The Threat Of Disney’s Princesses
Much to the dismay of my very traditional mother of blessed memory, I decided very early in life that I didn’t want to have children. Times have changed and I have a whole civilization to care for. Besides, the genetic soup is so complex in my family that the chances of heartbreak are at least as great as the chance for joy.
I was one of those rare kids who actually had a copy of some “original” Grimm’s Fairy Tales — the ones with lots and lots of gore.
Perhaps it was a safer and more innocent time then, for the most frightening things I see on television now are not images of an on-going war, but reportings on allegedly legitimate news about shootings within a few miles of where I am watching in San Diego. And not only the atrocities committed by handguns and assault rifles, but even repeated assaults with paintballs within a few streets of where I live.
By contrast, the presence of unabashed gore in fairy tales kept the contents of such tales simply in the realm of fantasy for me. For other children, it could have been the cartoonish violence of coyote and road runner, or the slapstick violence of the Three Stooges hitting each other with hammers and poking out each others’ eyes. It just wasn’t as scary as real life.
I remember my first brush with the image of a “princess.” Second grade in the local Jewish Hebrew Day school, I was educating myself in drawing with lessons in Sumi-e – Japanese ink painting — on the local educational television station, when my spectacularly inexperienced and inept second grade teacher said the class had been very good that day, and I had crayons with a lot of colors, and I was supposed to draw … a princess and a wedding cake.
Now I had never seen a wedding cake (having missed my parents’ ceremony by a couple of years) and sure liked the academic stuff better. I raised my hand and asked if a wedding cake looked anything like a Bar Mitzvah cake. Yes, lots of layers. Slam-dunk — turned that in for the display wall. I still remember my crushing disappointment — how this naive little teacher woman rolled her eyes heavenward when I asked what kind of princess she wanted. She told me to look at what everyone else was drawing — the heart-shaped bodices, the tiny waists, the enormous flouncy skirts. After all, I was a kid – a female kid. How could I NOT know what a princess looked like?
I mixed everyone’s drawings together and came up with something she would like. This was not how to teach then, and it isn’t now.
The best thing about this is that I somehow knew I was not princess material even then. Hearing the other little girls, it was dream weddings and princess lore. Precocious maturity aside, I was already hearing girls with really messed up body images, who would be playing with Barbie dolls. (I much later got a Tammy because she had short curly hair and was supposed to look like me, which I don’t think she did.)
Disney princesses – They are not exactly the fairy tale types who set out to find their fortunes, but start with mixed-up body image. Years later, when conducting eating-disorder groups, I would hear women who weighed in at over four hundred pounds lament that they could never look like their Barbie dolls, let alone have a man whisk them off with a glass slipper that fit. Pocahontas was not that different, as I recall.
All I remember now from the “classic” era of the Disney princesses – before the studio decided to be ethnically diverse with Pocahontas (native American), Jasmine (Arabic) and Tiana (African-American) — was that the story always seemed to be beauty-driven.
And beauty meant narrow-waisted, with perhaps the promise of fertility. The attributes of desirability have risen from the ideals of reproduction. In other words, what society has cultivated as a definition of desirability are the attributes that assure reproduction – the perpetuation of the species.
Not necessarily that we can all reach them, but people with these attributes are young of age, healthy, and will reproduce. Broad hips, narrow waist, full breasts – the entire arsenal of baby-making. Yep, basic evolutionary theory.
The species survives, but what about women, individual women, who are not going to look much like that? They too have the capacity to reproduce the species. Nature allows a lot of variation to continue survival. Extreme “beauty” is not a basic requirement.
But wait, there’s more than just basic biology in the Disney Princess universe. There are moral and psychological lessons – and sometimes they are not very reassuring.
Snow White (1937) teaches that if you are kind and gentle and wait faithfully for your true love, he will come for sure.
I can’t help but think of the late Ann Richards, the “White Hot Mama” grandmother who became governor of Texas, and rode a motorcycle, having obtained the license to drive it right before her 60th birthday. She said something to the effect that women needed to realize that when the true love showed up, he would expect her to make the next payment on his motorcycle. Obviously the Disney princesses cited above do little to help prepare young women for this kind of realistic (yes, I have known someone where exactly this happened) “Prince”.
I am not going anywhere near Mulan, who seems to have found it necessary to act like a male and get into the Chinese Army to get the job done for her family. At least we have someone non-white here, as we do with Pocahontas, where the lesson seems to be if you really love him you let him go to be who he has to be.
Tiana, the first African-American Disney princess, set off a storm of controversy about racial insensitivity. Was it aimed at attracting a white audience? Was it supposed to be a role model for young black girls? Did the creators handle the racial angle sensitively, or just tint the Disney formula a little darker?
I do not know if the job of creating ideals for young women is impossible, but apparently the opportunity to reinforce racial stereotypes abounds.
Body image problem remains, enough to inspire potential generations of anorectics. The illustration of this article shows almost exactly the heart shaped bodice of princess that I drew in second grade.
I will admit that I do like the incorporation of the Princess and the Frog legend. For many years I have been telling women who emerge from suboptimal relationships that they “gotta kiss a couple of frogs’ before they get to kiss the prince. I know — I did.
For me, I had hoped to live in a world where sex roles had pretty much disappeared. Where in the pantheon of Saturday-Morning-Cartoon shows could you take the standard protagonist (meaning a male) and substitute a female and a have a workable story? I have seen some action groups with women present, but more as sidekicks or supporting cast members.
Batman begat a Batwoman many years later. Superman begat a Supergirl (younger and inexperienced but at least as powerful) as time passed. Very few strong female heroes were developed without being over-shadowed by a male. The exception would be Wonder Woman. Even television’s hit series Xena, “Warrior Princess” was a spin-off of Hercules.
There have been some real movies and series where women scientists are the heroes.
There is something else going on, too. I read some place about little girls, under ten or so, wearing makeup (mostly lip gloss). I remember how I fought my parents to try lipstick for a ninth grade dance.
Of course, cosmetic sellers and people who push things like “Toddlers and Tiaras“ must be nothing short of delighted, but there is a really strong message here that physical attractiveness is fate. I have actually sat with allegedly mature women who believe that men only see that which is physical, period, end of list. Maybe criticizing Disney is too easy. Before Tiana, there seem to have been talks with “experts,” like Oprah Winfrey, who seems to have played a role in the movie. Maybe money drives all.
Maybe, on the other hand, parenting is more complicated than anybody wants to admit. The change of women’s roles may be a slow and ongoing process.
Mothers and fathers, better together than apart, ought to be able to navigate this.