[Op-ed essay for Race, Gender & the Media with the Reynolds School of Journalism]
All I wanted to be when I was a little was a princess. Is there something wrong with that?
I was born in 1994. I think that the 90’s were basically dead center of when the Disney princess phenomenon really took off. Most movies I remember seeing in theaters and at home were Disney princess movies. The princesses I watched on my old-school VHS tapes were strong. They were beautiful. They were kind. They were adventurous. They were brave. They were who I wanted to be.
Then fast forward to the mid-2000s. Reality television really took off at some sort of insane rate. It wasn’t quite my thing, but it definitely became popular with many of my peers. Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County aired in 2004. The Hills followed not long after (I lied, I watched this one for sure. Still love you, Lauren). Keeping Up with the Kardashians came on the scene in 2007. Each of these shows were riddled with sex scandals, cat-fights, broken relationships and just genuinely horrible people working against each other.
Is there something wrong with that?
I want to be A DAMN DISNEY PRINCESS
Now I’m 21, and I am less than six months from walking across a stage and receiving my college diploma. I am about to be tossed (more like forcefully flung) into the world of adulthood that is surrounded by horrific occurrences mixed with a big abyss of darkness that is actually my future. But through all of that, all I can really think about is how badly I want to be a kid again.
I mean, yeah, having my mom cook my meals and do my laundry is one thing, but I can live without it (as much as I would rather not). But the most important thing I wish I could get back was the feeling of being so sure that if I were the things that made up my favorite princesses, I would be okay.
As a now-20-something, I find myself grasping for that feeling back. Growing up, I took those qualities with me and applied them in my everyday life. I tried to be strong. I tried to be beautiful (and not just in the sense of physical beauty). I tried to be adventurous. I tried to be brave. I aspired to be these princesses, even though I wasn’t actually royalty (still, maybe one day…). And here I am, and I have been all of those things, and my life isn’t half bad.
Then why is it that there are so many that are against the Disney princess phenomenon, especially when there are a lot worse women that are exponentially more influential than Cinderella ever was?
I mean, there are a lot of people out there, especially women, that believe that Disney princesses promote anti-feminism propaganda that heavily affect young girls. Stephanie Hanes wrote an in-depth article on just this topic. One woman she spoke with believed that Disney princesses were the gateway to other challenges later in adolescence and adulthood, such as self-objectification, cyberbullying and unhealthy body images.
While so many girls and women do suffer from these things, is it valid to blame Disney princesses for it? Women in my generation grew up with these films, and it’s no doubt that they suffer from body image issues, bullying and sexualization. Hell, even I have suffered from all of it. But I have a hard time finding a link to idolizing Belle to these issues. It came in elementary school when my cheeks were chubby. It came in middle school when I got glasses that were too small for my large head (filled with intelligence, I would counter). It came in high school when other girls began pointing out my failing relationships on social media. It came in college when the stress of not knowing what I was doing or where I was going became too much. It didn’t come from looking at Snow White or Rapunzel and wishing my waist was the width of my arm. Like, what?
I do acknowledge that many young girls do see it that way, but there are very few that I have ever known or talked to that feel this way.
“I never looked at princesses thinking that the only way to have a good life was to get married,” said Sarah Shoen, a 21 year-old-student at the University of Nevada. “I mean, yeah, I am a hopeless romantic, but that’s also not my fairytale.”
And Sarah isn’t the only one I found that feels this way. Even Alexander Bruce wrote a paper on how college students now perceive Disney princesses. He found college women actually took their goals and values to heart more than their romantic relationships. So I did a little questioning of my own of more college-aged women.
“I still watch Disney movies, but I might never find ‘true’ love,” Elise Levy, a Biology student at the university, laughed. “That’s perfectly fine. I have other shit to do, like live my own life.”
I even interviewed a few women who were married at an early age of their views on the Disney princess effects and found similar opinions.
“I didn’t leave Spring Creek to find a husband, but I that’s what I got,” said Stephanie Tyree. She moved away from small-town Nevada at 17 to live in Ogden, Utah on her own. “If I learned anything from the princesses, it was that I have to do what I have to do and everything will fall into place after. “
Hanes also acknowledged the many parents that claimed defaming these films was a “feminist attack” and that the princesses practice and communicate a lot of great values to the little girls that make up the audience.
PRINCESSES CAN BE KICK ASS, TOO.
As much as I’m a fan of Snow White and Cinderella, I can agree that they are fairly submissive and lacking in strong character. However, I think that the main points to take away from the film are important to consider. I’m not sure that the creators of the films were attempting to create an “outline” on what it means to live “happily ever after” through romance. During the times that these were created, especially Cinderella (1950) and Snow White (1937), it’s important to remember the context that they were created. During these times, marriage was considered the road for women to take. I’m not saying I agree, but that’s just how it was. But they are classic films. If we are going to judge how these films are interpreted by young girls, we should also probably make sure that they don’t watch Titanic, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Casablanca either.
And as the times have changed, so have the Disney princesses. Let’s take a look at Mulan. She is a brave Chinese woman who saved China before she even attempted any relationship. Belle was an intelligent woman who dreamed of more than the small French town in Beauty and the Beast. Tiana was a single black woman who valued hard work and her dreams over any man in The Princess and the Frog. Frozen followed the love of two sisters that triumphed over romantic relationships. And MY personal favorite, Rapunzel dreamed of seeing the world and doing so much more in Tangled. Plus, it was damn funny and not love-at-first-sight.
These princesses held great values for young girls (and teens/adults, like myself…hehe) and shifted focus away from being reliant on any man to learn what happiness really is. That’s what I learned from these films. I relate to Rapunzel because I have followed the rules people told me my whole life, and I want to see and do so much more.
These princesses shifted from being dreamers to doers. I’m going to ask again. IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT?
REALITY IS NOT REALITY ANYMORE
I know there are many parents concerned about the effects of the Disney princesses on child development, and there are just as many (hopefully) concerned about the effects of reality television on the same. Girls in my generation grew up through the drastic shift through the princesses and the transition toward the importance of “reality” figures. Lauren Conrad was the classic white teenager in a reality show. We watched the heartbreaks, feuds, fights, tears, and God knows what else. That’s the reality a lot of those born in the 2000’s grew up with. We had princesses. They had rich white celebrities.
Is there something wrong with that?
There’s an undeniable difference between the Disney princess phenomenon and the new “role models” that we see on television depicting (cough) reality. My princesses were kind women with goals. They were each uniquely beautiful, both physically and internally. They dreamed of something bigger than themselves. They were dynamic characters and made me believe that I could do that, too. Reality stars are the same. They are laced with scandal. They alter their bodies to impress their audiences. They are mean and conniving. There’s definitely something wrong with that.
How can we pass such harsh judgments on Disney princesses that actually teach great values while we point and laugh while secretly taking notes on how to be like the Kylie Kardashian or Kristin Cavallari?
As times are changing, so are the new “role models” that young girls are looking up to. Anna, a 13-year-old girl from Spring Creek, Nevada told me that she would much rather watch The Bachelor and Keeping Up with the Kardashians than the princess movies she outgrew after her older sisters grew up and left the house.
“They are so pretty and famous,” she said. “I don’t want to be them, it’s just cool to see how they live compared to me.”
“Compared to me” is such a vital point in realizing how much these women on tv are affecting young girls at home. I mean, we all (mostly, and hopefully) know that what they are doing on television is often not accurate depictions of what they are like, but it’s also a subconscious trick that makes us secretly hope it is the way they live.
Despite the many parents that discourage their young daughters from watching these shows (mine still do, and I’m 21), it often doesn’t stop them from doing so anyway or consuming the culture that is now in every part of their lives. You can’t get on the internet or social media without seeing something about a reality star in some way. I mean, for fuck’s sake, the Kardashians were called “America’s First Family” and I’ve never been so sad and scared for America.
These are the people that we are allowing young girls to look up to while we are tearing apart the institution of Disney princesses that have actually taught girls values, both upfront and subconsciously. I was a religious Disney princess follower. I would like to think I turned out okay. And I know that many women such as myself feel the same way.
There’s nothing wrong with that.