Misplaced Princesses

Misplaced Princesses

Oct 19

My kid is WAY into Disney princesses.

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She’s into Disney period. Pixar too. She watches each flick multiple times, of course, but she’s burned through most of the top-tier Disney films and has begun to sample the second- and third-tier product, such as (*chill*) Oliver & Company.

I’m not sure how to feel about it; on one hand, I do believe it’s ultimately harmless and while she doesn’t need Disney movies to fuel her amazing imagination, she sure does seem to enjoy playing Cinderella, Simba, Dumbo, Nemo, and the like. On the other hand, I feel like we’ve totally played into the hands of a cold, uncaring corporate behemoth intent on twisting the minds of the young into lifelong customers, whatever the cost.

It’s a pickle. Somehow, we survive, and wake up each morning, and in a few months, we’ve decided my kid’s first Real Movie in a Movie Theater will be this new Disney princess movie, The Princess and the Frog, which has been touted as featuring the first African-American Disney princess.

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I just hope she fares better than other non-white Disney princesses, because if Disney’s past efforts are any indication, Tiana may be doomed to a future of obscurity.

In case you haven’t spent much time in the Princess section of your local toy emporium, the Disney Princesses consist of basically your bread-and-butter WASPy ladies of stature: Cinderella, Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty), Belle, Snow White, Ariel.

Jasmine from Aladdin was technically the first “princess of color,” if you will, and she does okay; we have a few princess items that allow her to stand alongside the other princesses.

Pocahontas and Mulan, on the other hand, are almost never around. A Google Image search may show otherwise; when I looked for the above pic, I did find a few images that feature Mulan alongside the other princesses.

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But if you go into Target for a Disney princess nightgown, or wallpaper, or bedding, you’ll rarely see Jasmine and you’ll pretty much never see Pocahontas or Mulan. Granted, these characters don’t fit easily into the anglo-saxon storybook world of the other princesses, but it’s Disney. It’s all fantasy. As Tim Gunn might say, “Make it work.” (I feel like an asshole for quoting Tim Gunn, don’t worry.)

I happen to think the princesses are okay role models for young girls, especially as part of a balanced pop culture diet that includes plenty of other role models; I’ll be a bit disturbed when my kid reveals she wants to be a princess when she grows up, but right now her answers vary from “astronaut” to “mommy” so no worries yet. The princesses are relatively strong characters overall, and Belle loves reading, so I don’t object too much.

It does bother me, however, that based on my own (anecdotal and not at all scientific or comprehensive) observations, the two strongest Disney female leads have been shunted into the background because they don’t wear pretty dresses and they don’t live in castles. It bothers me as much as the fact that Jesse is still the hardest Pixar character to find merchandise for, even though she’s basically a “girl Woody” and the strongest female Pixar character to date. Okay, maybe except for her.

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When The Princess and the Frog is released, Tiana will be everywhere. She already is; they’ve slowly but surely started the insane marketing and merchandising ramp-up to the flick in every kid-related outlet you can imagine, and there’s even a billboard down here in Orlando dedicated to promoting the character in relation to the theme parks.

I’d like to see Tiana live beyond the film, however; I’d like to see her standing alongside all the white girls in castles that are the usual Disney princess suspects. For that matter, I’d love to see Pocahontas and Mulan somehow incorporated into the princess family, and I want to buy my daughter a Jesse doll. If Disney are the people that make dreams come true, I dream of a fantasy world where my daughter can follow and worship princesses of all colors.

6 comments

  1. My niece was just visiting, and it’s crazy how much she’s into the Disney Princesses. As a gift, we went to the Disney store to pick up the Cinderella dress she wanted for Halloween – did you know there are two grades of costume at the Disney store? $50 for a cheaper version, double that for the full blown version.

    Nobody taught this to her – her video intake was non-existant until recently. The books and toys weren’t given, as she’s only 2.5 and got a lot of other, more general, growing up type toys (puzzles, etc.) But at something – pre-school, or a birthday party, or something – she got introduced to them and away she went. She’ll have days where she demands to wear one of the dresses.

    I’m not saying it’s abnormal – I’ve met kids with their favorite outfits. But this stuff is like kinder-crack that Disney has perfected over the last 70 years. One hit and kids are hooked!

  2. You’ll notice that at least Pocahontas and Mulan get more merchandise coverage than snarky Meg from Hercules – and poor Esmerelda’s not noticed at all, but maybe that’s because she pole dances in her movie (The Hunchback of Notre Dame).

    I’m a huge Disney fan, too – although I tend towards the 90s Princesses rather than the wallpaper ones of yore who took backseat to the fairies/dwarves/mice. I’m going to have to disagree with you on Pocahontas as a strong character, though – while musically and visually her movie was gorgeous, the writing was pretty abysmal and I wasn’t that impressed with Pocahontas. Thematically, it was pretty much Little Mermaid redux – feisty heroine defies Daddy to hook up with an outsider.

  3. Chris: yeah, it’s scary how they pick this stuff up through osmosis or peers or whatever. You can only “protect” them so much. We try to keep the TV intake at a reasonable level, and if there’s a show we truly hate (Barney), we keep her away from it. She’s smart, she’s got an amazing imagination, and she seems to be learning a lot from school, us, and yes, occasionally TV. We read a book a few years ago called Buy Buy Baby about the marketing to toddlers and even babies; it’s out there, it’s real, and it goes way beyond Disney, believe me. They’re just the best at it and they have the brand. Anyway. It’s a constant effort/conversation/analysis we’re always dealing with.

    AnimeJune: I did consider including some of the Disney heroines alongside the princesses/leads; I mean, technically speaking, I don’t even remember if Pocahontas and Mulan are “princesses” in the sense that they were born/married into royal blood. :) But yes, the movies with male leads may as well not have female characters at all; they’re totally ignored. And Alice, a truly curious, independent female character? Where is she? It’s been ages since I saw Pocahontas so I’ll have to go with your assessment, but I don’t think the Little Mermaid is that weak.

    Basically, I think in the contexts of their worlds, the princesses may be weaker characters; they live in worlds with men and those men are in positions very similar to the ones they occupy in our own real world. But as characters, as individuals, as what girls emulate–there is value there. They do take a stand for the most part to get what they want, and even if you say that what they want isn’t what they should want (the love of a prince, for example), the steps they take to get there and the independence they demonstrate is I think admirable. They’re always portrayed as intelligent, in my opinion; Belle does really love books, which I don’t think is a bad thing or worth ignoring.

    As a company, Disney has done an amazing job with marketing and selling the Princesses; as artists, the creators of the films have made some amazing stuff; as a cultural force with a huge impact on a large impressionable audience, I think they could be doing a much better job from a diversity perspective and from a truly girl-centric perspective.

  4. Until this post, I hadn’t heard anything about The Princess and the Frog.

    I’ll be honest, my daughter is three and I’m a bit scared of all the princess stuff. My daughter likes it and knows who they are, but she is by no means obsessed…yet, anyway. She’s still trying to copy me (carrying a purse, putting her babies to bed etc) and not too into playing with princesses.

    Now, I’m not sure what my discomfort is. I’ll buy her princess stuff if she wants it and I’ll take her to the see the new movie, I just hope that she’s will always be interested in all sorts of things and not just one.

  5. Tracie: My daughter does all those things too; she’s not just interested in “one thing.”

    But it’s like I said above–you can’t block it. That’s the scary part and where I kinda throw up my hands at it.

  6. My niece, who is two, swims in Disney programming all day (thanks to Tivo), but her affections right now are solidly focused on Mickey and Minnie. And Toodles, whatever a Toodles is. But she’s two and already refers to herself as a ‘diva’, so I’m sure she’s about to become enamored of the princesses any second. I just hope it’s Belle; at least Belle reads. Then again, Beast is more objectionable than Edward Cullen.

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