Remembering and Re-framing Disney Princesses

I was watching the Disney Channel (sometimes Girl Meets World is the only thing I can process after a day at camp) when I saw the network’s latest campaign targeted towards empowering little girls within the framework of Disney princesses. The clip featured current female Disney Channel stars telling them (presumably the little girl viewers) to claim and show off their “princess power,” juxtaposed against clips from Disney’s animated canon.

Disney has a long history of defining what it means to “be a princess” in modernity. Growing up in the 90s, the word “princess” was almost synonymous with Disney, before the Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians of the world helped to shift the pop culture connotation of the word. This advertising campaign, and the other videos related to it, is no different. In a sense, Disney is trying to reclaim the damaging image of docile, pliable women it has offered thus far; not only are princesses beautiful and kind and sweet, but they are diverse, strong, empowered change-makers (and still utterly owned and defined by Disney).

via Walt Disney Studios
via Walt Disney Studios

I don’t have a problem with Disney’s message, reframing of its own history with princess, or attempt at addressing years of feminist criticism. This move follows on the heels of the creation of its three more recent princesses, Rapunzel, Merida, and Elsa. As someone who studied fairy tales, I despise Disney far less than might be expected. As someone who works with younger children, I think that any message promoting kindness and decency alongside strength of character, tolerance, and acceptance of others to girls or boys is important and needs to be heard. However, the prominence of Disney princess made me wonder if their presence was balanced by easily accessible kick-ass historical princesses or women to serve as role models adjacent to the animated ones.

via Walt Disney Studios
via Walt Disney Studios

Before the internet was our main source of information gathering, I remember going to the library and reading things such as the Dear America series, as well as the biographies of famous, strong women in history such as Harriet Tubman and Catherine the Great. I came to these books because I was looking for real princesses that might have inspired Disney’s tales, and was redirected to stories about strong, independent women who had an impact on history instead. Google does not fulfill the same function that my library did. A search for “princesses” resulted in hits that were directly or tangentially related to Disney; so did a search for “real” or “historical” princesses. While a few lists of powerful, historical women did pop up courtesy of Mic and Cracked, among others, these were all framed around Disney as well—“the princesses Disney could never touch”. The exceptions were a couple links to lists of Persian princesses and queens (I have no explanation for this phenomenon). After descending into the research rabbit-hole for a few hours, I was left with the overwhelming feeling that, despite there being plenty of information on strong women for those who know where to look, Disney has managed to take over the idea of a “princess” and all that it can stand for to the point where historical women, royal or otherwise, have been supplanted.

via Walt Disney Studios
via Walt Disney Studios

This is where I start to have a problem with the prevalence of Disney. A six-year-old camper telling me that Belle is her favorite princess because she reads a lot, so it is okay that the camper likes reading too is not going to receive a callous lecture on Stockholm Syndrome in the name of feminism from me. However, it would be nice if that little girl also knew something about Jane Austen, Sojourner Truth, or Phillis Wheatley. Disney princesses don’t have to be abolished. That being said, we really need to do a better job of making sure that both young girls and boys know that there are real, historical women from all over the world that are as wonderful as role models as the ones who sing across a screen with their animal companions. It is time for Disney to take an earnest interest in providing historical programming and using its reach to encourage a socially productive movement, and not just a profitable one.

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