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Blog 5: Non-Princesses Need Not Apply

October 18, 2010

Where would my childhood have been without Disney? I loved The Lion King best, but I watched pretty much any movie that came my way. My mother ran an at-home daycare for about six years, and often I’d pop in a Disney movie to keep the kids quiet when I was trying to do homework.

But looking back now, I realize that ‘Disney Princess’ is a phrase that has entered American culture for a reason. It’s like saying ‘pizza with crusts’ or ‘book with pages’; of course a princess is from Disney. in a country with very little royal blood (I haven’t forgotten about your monarchy, Hawaii), princesses are like beautiful, perfect aliens from another planet. It might be different in places like England and France, where the dark side of being on the throne is common knowledge. (The one movie that does touch on a real-life tragic royal, Anastasia, was made by 20th Century Fox,not Disney, and even then the fact that her entire family died isn’t mentioned.)

I recently read an article by Peggy Orenstein that talks about the rapid princess-ification of young girls in America. Drawing from what I read there, it seems like Disney culture has a much deeper impact on girls than boys, if only because the princesses are starring players and the princes have only recently stopped being passive. While their heroics are impressive, the films weren’t meant for boys to watch to learn how to defend and respect women. They are much more likely to be watched by girls, who learn that, if one is in a pickle, a man can be counted on to help them out. The divorce rate of Americans certainly cannot be blamed on the fact that people learned the wrong skills from Disney movies, but perhaps body image among young girls and the raised importance of material objects can.

 Let’s look at these princesses (a Google search of ‘Disney Princesses’ will consistently give you Belle, Jasmine, Cinderella, Ariel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty). All of them have thin waists, most of them have long hair, and two are baring their midriffs. I’m not the kind of person who freaks at the sight of a belly button, but it’s kind of depressing that these girls are considered the pinnacle of beauty, and I look nothing like them. The princesses always have a happy ending, always do what is right and good, always get the pity, and are always rescued. By the time a girl is old enough to watch non-princess Disney characters such as Elizabeth Swann, she’s already a tween, and the less swashbuckling characters have already gone at her.

Though not featured as often, the other Disney women are often princesses in some way. Tiana, Disney’s only African-American princess, starts off as a waitress in New Orleans but marries the prince in the end. Mulan earns the title of the emperor’s successor, which would make her a princess as well. As daughter of the chief, Pocahontas has some princess status. Even Nala, who is a lion and doesn’t wear clothes, have breasts, or act particularly dainty, is technically royal upon becoming Simba’s mate.

Why is being a princess so important? It connotes power, of course, but in a little girl’s mind, it means being able to always wear dresses and jewelry and buy whatever she wants. It’s the ultimate girly dream. And frankly, there’s a lot of money to be made off playing the archetype. Orenstein points out that ‘princess’ merchandise drew in 3 billion dollars globally in 2006.

Is there an upside? Often, the princesses that girls idolize have traits that parents encourage in their children. Belle is an avid reader and learns to see past appearances. Mulan proves that women are just as tough as men, and Pocahontas is not swayed by racism or superiority. Snow White teaches the dwarves to be tidy and helpful, though perhaps the breaking and entering part is something girls should skip. But then again, I remember ‘Whistle While You Work’ when I’m cleaning, and don’t get a subliminal urge to go into the houses of others.

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