Saturday, April 5, 2008

Who wants to be a princess?

Unfortunately, too many little girls, thanks to Disney's decision to turn their classic tales into cash cows. You can hardly swing a cat in a department store without hitting something pink, sparkly, feathery or emblazoned with Cinderella, Ariel or Belle. Rosa Brooks of the Los Angeles Times wonders what all this princess worship teaches young girls:
But don't be fooled by the sparkly magic wands, the pint-sized tiaras and those cute little "animal friends." The Disney princesses aren't sweet and innocent. They're a gang of vicious hoodlums, and they're plotting against you.

Start with some light feminist analysis. It will not have escaped you, Mothers of America, that Disney princesses -- Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and the rest -- rarely slay dragons, play sports, pilot jets or do open-heart surgery. Instead, they fiddle with their coiffures, linger over invitations to the ball, flee ineffectually from evil crones and swoon. Read more...

I would add this to Brooks' criticism of Disney princesses: They are awfully homogenous. I wonder if Disney is aware that there are African or Japanese princesses. If little black and Hispanic and Asian and Native American girls are going to swoon over a pink tulle-clad monarch, can she at least have brown skin or tightly-curled hair? Can we at least get a decent heroine of color? And don't tell me about Pocohontas and Mulan. Predictably, when a girl of color does show up in a Disney cartoon, she is whitewashed.

UPDATE: While doing some research for this post, I came across news of the next Disney 2D cartoon, scheduled for release later this year: The Princess and The Frog, which will feature the first African American Disney princess, Princess Tiana. Frankly, I'm not sure whether to clap my hands or shake my head. Read more...

Let me know when Disney makes a movie about a group of multi-cultural girl spies who wear awesome outfits and kick ass, too...or maybe a QUEEN who rescues a prince from a tower and wins his heart...or how about a heroine with a mother who survives the first 20 minutes of the film.

Let me know when Disney comes up with a character who has grrl power and sparkly clothes. Now that will be something to share with our daughters.


Jennifer said...

I SO HEAR you on the Disney Princess thing. There are two other issues to consider (well, many others, but two I"ll bring up here):

1) Almost every contemporary Disney film is missing a mother-figure. Mothers are virtually absent in the pantheon of Disney fairytales. The Little Mermaid? Dead mother--raised by single father and singing Calypso crab. Beauty and the Beast? Dead mother--Belle's a bookworm raised by a single Dad whose a madcap inventor. Pocohontas? Dead mother--except that I think her "spirit" is embodied in a tree--or maybe it's her grandmother's spirt--been a while since I saw that one. Oh, and of course, being raised by her single Dad. Alladin? Dead mother (or absent mother) and Jasmine, again, is a princess raised by a doddering single Dad. Mulan is the only film, in recent memory, to have a functioning multi-generational household--father, mother, even feisty grandmother. But, of course, the emphasis is on Mulan's relationship to her father rather than her mother or grandmother.

None of these girls really have mother-figures/surrogates--and we all know about evil stepmothers. Not very positive alternative-family-friendly messages to be sending to kids.

2) Costumes. One of Disney's cash cows are in the costumes--the ability to "dress up" as one of these princesses. So what happens, come Halloween, and you have girls who are donning outfits to be Mulan, Pocohontas, and Jasmine--and they all have blond hair? It seems a bit odd--and while I would shudder to think that anyone would tell a Latino/African American/Asian American/American Indian girl that she couldn't dress up as Belle or The Little Mermaid (or for that matter, we wouldn't exclude non-red heads for being the Little Mermaid either), there is still something a bit too "Orientalist" for me to see these Jasmine & Mulan outfits go by on Halloween night.

Anonymous said...


I'm so glad you bring up this point. A few weeks ago I was at a conference and next to me stood a vibrant little girl. My first thought (and comment) was "look at that sweet princess." One of the women I was with schooled me on even using the word princess.

It's so ingrained in our culture and our language we don't even consider it.


CVT said...

Sure, there is "Mulan" as a non-white main character-ess, but then they have to mess that up, too. Outside of the white-washing, there's the fact that this "Chinese" tale ends up with characters dressed up in traditional JAPANESE outfits half the time. Some of it is Chinese, too - furthering the "Orientalist" theme that there's no difference between cultures that have existed and grown separately for THOUSANDS of years.

Tami said...


The thing about mothers in Disney movies is just plan disturbing and I always wonder why more isn't made of it. Why is an absent mother such a popular plot devise with a company that claims to be all about the family?


It is part of our culture. This has long been an annoyance, but I wrestled with writing about it. I wondered if I was just being a pill.


Disney loves pan-culture: pan-Asian, pan-African, pan-Indian. Let's just glom a whole bunch of traditions together and call it diversity.

bradski said...

Definitely agree that the princess crap is horrible. My friends have two daughters, 3 and 5. The two girls love the princess stuff. My friends were amazed at how quickly they gobbled up the idea of being a princess and loved pink, frilly things.

I mentioned to my friends how sexist the princess stuff seemed. My friends were okay with it until the older child mentioned that she wanted to get married right away to be like Cinderella. That led to some interesting conversations.

On the other hand, I disagree with you about Mulan. My friends, whom I just mentioned, are a mixed couple, wife is Chinese and husband is Polish. Mulan is a softened version of the Chinese legend of a girl who became a warrior (like Xena). Since my friends' daughters look Asian, having an Asian character like Mulan is a good thing.

I remember as a kid there being this horrible cartoon about a group of African American kids in the future who had a flying, talking car. My dad walked in and saw the program on the TV and shook his head. All of the characters had exaggerated features, and their car was a jalopy with thick lips.

Pfeng said...

I hate, hate, hate the Disney Princess franchise! I refuse to buy them for my 4-year-old daughter... but it's hard to prevent friends and family from buying Princess stuff. One great-aunt handmade a quilt using Disney Princess fabric for some of the blocks. Daughter adored it; I swallowed my hatred and thanked the gift-giver profusely.

Beyond disliking the pressure to buy cheap junk just because there's a Disney character on it, what creeps me out is how the "European" princesses are clearly the stars, although some rare multi-Princess scenes star them all. But it's odd that half-fish-half-woman Ariel gets more face time than Jasmine, Mulan, or Pocahontas. One of my most hated items is the Disney Princess Ball board game, in which you have to walk your princess piece around the board picking up enough shoes to get to the ball on time. The picture on the board shows Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Belle dancing with their princes. Jasmine is standing in the background holding a scarf -- she doesn't even get to have Alladin come to the ball?

The whole franchise is full of WTF moments like that. Makes me feel icky all over :P

NOLA radfem said...

I did everything I knew to do to keep my kid away from the princess model. I talked to her about female images, about body image, about empowerment. Every movie and every commercial I used as a "teachable moment."

Now she's almost 14, obsessed with her looks, and wants to be a model.

Disney wins.

No matter what I tried to do, this damn culture is stronger than I.

Symphony said...

I have no problem with the princess movies. I'm pretty sure I was raised on them and I think girls are more damaged by a long list of other things that perpetuate stereotypes an gender roles.

I think the problems lies in girls who are submerged in it by their parents and not the ones who see a princess movie or three.


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