As a child I was pretty much obsessed with Disney Princesses. Ariel was and still is my favourite. I watched that film so many times that one of my aunts still recoils at the mere mention of mermaids! I’ve always looked forward to sharing my love of Disney with my child – especially my love of Disney Princesses.
So, imagine my surprise when, whilst mooching around Facebook groups, I come across the following post. (Paraphrased to protect identities)
“Dear group. Please help! My little girl is three and likes Disney Princesses! It’s all she will watch. I wanted to raise her as a feminist, not all of this out dated crap. How can I stop her watching these things?”
The Disney Princess in me was floored. What do they mean, they want their little girl to stop watching Disney Princesses? How could that be? EVERY girl can be a princess if they want to, right? I delved into the replies, which ranged everything from “Don’t worry about it.” Right through to “My child had that phase. I took away her princesses and gave her dinosaurs to play with” and ending nicely with “Oh yeah. She liked Tangled, so I read her the original Rapunzel story where the prince falls out of the tower and goes blind… Soon changed her mind!”
It seems there is a corner of the world where Disney Princesses are considered the absolute enemy to feminism. They represent everything that is wrong with the world and some folks just will not allow their daughters to watch it – no matter how much they like it. I get that many of them are outdated, but are they really the enemy to feminism that people claim they are, or is it all up to how we look at each princess and her story?
A lot of the older princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora etc etc) are very much products of their time. People complain that they show women as weak characters who are waiting around to be saved by a man, but they forget that some of these films were produced even before women had the right to vote! Feminism wasn’t even really a “thing” then, let alone something that Hollywood would know about. That aside, though, it’s worth noting that even the older princesses have qualities that any little girl should be proud to possess.
Snow White from Snow White(1937) – Snow White is kind, a friend to the animals and rather than just mope in her sadness, she spends her days at the dwarves’ house making it lovely in return for them letting her stay.
Cinderella, from Cinderella (1950) – Cinderella is awesome! She puts up with all the crap from her step sisters and step mother. She makes sure to make herself known as a person in the house when the Duke arrives, the glass slipper fits and she gets her happy ever after.
Aurora/Briar Rose, from Sleeping Beauty (1959) – Ok, yeah, so she spends the majority of the film asleep, but in the start of the film she provides for her “aunts” by harvesting berries and fruits in the woods in order to make a cake. Like most of the princesses, Aurora is also a friend to the animals.
Ariel, from The Little Mermaid (1989) – I love Ariel! She’s a feminist for sure. People like to go on about how it’s bad that she risked everything “for a man but the reality is she risked everything for someone SHE loved. I mean, she saves his life in the beginning! Apart from anything, Ariel was the first Disney Princess to have red hair, teaching red-haired little girls that they were beautiful too.
Belle, from Beauty and the Beast (1991) – ok, so we all know that there’s some pretty unhealthy themes and ideas in this movie, but let’s talk positives about Belle herself. Belle is super smart. She’s a book-worm and is a tough cookie – tough enough to decline the advances of Gaston. She swaps her freedom for that of her father and instead of just locking herself away, she teaches the Beast how to be human. Above everything, she sees beyond the beast being… Well… A beast!
Jasmine, from Aladdin (1992) – Again, she’s a friend to the animals, her very best friend being a tiger. She’s a sassy rebel who won’t conform to cultural norms and what is expected of her. She sneaks out of the palace, refuses to marry Jafar against the wishes of her father and stands up for the one she loves. Jasmine was also the first “ethnic” princess and although her culture wasn’t portrayed realistically,she again showed girls that you don’t have to have pure white skin to be a princess.
Pocahontas, from Pocahontas (1995) – I love Pocahontas. Stepping back from the fact that the story is essentially a bastardised version of a much sadder tale, I think as a princess she is fantastic. She is strong, independent, in touch with nature and isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in. This film taught young girls to “listen with your heart”, which is important.
Mulan, from Mulan (1998) – Do I have to tell you what is great about Mulan? Mulan disguises herself as a man to take her elderly father’s place in the army and then just, oh, casually saves everyone. She throws aside tradition and risks everything for her family. Mulan is a total badass – strong, resilient, loving and beautiful as well.
Tiana, from The Princess and The Frog (2009) – There’s a great line in the Princess and the Frog uttered by its heroine – “It serves me right for wishing on stars. The ONLY way to get what you want in this world is through hard work.” If that’s not a positive message, I don’t know what is. Tiana gets her wish in the end – her restaurant – and finds love too, even if she does spend most of the movie a bit on the green, froggy side.
Rapunzel, from Tangled (2010) – runs off from the “mother” who is holding her captive? Finds her family? Chops off her magic hair for love? Yup, that’s Rapunzel! She’s also sweet, funny, has magic hair AND paints beautiful pictures all over her tower.
Merida, from Brave (2012) – this arrow wielding princess is all about the family. She’s strong, independent and refuses to conform. She taught little girls that you don’t have to be girly to be a princess.
Elsa and Anna from Frozen (2013) – Anna is often your stereotypical Disney princess in that she is looking for love, but aside from that she’s not your traditional princess. She’s dorky, clumsy, and a bit annoying if I’m honest – especially when she’s chasing “the one”. Elsa, on the other hand, is graceful, powerful and beautiful and really doesn’t need a man. I love that the “act of true love” in this movie is between them as sisters.
So, there’s your princess round-up. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not about looking at the negatives. If your child likes princesses, talk about the positives with them. Many of these princesses were strong women in their times. Each one of them has positives and lessons to be learned. It’s about opening up a conversation about the films, rather than taking them on face value. “Isn’t Belle smart how she reads books? Which book would you like to read tonight?” “Wasn’t Snow White silly taking the apple from the Evil Queen. Should we take food from strangers?” “Do you think Jasmine should have snuck out of the palace?” There’s so many conversations that can be had and some of these films are a great starting point, so don’t dismiss them as “anti-feminist nonsense” because I truly believe that each and every Disney princess is a feminist in their own way. It’s not just about “aren’t they pretty?”, you can turn the princess conversation into anything you want.
As was mentioned in a conversation with a friend earlier tonight, I don’t know when we stopped just letting kids be kids. For much of my childhood I wanted to be a mermaid, then a ballerina, then a teacher. I haven’t ended up being any of those things, but I have come out as a well-rounded, feminist individual who is certainly not sitting around waiting to be rescued, but does occasionally wish upon a star.
Proudly linked up with…