For what seems like ages now, I’ve been reading about the bashing of Disney Princesses. The common thread, for the most part, seems to be the poor example that these princesses set for our daughters by teaching them that love is everything, that your man is the most important thing in your life, and that you need a prince to come and rescue you. People have praised the most recent princess, Merida from the Disney-Pixar film, Brave, for being the first and only princess to not give a damn about men and to stand true to herself, her dreams, and her desire to live her own life.
That’s great. Honestly and truly. I thought Brave was a great movie and I loved that Merida was such a headstrong girl with an “I don’t want to be a damn princess!” attitude.
However, as a woman who grew up with Disney movies, who has always loved all of the Disney Princesses, I feel a strong need to defend the others who have been so often picked upon.
Let’s go down the list, shall we?
To say that Snow White was a useless woman just waiting for her prince to save her is completely false. When this film starts out, love is the furthest thing from Snow White’s mind. At the start of the film she is simply a sweet girl who happens to be hated by a crazy evil queen. She is chased from her home and finds herself living deep in the woods with the seven dwarfs. She takes care of the dwarfs, teaches them common courtesies and how to clean up after themselves. She is then tricked by the evil queen in disguise into putting herself into a coma-state, which she awakens from by the good prince’s kiss. Okay, yes, in the end it was the prince who saved her. But it could have been anyone, really. Snow White wasn’t a useless woman sitting around and waiting for a handsome man to save her; she just happened to land in trouble because a crazy, evil, witch queen had it in for her, and as a result she wound up in a position where she needed saving. Guess what? Everyone on this planet needs a little saving once in a while. Not a horrible lesson for little girls, in my opinion.
Again, we have here a sweet young lady who has seen a lot of hardship…her father passed away and left her to the evils of her truly despicable mother-in-law and spoiled rotten sisters-in-law. She is forced to do all the housework, live in a tiny room in the attic, and never have any kind of life of her own at all. Is it any wonder that the poor girl dreams of a better life, of a loving family built with a loving man? Sure she could have dreamed of other things, but if you’d lost your father at a young age and been saddled with the worst surrogate family imaginable, wouldn’t you dream of real love? So she works her butt off in order to get to the ball (remember, she did a million and one chores all while trying to build her own dress from scratch, before the fairy godmother came along), and when she gets there she falls in love with a man who she doesn’t even realize is the prince. Cinderalla didn’t go chasing after the chance to be royalty…she stumbled into it because she just happened to fall for that particular guy.
Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
Here we have another Snow White, for all intents and purposes. Aurora is chased from her home before she is even a few days old, by a crazed witch who puts an evil curse on her. As a result she grows up in isolation with three fairies pretending to be spinsters. She grows up with no one her age, or even remotely close to her age, and doesn’t even meet a boy until she’s sixteen years old. Is it so surprising that she falls for him? She’s lived her entire life up to this point without even the prospect of romance available to her, and then this handsome man just shows up in her backyard one day. She’s a teenager, for cripes sake. The hormones must have been through the roof!
Ariel (the Little Mermaid)
Ariel is one of the princesses who is often talked down about for caring only about her handsome prince. Absolutely not true. When this story begins the last thing on Ariel’s mind is love. She’s a headstrong girl who dares to dream of something bigger for herself. She’s strong and adventurous and dreams of the world above. It just so happens that in her pursuit of that she comes across a man and falls in love with him. Yes, she risks everything for the chance to be with him, and she does some truly stupid things, but remember that this isn’t all about a man. Ariel has been dreaming of the surface world her whole life. Eric was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. And hey, for the record, Ariel fought back in the end. Sure, Eric saved her from Ursula, but not before she saved him from Ursula. That’s teamwork right there, ladies and gentlemen.
Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
Okay, I’ll admit it…I’ve seen the comparisons between Belle and a sufferer of Stockholm Syndrome and I couldn’t help but go, “Huh.” But that’s not all there is to this particular Disney Princess. For one thing, she’s smart. She’s the first Disney Princess who is portrayed as a bit of a scholar, always reading and helping her father with his inventions. Second of all, she has convictions about the concept of love and marriage. She turns Gaston down flat out because he’s an ass and she’s not about to get married just because everyone expects it of her. Third, she’s brave. When her father goes missing she rushes off to find him, and selflessly gives herself over to the Beast in order to rescue her dear dad. Okay, the rest of the story may seem a little unlikely, with her falling in love with the person who has been keeping her prisoner, but the whole point of this particular story is that if you look for the good in people you just might find it. Is that really such a terrible lesson?
Like Ariel, here we have a princess who dreams of something more. Come on, one of the first things that we learn about her is that she is rebelling against the traditions that say that she has to marry a prince. She doesn’t believe in marrying for money or power…she believes in marrying for love. How can you complain about that viewpoint? Sure lots of people insist that she never would have fallen for Aladdin if it hadn’t been for the power he possessed (the Genie), but personally I think that that’s just stretching for an argument. The first time we see Jasmine show interest in Aladdin is when he’s a beggar on the streets, sharing his stolen food with a couple of young street urchins. She sees the goodness in him long before he shows up pretending to be a prince.
I’ve never actually heard anyone complain about this particular princess, but for the sake of argument I’ll say this. Pocahontas was a strong warrior with strong convictions. She happened to fall in love with a man during an extremely tumultuous time in her life, and in the end she gave up that love for her convictions and her people. Not exactly a damsel in distress here.
And the exact opposite of a damsel in distress is Mulan. She’s a young Chinese woman who breaks all the rules about tradition. She doesn’t care about looking pretty, being delicate, or finding a groom. She is a tomboy of the highest order who would rather fight than be rescued. She bravely takes her father’s place in the Chinese army to keep him from getting hurt. She pretends to be a man to enter the army and goes through all the same training and hardships that the men go through. In the end she saves everyone – including the Chinese Emperor himself – from the Hun army. Oh, but she happens to fall in love while she’s handling all of that, so yeah, shame on her I guess.
Tiana (The Princess and the Frog)
Yet again we have a young lady for whom love is the absolute last thing on her mind. She has dreamed all her life of opening a restaurant of her very own, a noble, independent kind of dream. She works her ass off to make this dream come true, despite being blocked at every turn by corruption and good old fashioned human indecency. When she’s at her last straw, about to have all of her hard work and dreams ripped away from her, she takes a chance on a talking frog who claims to be a prince. What a horrible person right? For taking a chance when no options were left? For shame. And in the process of righting the wrongs and trying to get back to her true self she, like Mulan, happens to fall in love. Oh the horror.
And, my friends, before Merida ever landed on the scene we had little Rapunzel, who apparently was completely forgotten about. This girl was locked in a tower for her entire childhood, never knowing the outside world, never knowing any human contact aside from her “mother”. And yet she has the strength, bravery, and cleverness to coerce Flynn into helping her achieve her dream of seeing the “floating lights” in person. She goes on a great adventure, during which she is often the one doing the saving (Flynn would have been arrested several if not for Rapunzel and her frying pan), and in the end she is willing to give up her life and her freedom to save the life of a good man that she believes, at this point, she will never even see again.
And then we have Merida, who apparently is the only Disney Princess worth idolizing because she’s the only one who didn’t fall in love.
Let me just get this last bit straight: I’m not saying that each and every one of the Disney Princess was a perfect, flawless, shining role model for our little girls. What I’m saying (or rather, wondering, I guess) is when did it become such a horrifying thing to fall in love? Most of these princesses weren’t fawning around, waiting for a big strong man to come and whisk them away…they were lovely young women who went through hell and back, followed their dreams and beliefs, and oh, geez, sorry for being human, but I happened to fall in love somewhere along the line, and if I happened to have been rescued at one point or another, sue me, have you never needed help from anyone ever?
I just think that in this day and age we put far too much emphasis on teaching little girls that they need to be strong and independent instead of just letting them be what they want to be. When I was a young girl watching these movies over and over again I can honestly tell you that the romance aspect was not what I was enjoying. I loved Ariel’s adventurous spirit, Belle’s intelligence, and Jasmine’s plucky attitude. I felt sad for Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora for having their lives snatched away from them by the evil people in their lives. I was amazed that Pocahontas and Mulan were strong enough to fight for their people and what they believed was right. Never once did I watch a Disney Princess movie and think, “Yeah, I totally want to be a princess, so I’m going to go and get a bunch of pretty clothes and make-up and sit around and wait for a hot guy to come sweep me off my feet”.
In this, as with many things, I truly believe that we underestimate our little girls. We try to rescue them from dangers that we fabricate in our own minds. And in this, aren’t we ourselves being the “handsome prince” who swoops in, all cocky and self-absorbed, and tries to save the day even if it doesn’t need saving? Ladies and gentlemen, our little girls are not damsels in distress. If we let them be, they can be strong and brave and intelligent and adventurous. They can make their own decisions about the world and what is important to them.
And oh, by the way, if it does happen that “true love” is what’s important to a particular little girl? Deal with it. There are a hell of a lot worse things that they could be focusing their time and energy on, and many much worse role models they could be idolizing.