COLUMN: The Disney Princess Problem
Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 22:10
No campaign against the American woman has proven so complex and so pervasive as the dominant commercial influence of the Disney princess on the American girl.
The Walt Disney Company doesn’t just make princess movies—it lives by them. Nearly 76 years after the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the $134 billion corporation plans to roll America’s favorite circus back into town for what will almost surely prove another obscenely lucrative retelling of an outdated, misogynistic tale.
Frozen, the latest heir to Disney’s princess legacy, is too big to fail—even if its $185 million budget manages to betray it at the box office, Disney’s merchandizing empire will stand behind the film faithfully. So long as the Walt Disney Company continues to see its offensively extensive lineup of premium Disney princess backpacks, lunch boxes, clothing, dolls, linens, handbags, coloring books, costumes, and even Disney princess-specific paint colors (this stuff is too absurd to make up) flying off the shelves, it’s difficult imagining any change in the princess paradigm.
So what’s the problem with princesses? I mean, it feels almost un-American for me to challenge this sort of thing. Few things speak so comfortably to our democratic sensibilities as this treasured notion that every girl is just a tiara away from becoming a princess, and to me, this is what’s terrifying. We’re all just one tiara away from undoing centuries worth of progress.
Walt Disney didn’t create the Disney princess innocently. Historically, these characters were designed to reintroduce young girls to a more traditional sense of femininity. It was his way of securing the woman’s domestic role, particularly at a time in history when she might otherwise be inclined toward terrifying things like, I don’t know ... entering the workplace. We see in Disney’s first generation of princesses a strong sense of “household” virtues. They are chaste, sheltered, and show a great fondness for household duties. Happily ever after for these princess is no more than marriage—it’s the threshold at which women put girlhood fantasy behind them.
And still, in Disney we trust.
Surely the second generation of Disney princesses, started in 1989 with The Little Mermaid and followed in 1997 with Beauty and the Beast, would be influenced by a far more progressive worldview. The answer here is complicated, but in many ways, these princesses were even more offensive than the first batch, because they are depicted as smart, adventurous, outspoken, but still lack any true sense of purpose until the discovery of their princes, and ultimately, they fall into the same trap of happily ever after.
What does it even mean to be a princess?
Apparently, not much. Over the past 15 years, Disney has used the phrase as catchall, applying it to Chinese culture (Mulan), Native American culture (Pocahontas), even the American South (The Princess and the Frog). It’s disturbing, how the Walt Disney Company tries to convince their female audiences that throughout all of history, over the entirety of the world’s surface there has been a cultural precedent for the princess. It’s a bold marketing ploy that ignores the nuance of all these cultures, and would seem to suggest at no time, and in no place, have women even understood themselves as fulfilling anything other than a traditional matriarchal role.
See, “princess” is a world that has no functionality outside the setting of the patriarchy. This is why the title “daddy’s little princess” makes sense to us, while “mommy’s little princess” sounds strange and wrong. Implicit in it is a sense of royal male lineage.
It would seem that maybe, for the sake of my argument, I’m ignoring the new generation of princesses, the free-spirited, confident Princess Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled or the athletic, discerning Princess Merida from Pixar’s Brave. These two characters are what you might call princesses against patriarchy—they’re champions of women’s liberation, enlightened warriors who are decidedly more intelligent than their male counterparts. It seems anyone slightly skeptical of the princess legacy need only look to these two to find reason to forgive Disney all its trespasses.
But I don’t believe it. Disney has no incentive to elevate the role of women. Rather, these princesses need to reflect the values of modern American women to sell. If you look past the characters, and actually engage with the structure of these movies, it’s approximately the same—a young girl extends herself beyond a domestic setting, and through her naivete exposes herself to conflict. Even with their merits, these movies are ultimately looking to validate the outdated legacy of the princess for a new generation.
Why do these strong, independent female protagonists still need to be qualified as princesses? It’s as if to say it’s who women are by royal blood or marriage that makes them great, and not what they do.
The princess lives for her happily ever after, at the terrible expense of happily today.