My friend DR finds the Disney princesses distasteful enough to steer her daughter away, gently, from princess-thoughts in general. I, on the other hand, have enough of a taste for certain princess-thoughts that I allow my daughter, sometimes, to watch and read about Disney princesses.

That would be fine if that were as far as went, but, in thinking about it, I’ve almost come to believe that I have no objection to Disney princesses at all. DR describes them as “confections.” They are that, aren’t they? What’s wrong with me? Am I losing my mind?

But I’m thinking back to a class on children’s literature a few years ago when I had the students read Hans Andersen’s The Little Mermaid as an antidote (I thought) to Disney, and we found the story turgid, wooden, demeaning to women and other human beings, and didactic not just in the usual way (i.e. thinly veiled defense of Xianity) but in support of an eccentric and oppressive religious understanding. A student in that class wrote an essay defending Disney against Andersen and I found myself almost entirely convinced.

One can have general issues with fairy tales, of course. I do. But, assuming one is willing to overcome them and read, say, Grimms’ Briar Rose, what does one have against Disney’s Sleeping Beauty? Remind me, someone!


9 thoughts on “Princesses

  1. Ah, it’s not the Disney fairy tales, necessarily, but the Disney princess phenomenon more generally: the oceans of materials with these iconic princesses on them, divorced from their narrative contexts and turned into simple, static icons of a particular kind of femininity.

    If we put Perrault’s Cinderella (from whence Disney) up against the Grimms’, I’ll choose the Grimm’s every time: Cinderella wants to go to the ball, and she asks her magic assistants for specific kinds of help, rather than simply receiving unexpected help from the fairy godmother. Oh, and goodness generally is less equated with appearances in the Grimms’ version than in Perrault’s.

    As Squiss is moving into non-picture books, one of the things I’m very much looking forward to doing is looking at all the different versions of any one tale with her. Perhaps the thing to do in the mean time is to find picture book alternatives to the Disney icons, to harness some of that negative energy into what I consider a more positive spin.

    On the other hand, I can’t tell you how excited I was when she announced the other day that Mulan is a superhero.

  2. The marketing tie-ins are sinister, yes. The vapidity of mass culture and its absolute demand that we all be as vapid as possible in imitation–this is a source of continual distress to me as a teacher, parent, and human being. For me, though, this kind of thing is as much connected to, say, skateboard clothes (ooo, look at me, I’m a rebel because I’m wearing a mass-marketed shirt that proclaims my rebel status, as dreamt of by a minion of the advertising conglomerates) as to Disney princesses. It’s inescapable. Which is not going to stop me from fighting it on every front, but still doesn’t make me think Disney is the devil particularly, not more than anything else.

    Or maybe he is. I’m still waffling around on the issue. Your point about Perrault helps. Perrault’s coy and sycophantic versions don’t pack the punch of the Grimms’. And perhaps also, they lend themselves more easily to the formation of repressive and passive attitudes in young girls.

  3. Do you know that book the Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch? Wherein the prince gets kidnapped by a dragon who burns down the castle and leaves nothing for the princess to wear but a paper bag. But she sets off to save the prince anyway and outwits the dragon and liberates the prince. And then the prince says oh my god, what ARE you wearing, you look horrible. And she says, you know what? You suck. and then she goes off to have more adventures.

    I love that book. But I also liked the Frances Hodgson Burneett book as well. I like diva-ness in girls and I’m not sure you can divorce it from princess-ness.


  4. Love The Paper Bag Princess! (Love Munsch!) Love all the other stories out there that turn the stereotype around and have the princess not get married, or marry whom she likes. The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke is a good one.

    But, more important, yes, and hooray, on divas! Eila’s into sparkly nail polish, high heels, and everything else along these lines that I wasn’t (and am not) into. Sure she’s influenced by the wider culture, but we all are, and I’m thinking she’s making it her own, if you know what I mean: it doesn’t seem to be mindless or merely responsive. If she does femme better than I ever did, more power to her.

  5. I have three daughters. Each went through a princess phase that lasted about one minute (Okay, two years.) And then, they never looked back, moving on to rock bands, ganstas, and fashion designers. My son did Thomas for a year, quickly followed by Pokemon. Through it all, they have expressed interests in their own stories (soemtimes THROUGH the templates provided by the mainstream ones). Although I hate the tie-ins, Disney’s stories and music are generally thoughtful and creative. Lilo and Stitch, anyone?

    As for princesses, I am convinced that the motif captures perfectly a moment of little girldom, around age 3-5, when they have not yet become the completely social creatures that characterize tweendom. These Little Girls are still one of a kind, for themselves not for others, inhabiting parallel universes made of crystal, not collective ones lined in denim, and hence — princesses. But just for a minute. Before they grow up, get attitude, and join the gang.

  6. Squiss met the Paperbag Princess (on TV) last fall with Eila, and then when a grandparent gave her a castle (complete with princess and prince and DRAGON) for the Christmas, she immediately announced, “it’s Ronald and Elizabeth’s castle!” The names have stuck, and we’ve certainly helped out with that.

    Generally, she rips the princesses out of their narrative (or lack of narrative) of origin and uses them to her own ends. This is what makes me worry less about the princess thing than I might otherwise. Good example: she announced the other day that Mulan has a secret power.

    I love how plastic stories and characters are for her. She’s very little limited by the text, although she does periodically get distressed when other kids are.

  7. The consensus seems to be that we don’t have to raise our kids in a bubble to get them to think for themselves. I guess this is the answer I was looking for. I’m still a little worried about it, but there doesn’t seem to be much choice, for me at least. When Eila was a baby a friend said, “get rid of the TV now. You’ll never miss it.” I didn’t, but I still sometimes think I should have.

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