In defense of Disney princesses
In all the fuss around Frozen, Disney’s most talked about offering since the nineties, I’ve read and heard plenty of what I would call “off” comments about the Disney princesses of my childhood. As happened with Brave, the introduction of a Disney princess who “doesn’t need a man” seems to have given people, even Disney fans, the license to lay into all the princesses who have gone before. They say, “Finally a good role model for girls!” Well, I object to that. You can play the feminist card all you want, but feminism should be about sisterhood, celebrating all kinds of women and the right for girls to be themselves. The princesses of the Disney renaissance—Belle, Jasmine, Ariel, Mulan, Pocahontas—are all strong female role models. Smart, free-spirited, kind, brave; but we’re going to discriminate against them just because they happened to fall in love?
OK, maybe you all need further convincing, so I’ll try and invalidate some of the myths surrounding our princesses. Starting with possibly the biggest misconception of them all:
Name me one Disney princess whose main outfit is pink. Can you do that? Aurora’s dress is pink only for the purposes of the Disney princess merchandise, as there is too much blue in the line-up. Cinderella wears blue. Snow White wears blue and yellow. Belle’s main dresses are blue and yellow. Jasmine wears blue. Ariel tends to wear blue when she’s wearing clothes at all. Pocahontas wears beige—but a blue necklace. Wendy, Alice in Wonderland, that one from Atlantis (does she count?). Rapunzel, and Meg wear purple, Jane wears yellow, Esmeralda wears red. Mulan wears pink briefly, but since she’s in armor for the majority of the film, I think we can excuse that one. It is true that little girls are indoctrinated into thinking pink, pink, pink, but Disney ain’t the main culprit.
2. Love + Marriage = The Ultimate Goal
“I’m needed here.”
So the misconception here is that all Disney princesses want in life is to find a man to marry them and take them away to his castle. This might be true for some, but when you actually watch the films, the majority of the princesses know that there are some things more important than finding the love of your life. So Snow White hopes that some day her prince will come and Ariel’s willing to risk everything for a boy she’s seen for five minutes. But most of these girls have bigger dreams. Tiana wants to own her own restaurant, Belle wants more than to be somebody’s “little wife,” Jasmine questions the law that requires her to marry at fifteen, and when she does find her true love, she is prepared to let him go, as she knows the right thing is for Aladdin to free the Genie and so cease to be a prince. Pocahontas objects to marrying Kokoum—the brave and handsome husband picked out for her—and when she does meet someone she prefers, she realizes that it is more important she stay with her people, than leave with the man she loves. Even Aurora sacrifices love (the “peasant boy” she met in the woods) to return and do her duty as princess. Even for Ariel, the biggest romantic of all, it’s not just about Eric. Her dream is to be a part of the human world, and she does all she can to achieve that. And that’s all before we even get to Merida!
3. The Damsel in Distress
“I’m a Damsel, I’m in distress—I can handle this.”
So apparently the Disney princesses can’t do anything for themselves, and their knight in shining armor always has to save them. Well that’s just not true, is it? Ariel rescued Eric from a ship wreck, and later saved him from getting zapped by Ursula. Belle rode out to warn Beast about the mob. Pocahontas risked the fury of her own people to save John Smith from being clubbed to death. Meg pushed Hercules out from under a falling rock, saving his life. I’m pretty sure Esmeralda saved both Quasimodo and Phoebus at some point. Even Snow White found herself a place to stay and a job with the dwarves. Rapunzel imprisoned Flynn with her hair, is pretty handy with her weapon of choice (a frying pan, but better than nothing), and—SPOILER ALERT—figures out the mystery of her birth all by herself. Oh and Mulan? She only saved the whole of China. No big deal.
4. Poised and Pristine
“How ‘bout a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind?”
The Disney princesses are reported to be practically perfect in every way, but Frozen‘s Elsa wasn’t the first to feel as if she didn’t fit in. In fact, a recurring theme within the princess films is feeling like a reject. Mulan is messy, disorganized, and far removed from the expectations of what a woman should be within her culture, yet she is kind and brave and never deviates from who she really is. Ariel is wild and rebellious, and she stays that way. She doesn’t reign in her crazy for Eric (remember that carriage ride? Or the “snarfblat”?), yet he accepts her. Pocahontas stays true to herself and never flinches from giving John Smith her opinions. Meg is sarcastic, Belle is bookish, Esmeralda is a thief and an exotic dancer, and even Snow White spends her time telling the dwarves exactly what to do. The princesses all have their quirks, so why the “perfect” reputation?
5. Just a Pretty Face
“I’m a fast learner.”
Sweet and naive with not much between the ears: that seems to be agreed on. But it’s wrong. Mulan, first of all, was basically the poster girl for the smart, strong woman. Whether she’s discovering that by tying the two weights together so that she can pull herself to the top of that pole without having to rely on brute strength, or working out that shooting the canon at the mountainside will achieve more damage, Mulan constantly out-thinks everyone around her. She wins Shang’s heart but she never dumbs herself down to do so. Then there’s Belle, a reader and dreamer, misunderstood by the townspeople because she won’t settle for a handsome bully. Jasmine is quick-thinking and daring (pretending to be crazy when accused of stealing, uncovering Aladdin’s disguise, distracting Jafar so Aladdin can get the lamp). Pocahontas is wise about the world yet curious for further knowledge. Even the earlier Princesses often have a sharp tongue (Cinderella) or a capable hand (Snow White). Not one of them is stupid, neither do they give that impression.
When it comes down to it, everything you ever heard about Disney Princesses being bad role models is basically a lie. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella are old fashioned, it’s true—but these films were made in the thirties and fifties, and the strength they lack is more than made up for by the Disney heroines of the nineties. And if the early princesses are not especially feisty or courageous, they are always kind and hard-working, and since when have those been negative values?
The Disney princesses are all very different, but each have valuable qualities and all are unfailingly true to themselves. With so many un-favorable female stereotypes and unrealistic expectations of appearance and behavior in the media today, it is baffling to me that people continue to heap blame on the Disney girls. The princesses are beautiful, yes, but they are also smart, kind, good, bookish, sarcastic, wild, ambitious, and determined by turns. The message of be true to yourself and your dreams is repeated over and over, and if this is indoctrination, then it’s indoctrination of the best kind.
Catherine is a screenwriting student from Merseyside, England, with an embarrassing amount of Harry Potter knowledge. She is proud to be a Bangor University graduate and hopes to live up to the success of their most famous alumni – Bridget Jones. Her blog is www.basedonthebook.co.uk