Growing up as a female in our society, there’s almost no doubt that you have seen a Disney Princess movie. Since the advent of Disney’s film ventures in 1937 with Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, we have been inundated with fairytale after fairytale of princesses and the princes who save them. Based around folktales and legends, these movies were made to give young girls ideals to live up to and warnings of what the world holds. However, in the case of Disney Princesses being good role models to imitate I heartily disagree. While they hold quite a few admirable traits, most of Disney’s leading ladies lack depth in character and plot. They hold to ideals long since recognized as sexist and narrow. They face hardships that most young girls cannot relate to and are rarely representative of the diverse world we live in. There has been strides in the creation of female characters at Disney recently, but we hold fast to old ways still and I cannot just let it go.
As you can see in the image above people have already formed opinions about this topic. Those in support of the princesses being role models state that the earlier heroines, if you would call them that, are products of their times and that you cannot change the original fairytales to suit your own purpose. However, I believe that is exactly what Disney is doing. They take the originally dark stories of Charles Perrault, The Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, even historical accounts and put their own twists and morals into them. Many of the original tales are dark in nature with gruesome endings for villains and very few happy endings. Take The Little Mermaid for instance, who gives up her voice and being a mermaid to be with her prince only to have him marry another woman thus killing the mermaid in the process. In another case the story of Pocahontas almost completely devoid of historical accuracy. The woman who was given the title of Pocahontas was never romantically involved with the famous explorer John Smith. She was a girl of twelve at the time of his visit to Jamestown and thus not involved in the talks had between her father and the settlers.
Disney based it’s tale off of the fictionalized stories of John Smith’s travels. (Calloway, Colin G. First Peoples, pg. 103-104) In these remakes we see Disney’s ideas of what young women should be. Princesses are beautiful, young, innocent women trying to find their way and often it leads them to trouble where they are rescued and fall in love with princes who are virtually strangers. Ariel, for all her curiosity and desire for independence, gives up her voice in order to become human for a man and has to persuade him to fall in love with her with little else than her smile and “body language” as Ursula puts it. Cinderella, the princess of all princesses, finds herself a prince who falls in love with her just by looking at her, only to discover that he cannot recognize her without a shoe. How are these stories of true love and relationships that we should aspire to have?
In reference to the times and culture during the creation of some of these movies, the image above was created in 1956 around the time of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. It is promoting vitamins by showing a husband praising his wife for her housework as well as stating that her domesticity is what makes her attractive. This type of ideology was prevalent during the 1950s and 60s. With the expanding middle class and creation of suburbs, the world of June Cleaver was the goal for families. We can see the effects in the emphasis of the home and care taking in both Cinderella and Snow White. The creation of damsels in distress and domestic heroines followed plots where female characters had little control outside of their homes. They were easily persuaded and tricked into dangerous situations and had to rely on men to save them. These women had little to no agency at all.
The problem with dismissing the earlier tales as stories not to change or products of their times is that we still revere them after our society has evolved. Shouldn’t out favorite stories and role models change with us? By accepting them we are saying the oppression and misogyny of those times is somewhat okay. Sleeping Beauty is essentially lied to her entire life by those around her, when if they had told her not to go near any spindles she might not have had to deal with the curse in the first place. Then there is the whole issue of consent when it come to the “true love’s kisses” in both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. What if the first princes to get to them weren’t their soul mates? Would there have been tons of men kissing them while they’re in magical comas? The abject acceptance and passivity in many of these tales are not traits I could ever emulate.
Even the more recent movies have problems. Although movies from the 1990s and forward have much more well rounded characters with aspirations and minds of their own, they still fall back on tropes and cliches that make these princesses hard to swallow as role models. Beauty and The Beast features Belle, an intelligent, well read young woman who dreams of a world beyond her provincial town. However, she ends up having to live with The Beast/Prince Adam in order to save her father. Now finding love in unexpected places is a wonderful thing, but developing feelings for your captor is on a whole ‘nother level. Try Stockholm Syndrome for example. This is psychological disorder that can develop in traumatic situations where captors and hostages develop positive feelings for each other due to the stress put on their bodies and minds.
With other princesses there are issues of representation. The majority of princesses are of Caucasian ethnicities and while there have been major strides with the creation of Chinese, Arabian, and African American women, there is still a need for our society’s diversity to be seen. How about more ethnic diversity, different socio-economic statuses because the majority of these women are born into nobility or end up marrying into it? There could be various orientations and life goals, even more expansive settings as these movies are often set in the past or a fantasy land. A big change would be in beauty standards. Some argue that the active lifestyles and social statuses of the characters allow them to stay slim and good-looking. If princesses were to mirror what the average American woman looks like then they’d be a size 14 rather than the size 2 on screens. Young women could focus on the inner beauty of the spirit and less on the shape and size of the package it comes in.
Essentially, most of princesses of the past and present lack the agency, complexity, and diversity to be productive role models to girls and young women. Some reinforce gender roles and stereotypes. Others present false history. Many of them rely on men and problematic relationships to create their happy endings. All of the portray unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards. The princesses aren’t horrible women and they don’t all have terrible stories to tell. They do lack the depth of character and complex hardships that women of our world face. They cannot be role models if we can never see them as being real women rather than fictional. I would prefer to look to the women around me to find inspiration.
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