Why Disney Princesses Are Good For Feminism

Credit: Wikipedia

When it comes to discussing anything related to girls and self-esteem, Disney princesses are almost always at the top of the list.

Why? Because Disney is insanely mainstream with many growing up on it, and being influenced. The problem lies in the assumption that Disney princesses send the wrong message to young girls, and there seems to be an insistence that girls move away from the princess paradigm. But, when examined individually, it’s obvious that each princess is her own person, not mere caricatures. In a way, each princess gives a unique face to feminism and what it means to be a woman.

So I’ll comment on three of my favorite princesses:

1. Belle (19 yrs old): She’s an outcast because of her desire to read and be immersed in another world (ie: fantasy). Despite being very beautiful, she manages to cultivate lasting relationships with other male characters (except Gaston) because of her personality and interests. The Beast both behaves and appears monstrous but she’s always strong-willed, such as when he saves her from the wolves, and she’s tending to his wounds in the living room. All the servants fear his wrath, but she doesn’t back down from his temper and instead challenges him.

2. Mulan (16 yrs old): She has a strong sense of ethics, and knowing that her father is too old to partake in the draft, she went in his place. Out of all the princesses, she’s the least feminine, and seems more at place with masculinity than (especially considering how Chinese women were expected to behave). Mulan also possessed strong leadership skills (better than her male counterparts) and a bravery that no one else seemed to possess. She had a great deal of dedication to her comrades and her purpose.

3. Jasmine (15 yrs old – almost 16): Jasmine, like Belle, yearns for adventure, but also to get away from the confines and personal demands of royal life. She knows what she wants for herself and isn’t afraid to go after it – hence her running away. When Prince Ali comes to the palace, causing a ruckus, Jasmine declares that she’s “not a prize to be won”  and is determined throughout the movie not to settle for what her father (or the law) wants for her.

Naturally, when you look at each Disney princess film as a whole, it looks like patriarchal insanity (especially in regards to princesses like Snow White and Aurora, who wait for their prince to magically appear). But as individuals, they each embody a different perspective on what it means to be a woman: on how to achieve your dreams, on how not to give up despite insane obstacles.

Pocahontas fought for her people, for herself, and managed to educate John about animism. Tiana worked tirelessly to make money for her restaurant, and was determined and devoted to her dream – love seemed to just join her for the ride. Cinderella is infinitely patient, loving and kind despite the insatiable hatred of her step family; and there’s a certain kind of power in that.

So while many women may look down at Disney princesses as being frivolous or shallow – I highly encourage them to take a second look, because they might be surprised by what they find.

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13 thoughts on “Why Disney Princesses Are Good For Feminism

    • Haha. :D I love Disney (though not so much these days) and I definitely believe it brought a lot to the table when you speak about the quality of cinema. I mean, Lion King has been on broadway for 13 years and has won numerous academy awards. In fact, many Disney films (the earlier ones) won or were nominated for their original scores for example. So clearly, Disney was doing a lot of things right. Walt Disney created a brand that will last forever and I love that.

  1. All great points that deserve recognition.

    The trouble resides in the fact that each movie ends with the girl living happily ever after (with her man). Can a woman be happy without the white dress and tiara? Happiness isn’t the end result, happiness is all the stuff that happens in between. The strength they each show, the hardships they endure. The things that make them beautiful on the inside.

    • I think that depends on how you look at it. Compared to romantic comedies coming out today, the Disney princesses had a lot more self-sufficiency than contemporary women. Now, when you go to the movies, a woman is off the bat looking for a boyfriend or husband to make her happy or complete her in some capacity. In the disney princess movies, this isn’t exactly what happens. Aside from Ariel, Aurora and Snow White who actively looked for mates in order to be happy, the other princesses stumbled upon men. Examine the case of Mulan: did she join the war, looking for a boyfriend? Did Belle think that her freedom would take the form of a beastly prince? No – it just so happened to end up that way. The princes in most of the disney princess films act as an avenue of freedom from their boring/dysfunctional home life.

      Each princess was miserable in a unique way – Mulan lived in a truly female oppressive society where her literal goal in life was to make a man happy. And it made her question herself because she didn’t fit in. But she joins the army to help her family, though she is still frightened in the process, and ends up coming into her own version of what it means to be a woman. And technically, Mulan and the guy don’t even get married or anything – they’re just interested in each other. BUT, in general, the commander falls in love with her because of who she is, not what she looks like. The same can be said for Belle, who ends up cultivating a relationship with the Beast through playful friendship. Even the Beast isn’t romantically interested at first, until his servants point out that they can use her to break the spell. In fact, it’s quite obvious in the beginning that the Beast doesn’t really know how to interact with other humans at all, much less Belle.

      Of course there’s Jasmine, which I would consider to be a more traditional love story because it involves a great deal of wooing and the slow process of loving each other. Also, Jasmine wanted to fall in love, versus having an arranged marriage – which I think is also important to look at and very much in line with our contemporary views of relationships (though I can’t speak specifically about that part of the world she was living in).

      And if you speak in terms of hardships, each princess definitely endured physical and emotional stress. Cinderella was a literal servant to a family that hated her and lived in the dusty attic full of mice, Mulan went to war and had to do training with a bunch of men (so that meant her physical life was constantly in danger), Belle was technically in danger because of the Beast and then later because of Gaston storming the castle, Ariel was in danger because she couldn’t speak and knew nothing about the human world or where to go to had she needed anything, and Jasmine had supernatural enemies in Jafar and Iago, though living in the palace offered her more physical protection than other princesses.

      Also, I think it’s important to look at both the context of the films and our culture. The films are about young, white heterosexual women, and even in real life, I have met many women who feel that a relationship is going to complete them or make them happy. When I was in college (a single sex institution) each year I encountered countless freshmen who drove nearly 2 hours to go to the co-ed university and trying to meet boys. Even today, if a woman is single (regardless of her sexual orientation) she is asked “why?” and is often questioned intensely about her decision to live without a man. Even now (especially real life) women still try to seek out relationships and dating and companionship because we have an entire society where our source of happiness is trained to be found in other people. There’s a huge backlash against this as many people try to encourage happiness from within – but this isn’t the prominent thought process many people – both men and women – have. Women are expected to want a man because a man provides all sorts of things: and in each disney movie, each man DOES represent a unique escape from their life.

      Belle gets her to marry a prince who is a friend first (unlike Gaston who was rude and inconsiderate – the girl just wanted respect!). Cinderella marries someone who loves her and doesn’t abuse her. Mulan gets involved with someone who doesn’t have a traditional viewpoint regarding women, freeing Mulan from that need to be who she isn’t. Ariel married someone who allowed her to explore a part of herself that her family (ie: her father) didn’t agree with. And Jasmine got love, for who she was, not just how she looks (though initially Aladdin thought she was beautiful).

      So in a more symbolic way, the princes represent freedom from their oppression or unhappiness. And I think a lot of people can relate to each situation that the princess endured. So I think, in many ways, the disney princesses were far ahead of their contemporaries (in real life). People just focus on the end result: being a princess – and not what led up to it.

  2. Pingback: What do little boys get to be when they grow up? | Vagabond Cinema

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! I love the Disney princesses as people (most of them anyway) and I definitely feel the movies should be looked at in that regard versus an over arching disapproval with the franchise. :]

  3. I loved me some Belle. I know there’s some people out there who think the Disney princesses are evil, but I really don’t. I mean, it makes me sad that it took forever for them to make a black princess, but that’s society. I think on their own, there are some great lessons to be learned from those girls. Especially Belle and Tiana!

    • Bell is definitely my favorite princess. <3 I definitely agree – I think the Disney princesses are excellent and each definitely had a lot of courage to do what they did in each film. :] I haven't gotten the chance to see the entirety of Princess and the Frog but I definitely need to check it out.

  4. Great perspective. I for one was one of those people who left Disney a LOOOONG time ago. But your presentation has definitely left me open to looking at each woman as an individual and it begs the question, isn’t true feminism allowing ALL women to be themselves, whether it’s “traditional” or “non traditional” female roles. :O)

    There’s nothing wrong with having or wanting a partner. What is wrong, for both women and men, is not having a relationship with one’s self first. That to me is where the real problem lies in “looking for Mr. (or Mrs.) Goodbar.” Okay that reference might be a little too old for you. :O)

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked it.

      Yeah, definitely. I think there is a blatant back-lash against women for choosing more traditional roles. Admittedly, I used to be really upset with women who only wanted to marry and have babies. After all this struggle and fighting for rights (both black and white), and you just want to be some lousy housewife?! It used to infuriate me because I felt like they were just playing to a system meant to systemically oppress us. But now I’m realizing that part of feminism/womanism, is the ability and the choice to be who you want to be. Women wanted to break free of household roles (at least those who had them, this role wasn’t readily available for black/latina women) so that they can choose to be in the work place.

      Lol. The only goodbar I know is the candy, which is delicious!

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