Tikkun Olam Tuesday: In Defense of Princess Culture

My Saturday plans were slightly derailed by a marathon of – first – Animal Planet’s show Too Cute and – second – ABC Family’s screening of Enchanted and Tangled.

Some small background on me: my mother came from a big family, so she was accustomed to a lot of noise in her house. So when my siblings left home for College and I was the only child left in the house, the television was often on in the background just for the added noise. When I am home alone, I usually fall back on similar behavior, turning on a movie, television, YouTube, iTunes, a Podcast, TedTalks, or SOMETHING as background noise. I just operate better with some kind of white noise around me. But when that white noise involves Amy Adams and/or Rapunzel, I’m not as productive as I might otherwise be. All of that being said, here’s the point: I am an unabashed fan of the Disney Princesses. I really don’t know if this puts me in the majority or not. I get the sense that it does, but I also feel like I hear a lot of Disney Princess-bashing. Maybe it’s that I’m in a minority of people who love all the Disney Princesses and also self-identify as a feminist. I’m not entirely sure. In March, I read an article by Mayim Bialik (whom I also adore) about what’s wrong with Princess culture. I really love most of what Mayim has to say on her Kveller blog. But I take issue with the implication in her blog that science and Disney Princesses are mutually exclusive. That feminism and Disney Princess culture are mutually exclusive. That the Disney Princesses are teaching young girls the wrong thing. But in the midst of my taking offense, I also – like any good Jewish woman – have self-doubt and guilt. I doubt my conviction. By forsaking my Saturday afternoon for Enchanted and Tangled, am I a party to a culture that seeks to perpetuate gender stereotypes and oppress women. Do I need to re-examine my attitudes so that if I one day have a daughter, I don’t raise her with detrimental gender stereotypes unfitting a good feminist mother/role model?

This is not the first time that I have reflected on this issue and it is not the first time that I have decided that, not only do I not have any problems with the Disney Princess, but I also think that the Disney Princesses will be excellent role models for my daughters.

We could mince words about the how Princess culture has very little to with the Princesses themselves (very few of them actually wear pink). But I don’t want to just be defensive here. I want to talk about why I am an advocate for the Princesses.

The Princesses embody female individuality. The Princesses rebuff societal and familial expectations placed on them solely because they are women and daughters. While the Princesses are usually aware that others scorn their behavior, they always sing about wanting something more for themselves. These are not women that settle. They stay true to themselves. They dream. They hope. And they occasionally cry about dashed hopes, but they pick themselves back up and try again. They maintain a positive attitude. They are kind. They love their neighbor (although they usually don’t want to marry their neighbor). They are gracious. They fight for the ones they love. They are strong. And it doesn’t hurt that they have the cutest pets.

Yes, each Disney Princess is a damsel-in-distress. But while this complaint has some merit, what I think is most significant is that none of the princesses view themselves as damsels-in-distress. None of them embrace passivity. Even Sleeping Beauty, the consummate damsel-in-distress defies her foster mothers by going out into the forest and falling in love with a handsome stranger. She balks at the suggestion that she would leave her peasant life for royalty and an arranged marriage.

The Princess stories are filled with not only excellent female role models, but they are also filled with female villains. The Disney Universe is largely gendered female and I think that is positive for our daughters. If anything, my problem with the Disney Universe is not the representation of the Princesses, but rather the Disney representation of the Disney Princes. The Princes rarely talk! They have little to no personality. With rare exception, the Princes do little more than fight the villain and win the hand of the Princess. Which brings me to this TEDtalk: Colin Stokes: How Movies Teach Manhood. Colin does such an excellent job of making his point, I have little to add.

I will say that I understand why the Disney Princess are an easy target.

Flynn Rider

But in demonizing Sleeping Beauty in her pink (no, blue!) dress, we distract ourselves from the more insidious messaging being heaped upon our children. I’m cracking jokes in the middle trying to make a profound argument, because it’s hard for me to talk about uncomfortable topics. However, my little jokes are counter-productive, so I’ll defer back to Colin who makes the excellent case for why these cartoon representations matter.

I guess my Saturday afternoon wasn’t totally wasted.

PS. It is worth noting, also that the Disney Princess Universe struggles with addressing race. That’s not the intended focus of this post, but I thought it would be negligent not to acknowledge this other area of poor representation within the Disney Universe.

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