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.
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:
And now consider the more contemporary image of Snow White:
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.
This trend continued and even intensified with the princesses of the 90s, Jasmine, Ariel, and Pocohantas had disproportionate shapes and showed more skin.
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.
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.