Feminism February: Are Disney Princesses Good Role Models?

After my last post on guys holding doors open, I had several people send me messages asking about my opinion on feminism/gender roles. So I started drafting a post on the topic.

It was super boring. And also really, really long.

So I thought, Hey, Amy, you know a lot of intelligent, gracious Christian women. Why not ask some of them to take over your blog and write about issues related to faith and feminism? So I did.

Some of these women would describe themselves as feminists, some would not. Some are married, some are single. Some are egalitarian, some are complementarian, some are please-don’t-give-me-either-of-those-labels. All are my friends, and I am so excited to share their thoughts with you over the next few weeks.

Welcome to the Feminism February series!

princess

Here’s the first question I asked: Do you think Disney princesses are helpful or hurtful in teaching young girls what it means to be a woman?

TaylorSome people have concerns about Disney princesses creating unrealistic beauty standards and looking to men for fulfillment (which are definitely worth talking about), but I don’t think they deserve the entire conversation. Most of them demonstrate character traits that are great for young girls to see. It’s hard to choose one favorite, so here are three: I love that Rapunzel is selfless but still knows how to fight for herself and the truth; Jasmine refuses to be objectified by her father and other men in power; and Cinderella shows kindness and graciousness in long-suffering.

The only princess I take real issue with? Ariel. This 16-year-old breaks the only rule her dad has (which is actually pretty reasonable) and sells her soul to an obviously evil witch to woo a man she’s never met (only with the help of her appearances). Though she runs into brief trouble, there are hardly any consequences in the end. But she’s a pretty singer and feels like an outsider sometimes, so I guess it’s okay?

– Taylor B.
For more from Taylor, visit her blog, Crowd vs. Critic.

LizDisney princesses portray characteristics that everyone—not only women—should have. Belle (my personal favourite) ignores an entire town’s derision, stands up for her father, says “no” to a man everyone else thinks she should marry, reads books, sacrifices herself for someone she loves…those are things every young girl should be taught to value. Be yourself. Follow your dreams. Keep your word. Be strong, be honest, love learning.

The problem lies not in what Disney says a woman should be, but in why. Most Disney princesses’ sole purpose for being strong, independent, clever, etc. is to catch a prince. The message is not “you are a valuable human being” but rather “if you’re all these things, a more valuable human being will fall in love with you and fix your life.” Be good enough, and you’ll get a prince. Life doesn’t work that way—life shouldn’t work that way. A woman shouldn’t make herself into something a prince wants; she should make herself into whatever she wants to be. I think Disney is helpful in teaching girls what a woman should be, but hurtful by turning healthy striving for valuable characteristics into pressure to become “worthy” of a prince.

– Elizabeth S.
For more from Elizabeth, visit her blog, Everyday Terrors.

OliviaLet me just start off by saying that I love Disney princesses. I’m a sucker for a good Disney movie, and I probably know all the lyrics to every Disney song. Belle was always my favorite princess growing up, and as a bookish, imaginative child it encouraged me that even the bookworms can be heroes.

However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look critically at the way Disney portrays women. While there’s a lot to be learned from our favorite princesses, there are some serious issues that can be raised. One issue in particular that I want to raise is that the majority of leading princesses are white, and the princesses of color tend to be either whitewashed in marketing or marketed less than the others. It wasn’t until 2009 that we had a black princess. For this reason I fear that we have children of color seeing these Disney movies and thinking that only white girls with blonde hair and blue or green eyes can be the heroes. Children pick up on these things. While Disney is doing better, the lack of diversity in Disney the princess lineup is a serious feminist issue worth considering.
– Olivia J.
For more from Olivia, visit her blog, And a Pot of Coffee.

PaulaI don’t think they have to be harmful. The Disney princess has done a decent job of evolving (Ariel took us a few steps back). Like cultural blogger Colin Stokes (whose TEDtalks and blog posts I cannot recommend enough), I think a lot of the problems attributed to Disney princesses are more closely related to Disney marketing.

Take Cinderella. Essentially, it’s about a young woman who responds to jealousy and mean-spiritedness with kindness and optimism. Her kindness gains her devoted friends who help her when she’s in trouble.

However, you can’t sell kindness: just glittery costumes. Disney makes money telling girls that Cinderella is about a beautiful princess in an overpriced tiara, not a kind girl in rags. As a result, the virtues celebrated in Cinderella—like gentleness and compassionare labelled “for girls only.” That’s sad news for girls and boys.

That being said, it’s worth considering when girls should watch the earlier princess movies. Why not start off with more proactive Disney heroines and introduce Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty later? As they mature, girls may be better able distinguish between cultural values and timeless virtues—a skill they will always need, no matter what movie they’re watching.

– Paula W.
For more from Paula, visit the blog she contributes to, The PWR Lounge.

SuzanneI could argue that certain princesses do better than others as role models for young impressionable children. But since I take it be fairly obvious that Belle is objectively superior to Ariel, I’ll focus on the effect of the princess trope on feminine development.

Most princess stories problematically establish romance as the telos (purpose, end) for women. Now, there’s nothing wrong with romance itself. But when our stories tend to place exclusive and supreme value on the girl ending up with the guy, I get concerned.

Romantic love is nice, great even. But there are other kinds of love that are equally important and other relationships that matter.* We can’t lose sight of the beauty of family and richness of friendship. You can live a life full of love in the absence of romance. Recent films like Brave and Frozen get this right. Girls should learn that romance is only one dimension in the world of love, and our princess stories ought to reflect that.

*Stuffy theological footnote: In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis explores four different varieties of love from a theological perspective: affection, friendship, romantic love, and charity.

– Suzanne N.

For more from Suzanne, convince her to start a blog, because the world would be a better place if she did.

Your turn: are Disney princesses good role models? Do you have a favorite?

14 comments

  1. Wow, lot of things to read! It’s tricky to respond to a post like this, since there are multiple viewpoints, but there are a few things I guess I’ll mention.

    Firstly, I should make known I am an animator, and so Disney is essentially my heritage. No Disney = no me dedicating my life to this art form. I don’t give them a free pass, but I also am probably less critical than some might be (especially because I think animation in general should always be entertainment first, and life lessons second or third. It is not a soapbox or a pulpit, and shouldn’t be treated as such. You want a soapbox or pulpit, go be a preacher or… uh… soap salesperson?).

    Because of that, I don’t think any cartoon/fictional character should be a role model. Role models should exist in real life, and deal with the challenges of real life. Fiction is fiction for a reason.

    “thinking that only white girls with blonde hair and blue or green eyes can be the heroes.”

    We need to be fair here, by my count only four Disney Princesses fit that category out of 12 or 13 women. And two of them happened to be in the last few years (Rapunzel and Elsa) and one of them is a HORRIBLE role model in general (Elsa). While many may be Caucasian, there is little truth to this “blonde hair blue eye” stuff people throw around. Again, we need to be fair on both sides. We can be critical, but being critical using made up data doesn’t really help anyone, yeah?

    “A woman shouldn’t make herself into something a prince wants; she should make herself into whatever she wants to be.”

    I guess there I disagree on both genders a bit. Personally I want to be the kind of husband my wife deserves (still trying and failing) and beyond that I want to be the kind of man God wants me to be. “For me,” in my opinion, shouldn’t even come into the conversation, because making myself whatever I want to be ends very, very poorly. I am selfish and judgmental, and the more I shape myself to be who I desire to be, the farther away from who God guides me towards I seem to get. I think that’s the reason Elsa is a lousy role model, minus perhaps a two-second, unmotivated change of character for the sake of happy endings at the finale of Frozen. She cares about herself, and that’s it. (I won’t get into a lengthy Frozen discussion here, because that’s a tangent I’ve gone on too many times with no great help to the world.)

    I understand the idea behind “Go be whoever you want to be and everyone else be darned!” but I think there’s a danger in that as well. We shouldn’t compromise our beliefs or values for another person (which to my knowledge no Disney princess ever does) but simultaneously if we only live for ourselves who is really benefiting? What better use of our lives can there be but to support and bring joy to the ones around us who we love?

    I won’t claim there’s a right or wrong answer here. Just sharing my own experiences, which have shown me the more inward I focus on, the less of a useful presence in the world I become. When I began to care more about others than myself, and try to lift them up over my own self importance, that’s when things really started clicking and peace came like tidal waves.

    Very interesting thoughts all around, I look forward to reading more in the coming weeks. 🙂

    PS. My favorite “princess” is Mulan, in spite of not being a princess. I love that film overall, and as a character she is compelling and deep. The animation is also lovely from a technical standpoint. Sadly few people talk about Mulan…

    My second favorite “princess” is Bianca from The Rescuers, because I had a crush on her when I was a boy. 😛

  2. (Oops, sorry, one more. Tied for second is probably Lilo, another female Disney character that gets little attention. SO much depth to that character, oh my gosh! Possibly the deepest Disney/animated character ever drawn.)

  3. Hi JK,

    I agree that Mulan is an awesome, underrated character.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say, “While many may be Caucasian, there is little truth to this “blonde hair blue eye” stuff people throw around. Again, we need to be fair on both sides. We can be critical, but being critical using made up data doesn’t really help anyone, yeah?”

    If I understood Olivia correctly, she was trying to make the case that Disney’s lack of diversity (until recent years) seems to perpetuate the marginalization of “minority” groups. For instance, fact that white princesses outnumber those of every other race means that we refer to Tiana as the “black princess,” and Pocahontas as the Native American one. In other words, these princesses are most often identified by their race in a way that the white princesses are not. (For whatever it’s worth, it’s probably worth noting that Olivia doesn’t refer to Tiana by her name.)

    So I don’t understand how “blond hair blue eye stuff people throw around” is “made-up data” in any way. Being able to dismiss racial issues is a reflection of privilege.

    The historical lack of diversity in Disney princesses is a tiny reflection of the very real racism which exists in America. My question is this: if we aren’t first aware of and then critical of injustices like racism, how will society ever change?

    As to the gender roles discussion you bring up: I think it anticipates Amy’s next post, and perhaps my contribution to that next post will respond to what you said here more fully. Suffice it to say that I think it’s important to distinguish growth in personal selflessness from the bigger picture issues of societal gender “norms”; perhaps those should be separate conversations.

    1. “Being able to dismiss racial issues is a reflection of privilege.”

      Well, again, I’m trying to point out the differences between racial issues and the idea of “blonde hair blue eyes.” They are two different things. I don’t think those terms should be interchangeable, that’s all. It degrades the conversation when we swap blonde/blue with “Caucasian.” The truth, I was trying to point out, is most of the princesses do NOT have blonde hair and blue eyes. So I think we leave that out of the discussion, yeah? It only detracts from the subject at hand, because it’s not true. Hope that clarifies a bit, sorry I was unclear.

      “My question is this: if we aren’t first aware of and then critical of injustices like racism, how will society ever change?”

      Personally I’m not sure society ever really DOES change, at its core. We’re making most of the same mistakes based on pride that humans have since the dawn of recorded history. One could say we do our injustices in a different (some say better) way, of course, but the “human” is still very much there. That, however, is a totally different subject and probably better discussed outside of blog comment limitations. 🙂

      Regardless of my view of the never ending pride of humanity, I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t be critical or aware. In fact, I think what we all need in general is MORE personal awareness. And that’s the point I guess I was trying to make regarding the blonde/blue thing: Objectively, very few of them have blonde hair and blue eyes, and two of the four JUST HAPPENED recently (Rapunzel and Elsa). We need to be aware of that when we have these conversations, so when we talk about racial issues we aren’t using stuff like blonde hair and blue eyes as a stereotypical stand-in. The quote was “I fear that we have children of color seeing these Disney movies and thinking that only white girls with blonde hair and blue or green eyes can be the heroes.” Yes, it’s possible those kids might consider the heroes need to have white skin (though I should hope not, because again real heroes need to be in REAL LIFE, not cartoons) but the hair and eye color have nothing to DO with it. Three of the princesses have red hair, four have black, a bunch have shades of brown, and I have no idea what eye color any of them have to be honest because rarely are there such close-ups that you can tell, especially in 2D.

      PLUS we’re really limiting the conversation by refusing to allow other Disney characters into the mix. No mention of Meg, nor Esmeralda, nor of Lilo or Nani. Heck, Nani is of Hawaiian decent AND trying to raise her little sister by herself with no pining for a guy at ALL. How is it we can talk about stuff like this and not bring her to the forefront? Then you have more recent films like Big Hero 6 with several female heroines, not to mention a myriad of Pixar stuff (who, in spite of keeping their name, is part of Disney now, I have the stock papers to prove it). Helen Parr may be white (with brown hair and brown eyes) but she is one of the most real and heroic female animated characters of all time. That’s without even mentioning Edna Mode from the same film!

      All I’m saying is these conversations time and again ignore SO MUCH data. We put the white skinned blonde princesses in the spotlight and say “This is everywhere!” and then we ignore all the others who don’t fit that model (a few of which are listed above). It drives me kind of crazy specifically as an animator, to be honest. It seems like in order to make the point desired to make, we fudge the stats or only bring light to certain things that prove our point, and it happens so, so much in this particular discussion across the Internet. All I’m asking for is a fair assessment on ALL sides, not just having Cinderella in the foreground while stuffing Kida into a broom closet because she doesn’t fit the bill for what is being complained about.

      And I apologize, my animator-self gets fired up about this stuff. I mean no disrespect, I just have a passion for animation, which this is partially about. 🙂

  4. to get my opinions on the race issue out of the way: i agree that Disney does have a lack of diversity among the princesses, which is disappointing, but I would not necessarily call it whitewashing. in all of the films, the princesses have looked true to the nature of the country where the film takes place, e.g. jasmine’s black hair and tan complexion, merida’s pale skin and bright red hair. i would be more disappointed if disney warped the look of a princess to be white/blonde-haired-blue-eyed if the film’s setting did not call for it.

    as to the role model debate… i honestly think it depends on the issue. some princesses are better role models in certain situations. belle is a good role model for looking past appearances and not being judgmental. tiana is a great role model for working hard towards a bigger goal. anna and elsa are good role models for sticking with family and never giving up on one another. then there are princesses like snow white, aurora, and ariel who are largely inactive and, in my own opinion, rather air-headed throughout their respective films, which does not set a good precedent for anyone, male or female.

    in my own experiences, i’ve discovered that casting away all opinions of others in favor of forming yourself according to only yourself is actually not that great. taking advice from others and having input from society is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s what parts of it that you take and how you choose to incorporate it that make a difference.

  5. Does Nala count? She’s my favorite Disney princess because she is fighting for her family, her pride. She doesn’t just except her dire circumstances with the hyenas. She knows the pride needs her. So, she sets out on her own and finds Simba in order to bring him back to his rightful place as king. And when he doesn’t believe in himself, she inspires him to be “the king she sees inside.”

    Disney princesses are flawed, but they make every girl dream. And the belief that we can be better than ourselves or share in an adventure that is bigger than us… Well, inspiration is a beautiful and treasured gift.

  6. Oh feminism! And some of my favorite people talking about it! I am so excited for this series.

    I wasn’t allowed to watch many Disney movies when I was young so I don’t have super strong opinions on them. However, I know that I was influenced by other movies and TV shows that focused on young women falling in love. I accepted those depictions as the norm and so was disappointed when I wasn’t ever in a serious relationship throughout high school. Now I see that that standard is not really something to strive to achieve. It’s hardly the only worthwhile goal out there…

  7. I think the role model thing is interesting, because I think that good entertainment/stories mean that the reader/viewer is drawn into the world of the protagonist and identifies with them. Most of the writers who shared their thoughts made statements like, “I loved Belle the best because she was like me” or “I admired this about this character”. That’s what we do when we engage with media.

    So I think Disney does have a responsibility when they tell stories to tell stories with positive role-models, especially because they’re targeting kids. Maybe as adults we have a lot more distance between ourselves and what we watch, (“I liked the plot but not the characters”) whereas I think especially when you’re younger, you pretend you’re Spiderman or Belle and that’s part of the experience.

    So I totally think that both in terms of racial and cultural diversity, and in terms of creating heroines that make healthy choices and set a good example for young girls, Disney can’t act like it’s all out of their control.

    ON the flip side… does Disney make these “Princess meets boy and falls in love” stories and that’s what’s shaping our view of womanhood… OR are Disney movies selling because girls see “Princess meets boy and falls in love” and say “Yes, I want that! That’s totally my dream! I love this story”. Like… is Disney a symptom or a cause?

    1. “Like… is Disney a symptom or a cause?”

      Seems to me that there were those sorts of stories long before a man named Walt Disney was born, so I think that’s a fair answer right there. 🙂

      One other thing to note:

      “So I think Disney does have a responsibility when they tell stories to tell stories with positive role-models, especially because they’re targeting kids.”

      That is very true for today, BUT I think it’s absolutely essential for people to fully understand Disney (as in Walt) did NOT make films for children when he was alive. He made films that were for all audiences. It’s why the classics still stand the test of time and can be enjoyed by all ages. So we can go ahead and drag Snow White through the mud, but we should do so not condemning them for making bad role models for children, because they never INTENDED that. Snow White was not made for children. It was made for every person who would sit in a theater to watch it.

      “Over at our place, we’re sure of just one thing: everybody in the world was once a child. So in planning a new picture, we don’t think of grown-ups, and we don’t think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures can help recall.”
      -Walt Disney

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