As a kid, I grew up on a diet of Disney movies and princesses, while I was never the princess type the movies held fascination for me because of the big castles they lived in and when I pictured myself I always wanted to be the one rescuing of the Prince. As I grew older and consequently more cynical my take on Disney changed and I began to question what, was once a standard in my life.
Disney seems to have progressed since their 1937 movie of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, their latest movie, The Princess and the Frog (2009) has an African-American Princess (Tiana) who is rather unconventional in the Disney sense of Princess. The film, unfolds against a raucous backdrop of voodoo and jazz. Tiana dreams of running a restaurant (and is working two jobs to get there), does not believe in fairy tales and is persuaded to kiss a frog who really is a prince. The refreshing thing is also how she seems quite uninterested in men and is aware of the pressures of her race and gender. However this does not eliminate all the criticism that Disney has generated for their treatment of the ‘princess’.
The change that ‘The Princess and the Frog’ brings has taken time to come to the screen, although black feminism has been around for the last 40 years, and America has lived with people of colour for much longer. The movies of the last century, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, The Beauty and the Beast, show the woman in a rather disturbing light. They seem to emphasise that a woman’s only asset is her physical appearance, an image that has been reinforced as the ideal for girls around the world. More disturbing than the content of the movies is the phenomenon that occurred in the early 2000’s – The Disney Princess.
The origin of the Disney Princesses as a brand is a fairytale in itself. Andy Mooney played the part of the prince in shining armour. He joined Disney in January 2000 to save a consumer-products division whose sales were dropping by as much as 30 percent a year. A month later a line of princesses were born, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan and Pocahontas. What started out as a few princess outfits became an overnight sensation as Disney enchanted 3- to 6-year-old girls throughout America with everything from princess comforters and princess backpacks to princess-emblazoned sneakers.
Every reporter asks Disney some version of, ‘Aren’t the Princesses, who are interested only in clothes, jewellery and caging the handsome prince, somewhat retrograde role models?’ Andy Mooney has a standard reply to this, “I have friends whose son went through the Power Rangers phase who castigated themselves over what they must have done wrong. Then they talked to other parents whose kids had gone through it. The boy passes through. The girl passes through. I see girls expanding their imagination through visualizing themselves as princesses, and then they pass through that phase and end up becoming lawyers, doctors, mothers or princesses, whatever the case may be.”
Lyn Mikel Brown, co-author of a book on growing up and girlhood says, “Playing princess is not the issue. The issue is 25,000 Princess products. When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”
There have been no organised studies, as far as I could find, proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception (India Today conducted the survey with regard to Barbie in 2007). What’s more, the 23 percent decline in girls’ participation in sports and other vigorous activity between middle and high school has been linked to their sense that athletics is unfeminine.
In a survey released last October by Girls Inc., school-age girls overwhelmingly reported a paralyzing pressure to be “perfect”, which included not just topping the class and being popular but also to be “kind and caring,” “please everyone, be very thin and dress right.” It is the pressure to be it all. In saying that girls they can be anything, the world has inadvertently demanded that they be everything.
Disney’s’ Mulan, one of the more liberated princesses, showed a girl who leaves home, dresses as a man to save her father, defends her country for all she is worth and she finds love in the end, which of course is the prerogative to happiness in the Disney world. This is essentially the problem with the movies. Even the most ‘feministically correct’ movies say that happiness is having a man by your side while skimming over the facts of race, gender and the ability to be as good as men.
There is of course the other side; maybe princesses are in fact a sign of progress, an indication that girls can embrace their fondness for pink without compromising strength or ambition; that they can finally “have it all.” Or maybe it is even less complex than that and purely Freudian; maybe a princess is sometimes just a princess and we are reading too much into it.
Disney has created stereotypes in the past, with Mulan and more recently The Princess and the Frog, they seem to have taken that vital first step forward in promoting self-image for girls everywhere, albeit forty years late.
Walt Disney Studios. The Princess and the Frog. 2009
Walt Disney Studios. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. 1937
Walt Disney Studios. Mulan. 1998.
Orenstein, Peggy. The Princess Diatribe.New York Times, 2005
Brown, Lyn Mikel And Lamb, Sharon.Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes. St.Martin’s Press. 2006
Barnes, Brooks. Her Prince Has Come. Critics Too. The New York Times, Los Angeles. May 29, 2009
Marr,Marissa. Disney Reaches to the Crib to Extend Princess Magic. The Wall Street Journal. November 19, 2007