Can we change princess culture?

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By: Kevin DooleyCC BY 2.0

When I speak of my disdain of the Disney-fication and/or princess-ification of girl culture, I am often met with a “Oh just you wait,” or a knowing “You’ll see!”, intimating that of course Disney and all its sexist princess-y glory is, you know, a given for all girls. And it got me to thinking. Maybe it is.

Certainly, once my kiddos head out into the world without me they are going to be immediately bombarded with all of the things (Disney princesses and morals included) that I have tried my absolute damndest to avoid.

So – if a princess phases is really somehow a given can we re-message and re-package what “princess” means and looks like in a way that makes princess life empowering and not merely about external appearance, wealth, and netting a hot young prince?

Can we revise the message of Snow White, for example, that tells girls that their beauty will make other women hate them? Can we find something empowering amidst prevalent messages that men fall in love with women for what’s on the outside, that men are women’s rescuers, that a heterosexual marriage (preferably to a wealthy, handsome prince) is the most important life goal?

I remain entirely unconvinced…but I’m open to suggestions.

Comments on Can we change princess culture?

  1. I used to play Cinderella when I was a kid. It meant putting on my brown, old style brownie uniform dress, tying my hair back with a bandanna, and scrubbing the kitchen floor. For me, Cinderella was about hard work.

    I also loved Ariel as a child. Because I wanted red hair. That was it. That was the extent of my rational for her being my favorite. As a contrast, my best friend hated Ariel because her favorite character was Flounder and she thought Ariel was too mean to him.

    My point is, kids don’t think about all the messages we think about. And maybe the concern is that it is subliminal. I did marry a man who could support me; I do frustrate him by constantly wanting to buy new, pretty clothes; And I do tend to care for all the little “woodland creatures” or grumpy dwarves I come across (I am the emotional refuge/den mother of my social group). But ya know what? I’m really happy with my life.

  2. I LOVED (and probably still love) most of the Disney fairy-tale movies. I love the animation, I love the music–it’s all so entertaining. I’m really not worried about my daughter eventually watching–and even loving–movies featuring the Disney “Princesses.” I loved them, and I can’t think of a single thing I took from them that’s been harmful to me (or even helpful…unless they’re buried really, really deep). Really, I don’t feel like my values were strongly affected by the movies or TV I watched growing up.
    Anyway, what I DO worry a ton about is my daughter getting so caught up in the consumerism that has exploded with the Disney Princesses, not to mention Dora or Barney, or whoever it’ll be in a couple of years when Sadie starts forming these interests. I’m happy for her to watch Snow White, I just don’t want her to have to have the Snow White bedding, fruit snacks, backpack, sleeping bag, lunch box, etc. I recognize that many of the shows I enjoyed as a kid (Smurfs, Rainbow Brite, My Little Pony) were glorified commercials to sell crap, but MAN have they gotten really good at it in the last 10 years or so. That’s what I’m scared of.

    • So true on the commercialism point! I mean, I was My Little Pony obsessed when I was a kid (heck, I am still My Little Pony obsessed, but only the vintage ones lol) but I don’t remember feeling the pressure to own every single My Little Pony thing.

      Personally, I think the movie Cars was way worse than any of the Princess movies. Anyone with relatives who loves that movie will probably second me on this one lol.

  3. Check out “The Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch. It is the BEST princess book EVER! Most libraries will have it. She saves herself and wears a paper bag instead of a dress!

  4. My favorite Disney movie was Sleeping Beauty…because I liked the scary villian Maleficent and the creepy part where Aurora pricks her finger…not to mention the huge dragon and the gory death scene. Maybe I was a weird kid.

    THAT being said I really don’t think kids will necessarily let everything they see in a Disney movie influence them forever. I though Ariel (the mermaid!) was a cool chick when I was a kid, but watching it again as an adult…I sort of saw her as a bratty 16 year old who gets married like, 4 days after meeting some guy. I felt uncomfortable with my ex’s daughter watching it, but had to remind myself “DUDE, she is 3!” and get over it. She was mostly in it for the songs and the fantasy…and she still loves princesses! But she also loves camping, bugs, ballet, reading and sports. Her parents make sure that watching princess movies is not her only activity in life, and that they are not her only influence! It’s more about striking a balance than saying “NO! You CAN’T like this!” Some little girls love the princesses, some couldn’t care less.

    I think what I start to worry about are the situations where little ones are spending hours upon hours watching this stuff, without stimulation from parental figures or any other more fun/educational/stimulating/challenging playtime activities, and when the movie is being used as a substitute parent instead of the occasional treat. That’s when you start to enter the “danger zone” of kids taking the stuff they watch waaay too seriously, and Disney Princesses is probably not the best thing for little girls to be completely consumed with.

  5. We are looking at these stories through a modern-day lens. These are fairy tales, historical fantasy stories which were told to children in a time where there was no social mobility. The message that these stories sends is that all women, however poor, are worth the love of a good man, and can aspire to more than their birth brings them. In these stories, external beauty is only present in those characters who posses sweetness of temper, obedience, and perseverance. Although feminists have painted these qualities as being oppressive, they are universally GOOD qualities.

    Take Cinderella, for example. She doesn’t bitch about her lot in life or waste time blaming others for the gross inequalities of her existence. She just gets shit done, has a positive attitude, and is kind to and respectful of everyone. She treats others as she wishes to be treated, and does not allow meanness or cruelty to harden her heart or break her spirits. Because of her indefatigable patience and love of others, she has won many loyal friends (the mice, birds, etc) who all work together to make sure she is able to attend the ball despite being given so many tasks that she’s unable to make herself a dress.

    And the princes are not assholes, either. They themselves are fighting against a sexist society. They are not interested in betrothals to wealthy, selfish, women, but are instead willing to rebel against society in order to find themselves a loving, equal life partner.

    Explaining to your children – sons and daughters – the significant evolution of society, and the historical context in which these movies were made will help put the Disney princesses back into a positive light. Walt Disney was not an evil, oppressive chauvinist. He grew up in a world that was very different than it is today. He was a good man who loved children and wanted to inspire women to work hard, never give up, and only give their love to men who deserved their love.

  6. Here’s the thing, though. There’s the Disney Princess marketing machine, and then there’s princess culture. Yes, the Disney princess merch is a HUGE part of princess culture, but it’s not all of it. The previous posters’ analysis, plots and interpretation about the good messages found in the fairy tales are all very valid. I love what me2, the second commenter, said about her mother’s approach, finding teachable moments and encouraging critical thinking about the movie plots. All good stuff.

    BUT! Princess culture is all pervasive. It’s not just Disney. Everywhere you go, you see princess pillows, crowns, costumes, Toddlers and Tiaras TV shows with multiple spinoffs, t-shirts, home decor (“If the princess ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” plaques for bedrooms). Don’t even get me started on the wedding industrial complex’s laser beam focus on princess culture.

    The word is embroidered on onesies and emblazoned on buttocks of low-rise sweatpants. The most famous princess of our time was quite literally hounded to death not just by the paparazzi but by the voyeuristic obsession of millions of people around the world who drove the massively lucrative media machine they represented. It’s a concept steeped in class privilege, entitlement and conspicuous consumption. So… how do we change THAT?!?

  7. My favorite Disney movie growing up was Sleeping Beauty. My mother named me after Princess Aurora, and I thought it was so freaking badass that I had the same name as a Disney princess. But what I liked most about Disney movies was the artwork. I’ve always been an avid artist, and when I was a little older, comparing the different styles between movies always interested me. The softer animation of Cinderella versus the angular and stylized animation of Sleeping Beauty, the difference between the movies made in the 50’s and the scratchy, almost unfinished style of the movies made in the 70’s, and more recently, the stylized animation of Lilo and Stitch. When I watched the movies, I would practice drawing the characters and singing the songs. The artistic aspects were the ones that always interested me the most.

    I also agree with Brooke – the Disney princess merchandise is what concerns me most, not the movies.

  8. My favourite princess as a child was Princess Smartypants from Babette Cole’s books. She doesn’t want to get married and turns down some useless potential husbands, spends time with her hundreds of pets and rides a motorbike – perfect!

  9. I agree with all the good points everyone’s been mentioning about the various Disney females (Belle was my GIRL!). I just wanted to share that I was raised on Disney + Barbies, and when I would play, my Jasmine doll divorced Aladdin for being a lazy drunk, and she then became president of Barbie Land and held press conferences in the town square from her wooden-block-constructed podium. Seriously.

    • Dude, you too? I had an entire Barbie world and I wanted realism. I even had a pregnancy doll. She was wider in the hips and waist because you rolled her big-prego belly over and popped it open to deliver her breach twins. I do confess that my Mary Poppins doll worked in the nursery at my legal firm. But I mostly used the dolls to represent people I knew. You knew you were somebody in my life when you had your own doll.

  10. It also makes me cringe that I have to listen to all the “Oh you wait and sees!” As though it’s not just a phase but a right of passage that my daughter will eventually want to be a princess as dictated by the Disney machine. Why is it so out of the realm of possibilty that she won’t go through this phase? For me it’s not the movies I worry about but the massive marketing. I beleive another commenter brought this up, too. The movies, by themselves, as entertainment, don’t feel all that harmful. The animation is beautiful. Love the music! The stories are upbeat, and with good parenting and a child’s imagination, are also open for interpretation (as evident by the many comments posted here!). But the fact remains, it’s not just movies. Our culture is saturated with these images. They’re dripping from the pink-lined toy aisles at the local Target. They’re splashed across wallpaper and bedspreads for that themed-room. Their faces smile back at you from paper plates to clothes to even more spin-off movies. Hell, they might even be on diapers!

    To me, that’s all too much and crowds out the wonderful alternatives listed here and also in natashapinterics own fab book list post. (sidenote: I’m always super-excited when you post) Many of the book titles and other princesses named were new to me and I guess I don’t want them to be unkown to my daughter. I’m comfortable w. my daughter going through a princess phase. I’m just not comfortable with it happening because some marketing team decided that’s how it should be and here are the princesses she can chose. I know I’m grateful for posts like this that bring light to the alternatives and make it easier to offer my daughter the diversity she deserves!

  11. To faintly echo the comments of many others, the effect that disney movies and EVERYTHING ELSE have on anyone is entirely dependant on the glasses in which they view the worlds through. (Their worldview).

    If girls and boys are taught by their care-givers a particular world-view, everything they come into contact with (particulraly up to the teen years) will be interepreted within the framework of that worldview. (And teenagers, if they rebel, will often rebel using their learned worldview as a framework to rebel from. E.G if a teenager was taught to disdain a particular genre of music:
    “My parents say that rock music is bad, but now I want to listen to it and I like it! I’m going to listen to it no matter what! Ha! I’m a rebel! I’m independant of my parents!”

    however if they were never taught that it was “bad” they would not feel like they were rebelling OR independent.

    So when it comes to disney princess’s, the interpretation will depend on your child’s worldview… which you, the parent, have an insane influence on.

    • …except if you have parents that are so accepting you have nothing to rebel from. Alas, damn my easy-going parents 😉 lol. You are right though, they taught me a basic framework for my worldview, and even though my worldview now it drastically different from theirs, we still have the majority of the same values.

  12. Disney films, particularly the early ones (snow white, cinderella, sleeping beauty etc) are based on much older traditional fairytales. Aside from the singing mice, the base story is normally very very old, The tale of snow white is older than the USA for instance. The roles of women in the 1600 – 1800s are much different than today, and for the early tales they were ‘modernised’ to 1950s standards! The obsession with married and happily ever after was in the original tales, disney just added the soundtrack.

    That said, my personal belief is that they set a terrible standard if that’s going to be your only introduction to what love is. As a child I saw that the message of cinderella was ‘stay very quiet and polite and work silently, doing nothing to change your circumstances and one day a third party will rescue you without you having to do anything unfeminine’. I didn’t see beauty and the beast until I was an adult, but the message seemed to be, she’s poor and bookish just like me! and Stockholm Syndrome! – the way I’ve viewed the films hasn’t changed as I’ve grown up, I’m not waiting on a prince to rescue me and I still love a disney sing-along. Children make up thier own minds about things, and as long as you teach them to question occasionally the things that are presented as facts (all men must fight a rival to win a womans heart! The natural reaction to rescue is marriage!) they won’t be any more brainwashed than the 20 – 30 year old posters here.

    What does bug me is the fact that they’re all so damn skinny, if women had waists like jasmine or ariel in real life thier kidneys would show through like mickey mouse ears at the back. One of the strongest disney females for a while is Esmerelda from the hunchback of Notre Dame – and even she has a sexy scarf dance in the middle of the film.

  13. Disney princesses are not too harmful as long as the parents/guardians don’t reinforce the negative messages. Maybe the princesses contributed to my body issues, but family members did more so by expressing how dissatisfied they were with their bodies. Having non-Disney role models helps too. My biggest role model from age 4 to present is Lisa Simpson. I can see Princess Fiona from “Shrek” being a kick-ass role model too. She’s princess and badass all in one package.

  14. Body image is one area I always had a problem with people blaming on Barbie and Disney. Granted, many of the Disney females are way too thin. However, I think the NEW barbies and dolls are way more offensive. They look like anorexic bobble heads.

    My own shape and family might color my opinion, though. I come from a family of larger breasted women with defined waists and larger butts and thighs. I’m also very short waisted with proportionally longer legs. I also happen to have very thick hair. Barbie was my girl. Now they have little to no figure, HUGE heads, large pouty lips, big eyes, and NO THIGHS…what happpened to thighs? Why do we have to transform all of the dolls why not have some of everyone?

    That being said, Disney has actually been more diverse in it’s female representation than they have been given credit for. Tinkerbell is pear shaped. Pocahantas has a more robust, athletic build. Megara is very svelte. Snow White was of a petite frame with very little waist definition.

    I think the greatest thing I took from it all was the LACK OF DISCUSSION. If you aren’t talking to your child someone else will.

  15. I agree with many of the posts that there are good things to take away. The big thing I took away as a kid is kindness and compassion. Big Disney theme is kindness to animals and nature, LOVE IT!
    Also loved Belle, she was so brave and took the place of her ill father, loved a beast for what was inside, Was independent despite everyone opinions and loved reading!

  16. I LOVED princesses when I was little, especially princess stories. My two favorites? “Jane and the Dragon,” and “The Tough Princess,” both of which will be passed on to any future daughters. I definitely had a princess phase as a child, though it mainly consisted of putting on my prettiest dress-up costume and playing outside in the mud.

    (Incidentally, that was also the time period in which I decided to shave my Barbie dolls and switch their heads around. But they were always dressed well!)

  17. so, i’m not sure to what extent i can weigh in on this – i was adamantly anti-princess and other things “girly” as a child.

    but i remember *loving* the “Dealing with Dragons” books by Patricia Wrede – they are basically “just because she’s a princess doesn’t mean she can’t save herself” books. and occasionally it was nice to think that maybe you didn’t have to pretend to be a boy to pretend to be awesome =)

    now, well, now i really do love disney princesses…i think i take them less literally than i did as a kid.

  18. I’d heartedly recommend the following books: for mums ‘Living Dolls – The Return of Sexism’ and for girls the Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett (Wee Free Men, Hat Full of Sky etc.) which features a young heroine who kicks arse and uses her brains rather than looks to win the day.

  19. I don’t think that Disney teaches it to our children. I think we forget children have a very innocent mind. And all the things that are written on that picture are adult ideals. If WE as adults don’t teach them those things, they don’t exist. If we change the way we think, then they become the simple wonderful fairy tale movies about love and happiness they were meant to be. And those things are ok to teach our daughters.

    It’s up to us to teach our daughters what is appropriate and what is not.

  20. When I was young and watched these sorts of movies, I never wanted to be the princess. She usually hung around in forests, looking pretty. I always wanted to be the Queen. Queens have power. Queens call the shots. People cower in fear before queens.

    I realise we can’t have a Queen culture, because, hey, that means something different now. But I wish we could.

  21. When I speak of my abject dislike of Disney, people like to jump in and tell me that Disney represents childhood, and fantasy, and imagination, and if I don’t like Disney, I’m probably some sort of childhood hater.

    I grew up without Disney. Now, I grew up pre-DVD and we didn’t have cable so I wasn’t subjected to a constant barrage of it, but my parents were very clear that their daughters would not be raised to believe that they needed to be rescued.

    I think the message that Disney sends to children is damaging. Children are not too young to absorb the messages of Princess culture. They might not be able to articulate it, but it absolutely impacts them. And the Disney message is reinforced time and time again through popular media. We are bombarded by patriarchy, and ableism, and heteronormativity To suggest that this doesn’t all play into who we become as adults is, in my opinion, naive.

    I have a son, and I will do everything I can to keep Disney out of his life.

  22. You know what? I don’t mind those movies so much, not any more than any other kids’ movies anyway. They’re bright, colourful, musical distractions from boredom, and that’s all they’re meant to be.

    And I see no problem with a little reinforcement of “traditional” female roles like that, since in real life these days, most women seem to find it more challenging to be free to choose being a stay at home mom or what have you than to follow a career path. It’s actually kinda rare!

    What does make me cringe however, is that people never seem to teach their kids what those movies are based off of. Disney didn’t create those stories or characters! They just took old stories that had been told and retold hundreds of times in hundreds of different ways and they added bright colours and music to them! Those movies are just watered down kiddie versions of the actual *original* fairy tales, which never included talking mice or impossibly skinny and beautiful women.

    I was raised with the understanding that stories were written by people, and every persons version is different, and my daughter will learn the same- before she watches the wimpy Disney shows. When I was a kid I loved Cinderella, but had to ask my mother why Disney left out the part where the ugly stepsisters cut off their own toes to try to fit into the glass slippers. She told me that some children would find that part scary because they’d think it was real, and at age six or so, that totally made sense to me! I honestly believe that anyone afraid that their little girls will base their entire lives off of one character in one cartoon has completely failed at teaching their children (or possibly even ever learning themselves) the difference between idle entertainment and life education/experience!

  23. I’ve also been concerned with the whole Princess BS. I really don’t want my daughter being exposed to it and had “outlawed” princesses in our home. (I’ve ranted about it here: ) Currently, we’re not outlawing Disney Princesses so much as encouraging strong princesses, princesses that can be girly but don’t wait around to be saved and/or taken care of. Our daughter is only 2 so time will tell if this strategy will work.

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