabashedly didactic. And I will admit that in a world where little girls have Britney Spears and her ilk as role models, the virginal Princesses, with their shiny little lessons in Good Manners, Helping Others, and similar Family Values, seem pretty innocent.
It’s trendy to hate Disney, of course, but as I drifted off for my long-weekend nap, I reflected on the fact that the most wholesome and didactic of the Disney Princess products are the direct-to-DVD sequel movies, and the storybooks — in other words, the original products that aren’t based on traditional fairy tales. Disney certainly puts their own spin on the fairy tales, but they do have to work with the constraints of the traditional story. Before their Disneyification, what are the messages of the original fairytales in which these beloved Princesses star?
Cinderella: Patient suffering, and working hard at menial jobs, will be rewarded. If you work and suffer without complaint, an external source will come to deliver and reward you — as long as you have small feet.
Snow White: Pretty girls are always jealous of prettier girls. But it’s OK, because if you have a modicum of courage and truckload of domestic skills, you can escape and make a better life for yourself — temporarily. In the end, it’ll still require a prince’s kiss to save you. Also, apples are not necessarily good for you.
Sleeping Beauty: This is the great Greek tragedy of the fairy tales. Your fate is foreordained from birth, and no matter what you do to subvert it, you cannot escape. Both your doom and your salvation are out of your hands: you might as well kick back and sleep for a hundred years while passively awaiting your savior. (Also, avoid pricks.)
OK, those three are pretty bad in terms of the messages they teach young girls. I’ll skip over Jasmine of Aladdin fame because only the Disney story assigns her a character at all — in the original she’s a nonentity. I’ll also leave out the truly fabulous kickass role model Mulan because, being steeped in Western storytelling traditions, I don’t know much about the original Mulan of Chinese legend. It does seem like Mulan is a genuinely empowered young woman. I guess Disney had to go all the way to China to find a story featuring a girl that wasn’t completely passive.
Let’s move on to the two real winners of the bunch:
Beauty: Lesson of Beauty and the Beast? If you’re pretty and sweet and good, the power of your love can change an uncouth and cruel beast into a handsome prince. Check out some shelters for abused women to see how powerful and pervasive this myth is in our society.
The Little Mermaid: As I’ve argued in a similar essay I wrote when Emma was much younger, Disney gets full points in my books for making this hauntingly beautiful Hans Christian Andersen tale into a shallow pop musical — because regardless of what they did to the literary quality, they managed to subvert one of the most harrowing messages ever told to young girls at bedtime. Message of the original Little Mermaid (the pre-Disney cartoon of which cast a long shadow over my childhood): Love is worth giving up everything for. To be specific, for a handsome young man you should be willing to surrender your identity, your voice, and even your life. And he won’t even love you in return.
Once you look at the original stories, the Disney princesses get a little easier to swallow. At least they tend to be spunkier and take more agency in their own adventures than their Grimm foremothers. I can stomach a few of their smiling, sugar-coated life lessons on Being Nice and Playing Fair, even if the sequel movies and storybooks themselves are a little cringeworthy.
It’s a case where my instincts as a writer and lover of literature vie with my feminist instincts — Andersen’s Little Mermaid, for example, is a far more beautiful and evocative tale than Disney’s. But years of stories of passive women, over and over — how does that shape a young girl’s sense of herself?
I am currently raising what appears to be the most empowered and self-actualized seven-year-old girl in the Western hemisphere, so the princesses certainly aren’t hurting so far, and they may even be helping … I don’t know. Don’t ask me about their appeal; I don’t even like the colour pink. But despite the fact that their stories have been cleaned up, spunkified, and superficially made to conform to both Feminist Values and Family Values (a neat Disney trick), they are still teaching some unspoken lessons that make me want to go on sarcastically commenting on them, and discussing the subtext with my daughter.
The three great unspoken lessons of the Disney Princess Empire:
1. Good girls are pretty girls. All Disney princesses are thin (sometimes eerily so — have you looked at Jasmine’s waist?) and beautiful. Nothing good ever happens to ugly girls in Princessland.
2. Princesses need a lot of stuff. A lot of bling, a lot of pretty dresses. And little girls who love princesses need all the princess stuff so they can be princesses too, because conspicuous consumption is the mark of a good princess.
3. Falling in love and getting married is the Best Thing That Can Ever Happen to You. Even Mulan comes home from war with a guy and gets hitched. Without question, love and marriage are the ultimate goals for the Princesses. Personally, I’d be happy to bastardize old Hans Christian a little further with a version of Mermaid where Ariel decides Prince Erik is boring and leaves to go on tour with her girl band. Or a B&B that ends with Beauty going, “You know, you’re still a beast inside … I’m going to go start a mobile library for underprivileged leper children. Catch ya later, Beast!”
But maybe that’s just me.