At the end of last year, just before the holidays, Disney announced that they would cease making princess movies. Women around the world took in a collective gasp, some of relief and others of horror. The era of the Disney princess was drawing to a close.
The actual statement made by Disney executives says fairy tale movies, but since the majority of Disney’s fairy tale movies have revolved around princesses, it means practically the same thing. Especially when you read further and learn the reason they are putting princesses aside: Boys won’t see movies with icky girls in them, and Disney does not want to risk alienating any boys.
I will pause long enough for you all to bang your heads against your desk. Feel better? Yeah, it didn’t work for me either.
Women often have a conflicted relationship with the princess, ranging from fond remembrance, outright loathing, and the old love/hate thing. GeekMoms are no exception. For the next few days, a number of us are going to be weighing in with thoughts as the princess makes her final appearance on the big screen.
While the adult part of me is somewhat happy to move beyond the frilly dresses, glitz, and helplessness of the princess, the child in me mourns her passing. When I was young, princesses were only an occasional indulgence. My exposure was limited to the rare outing to the kid-friendly movie and the even rarer trip to Disneyland itself. That actually worked out perfectly because, instead of being bombarded with an already assembled and prepackaged princess mythos, I got to make up a lot of it as I went along. My most vivid memory of playing princess has me dressed in the fanciest thing I owned, a red nylon nightgown with puffed sleeves and rows and rows of ruffles on the neckline. Alas, I had no glass slippers, but I did have a pair of white ankle-high go-go boots. Nor was I particularly pining for Prince Charming to come along; I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Spock (thus being way ahead of the curve on mash ups.)
As a parent, I only have sons so I honestly don’t know how I would have felt raising daughters with so much princess merchandise, DVDs, TV shows, and media tie-in books everywhere they looked. I imagine the 24/7 princess onslaught would have been a bit daunting. Perhaps the true villain in this tale is mass merchandising, rather than the innocent princess.
Although perhaps not. The princess in pop culture has taken on all sorts of unpleasant characteristics: She is vain, materialistic, shallow, and far too focused on catching the attention of Prince Charming, often at horrifying cost to herself. Not to mention the whole helpless-and-needs-to-be-saved thing.
Historically, real princesses were privileged but powerless, often nothing more than pawns in their fathers’ political aspirations and machinations, a way to cement new alliances and bridge old feuds. And let’s not forget–give birth to the next generation of the dynasty.
However, if you go back to the early folktales, the ones that Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm drew from, you will find that it was the heroine’s own quick wit, intelligence, and cleverness that allowed her to effect her own rescue. Long before Disney came on the scene, the princess’s role was being diminished in fairy tale retellings.
For all that there is not to like about princesses, princess stories also have a hugely important role in a child’s development. Fairy tales, like the myths that preceded them, codify and teach on a subconscious level. As Bruno Bettleheim explains in his book THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT, kids need to see undesirable behaviors at work in order to understand how wrong they are, but in a way that is far removed from their own selves. It is too overwhelming to recognize one’s own narcissism, much easier to see it in an evil queen who is threatening an innocent figure the child identifies with: the princess.
Even the most passive of princesses, Sleeping Beauty, conveys an important truth to today’s kids: sometimes in order to grow and move forward, we must accept moments of quiet and inner focus. Usually not as dramatic as a hundred year nap, but still. Huge growth is often preceded by periods of inactivity, even lethargy. Beauty from Beauty and the Beast not only rejects rank materialism for a simple rose, but experiences the rewards of looking beyond the surface to the richer depths below.
Cinderella’s problem with her stepsisters captures an essential truth about the daunting experience of being overshadowed by one’s siblings. It is the perfect mirror of many children’s feelings of having their chores be the dirtiest, dullest, most thankless and least appreciated. And what child hasn’t felt as voiceless as the Little Mermaid?
Fairy tales are rife with these sorts of hidden messages, a subconscious telegraph to the psyche. And before feminists everywhere scream at me, that is the point, I would like to point out that what is developmentally appropriate at five or six may seem downright creepy at twenty-five. Look at the sheer number of adults who were seriously creeped out by SpongeBob SquarePants or the Teletubbies. That is the beauty of good literature and stories–we take what we need from them based on our developmental needs.
There seems to me to be two problems pop culture princess. The first is that a lot of the negativity associated with princess has nothing to do with the princess characters themselves, but rather the word has, like b!tch, become a catchall used for the vain, shallow, materialistic, passive, and narcissistic.
The second problem with princesses seems to me one of arrested development: today’s princess never moves far beyond the Orphan stage of her archetypal journey. The orphan stage is all about fear of abandonment, looking for safety, wishing for rescue, wanting a caretaker. It’s all about quick fixes, the easy life, little responsibility. Of course, it is not only girls who spend time in this stage of human development, but popular culture geared toward younger girls focuses so much on the princess that it overshadows everything else.
However, whether you love princesses or hate them, the biggest reason princess movies are important is that they convey that girls can be heroes of their own BIG story. That girls’ interests and concerns are just as deserving of big screen time as boys’ interests and concerns. My biggest worry with Disney’s farewell to princesses is, what will step in to fill that gap in popular culture? My fear is–nothing.
Where will girls see themselves in today’s films? Where will their unique issues and interests be addressed? Where are the movies that will show young girls as the hero? This taps into the phenomenon that girls are expected to be satisfied with a steady diet of ‘boy fare’ whereas boys cannot possibly be expected to endure a single girl movie.
What if, instead of deciding princess stories were too uninteresting to inflict upon boys, studios and directors and producers worked to create stories that captured the original mythic underpinnings of fairy tales and broadened their appeal. Let’s show the heroine journeying beyond the innocent and the orphan stage into maturity, experience, and–especially–the warrior. And while it’s true that now more than ever, there are a huge variety of strong, clever girls (including princesses) in books, none of them are making it to the big screen–and won’t if studios persist on believing that a movie staring a girl won’t be interesting to boys.
Clearly I have just touched the tip of this huge subject and we invite you to joint us in our week long conversation as we discuss the pros and cons of princesses, talk about why we love or loathe them, and how we see their role in today’s culture!