Some Thoughts on Princesses

And no, I’m not going all Kate Middleton on you at this late date. I was recently catching up on some Disney podcasts and the last episode of Mouse Lounge was focused on the Disney Princesses. It’s a fascinating topic to me because 1) I am a bonafide Disney geek and 2) I was a women’s studies student and a proud feminist to this day. I found myself defending my love of Disney often in my women’s studies classes.

Still from Disney’s Fairy Tale Wedding Line. From Ranker

I never really overanalyzed though until a fellow WS student asked me a few questions about her senior project. She was looking at the Disney Princesses and their effect on young girls. This was just a few days after the first release of the Disney Wedding dress line and she hadn’t heard about that yet so I told her about that and didn’t think about it again until her presentation on her work in class. Her findings were telling if not unexpected – Disney Princesses could give girls the wrong impressions, and those imprssions fell all across the board: If I just wait, he’ll come rescue me (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella); If I change enough, he’ll fall in love with me (The Little Mermaid, might have an argument for Mulan here as well); If I just love him enough, he’ll change and be the man I need (Beauty and the Beast). I’m paraphrasing and certainly hoping I remember this well enough but you get the idea – the princesses are passive; beauty objects to which things happen but they themselves have no control over them. I remember listening and getting progressively more uncomfortable. Did I subconsciously take all that in? I was a kid long before the current Princess craze and Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutiques but maybe, a part of me had taken that in anyway? The more I sat there in class, the more I thought back and wondered.

Ariel was technically my first princess. I vaguely recall seeing The Little Mermaid in the theater when it came out and I loved the music but the story was never my favorite. It was Belle and Beauty and the Beast that ruled my world. I had loved to read already; all I had to do was perfect walking and reading at the same time and I was set. However, I don’t recall pining for my prince. I wanted to go off and have an adventure sure – wander forests, ride in to the rescue in the end, marry the Beast for his library…sorry, off track. The thing is, I never saw Belle as someone who was fishing for a man; the fact she finds one in the end is just sort of a bonus. I think it helped that my dad focused me on how smart Belle was, on how much she liked to read, on how brave she was. He never pointed out that she got to wear a pretty dress and married a prince. It was sort of besides the point in my world. So, I spoke up in class. I don’t think my friend was surprised. I was the girl writing her thesis on Cinderella after all (for WS, I was more into looking at the sexual revolution of women in the 1890s-1920s, but I got Disney in on the English side. Poor Cindy, she needed someone to prove she was a bit more than a perfect shoe model). I talked about my Dad’s point of view and how he presented Belle to me. It was true, I was an odd kid but I was just as inclined to love princesses as anyone. I am a born hopeless romantic but for me, Belle was never just a princess, she was first and foremost her own woman, with or without a man in the picture. My class found this interesting and we ran off into the whole nature vs. nurture discussion. But I’ve never forgotten thinking about my relationships with the princesses.

Fast forward to today and Disney Princess culture is everywhere. Talk about a merchandising mint. But my approach to the princesses hasn’t changed. They have their place, most of them accurately reflect the idea of women in society for when they were created (let’s all have a field day approaching Sleeping Beauty with that in mind) which is why Belle reigned supreme for me even over the more overtly feminist princesses Jasmine and Mulan. Then came The Princess and the Frog.

I had totally gushed over her dress first

I discussed this briefly when I looked at Tangled; Tiana, the princess for my 20s. Hard-working, practical, secretly funny and a dreamer at heart though she tries to deny it, Tiana and Belle run neck in neck for my favorite princess award these days. “Almost There” is a song that gets me through the hardest days, the days when I forget I do have bigger goals, bigger dreams and if I just keep working for it, with a little dreaming for good measure, than I’m almost there for sure. Mouse Lounge focused on Tiana a lot and how she is a more “modern” princess and has the mentality to prove it and I had to laugh because the little girl they were discussing in the podcast still just loved the music, the colors, the adventure of Tiana’s story. She wasn’t thinking about how Tiana is a positive representation of women in animation but about how pretty her dress is in the end. Because, let’s face it, girls will be girls and even those of us who like to think we’re above that stood in line to gush over Princess Tiana’s dress at the Magic Kingdom.

The Princess culture is fascinating but ultimately, I think it is a combination of things that make some girls fall head long into it and others just enjoy the ride along the way. One thing is for sure, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon and I am sure to see many a little girl happily skipping up Main Street decked out as her favorite princess on her way to the Castle for breakfast with Cinderella during my trip in September. And honestly? I don’t see a thing wrong with that.

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4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Princesses

  1. While I still feel iffy about the whole princess marketing thing (no, there's nothing wrong with someone dressing up in a flouncy dress if they WANT to, but pushing the pink stuff on impressionable kids really gets up my nose), I'm with you 100% on Belle and Tiana.

    I just wished the marketing matched the message of the films!

    From a fellow Disney-loving feminist – who's been meaning to write a post like this! – thank you for a thoughtful post.

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  2. Alex, I am with you on the iffy-ness of it all, trust me (I walked down a toy aisle at Walmart recently almost got blinded by the pinkness on the Disney Princess merchandise). Glad I could talk about something so interesting to you!

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  3. I love how this was written, and proud of you for it. Of course, because you wrote so well I want to add my piece. đŸ™‚

    I have to admit that, as a male, I never have thought about the princesses, or let's say female leads, of most of these movies as being weak all that much. Products of their generation and background yes.

    For instance, Cinderella was living in an abusive household, and we know what that kind of thing can do to almost anyone.

    Snow White was already a princess, so she's supposed to be looking for a prince, yet when she was out on her own she pretty much took over when she was supposed to. Jasmine certainly wasn't weak, and Belle, as you mentioned, wasn't weak at all; matter of fact, she's the only one who would stand up to Gaston, for all the good that did her.

    As for the rest, I guess I'll relate it to my own experience. You know I'm a major Muppets fan to this day. Some people think it's kind of childish for me to still love the Muppets but I could care less. When one looks at them as a whole instead of funny puppets they'll realize that what the Muppets represent is going for your dreams, taking chances, having fun and friendship. What adults couldn't always use those as goals for a good life?

    Loved this; just had to say it again. đŸ˜‰

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  4. Mitch, so interesting to get your take on this as always. Princesses in fairy tales are hot properties across the board right now. “Retellings” are always being published – so cool to me to see how many ways we can think of to tell the same story essentially. Which, as you'll remember, was what I looked at with my thesis on Cinderella.

    I love the take on the Muppets. Its something I knew in a sense but I like how you stated it. Am now off to add Rainbow Connection to my Inspiration Mix (I am quite embarrassed it wasn't already on there…*sheepish grin*)

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