art, media, pop culture, Uncategorized

The Princess Problem

Let’s talk about how all I wanted for much of my childhood was to grow up and be a princess. How I dressed up in cute costumes and sang cute songs and told everyone that I was either going to be a princess, a secretary, or the president of the United States. Awwww. So. Cute.

Now let’s talk about how, even though I grew up loving Disney, I have come to believe that “the Disney Princess” is a serious cultural problem.

What really brought the problem of Disney Princesses to my attention was this recent interview with Frozen animator Lino DiSalvo. According to DiSalvo, “Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty …So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression.”

You have to keep them pretty. The words that sank the ship of “I still love Disney, even though they’re kind of sexist, because…such good songs.” No. It’s over. I have to admit that these people are holding girls back from being fully realized human beings because we all have to stay pretty. Apparently, nothing else matters.

Of course, it’s totally cool to be not-particularly handsome if you’re a man, according to Disney. Just ask Kuzco, the Beast, Ralph, Quasimodo, Woody, and Milo. And those are just humanoid male leads. I don’t even have time to get into all the strange-looking supporting roles filled by men. And yes there are sexy disney princes. Absolutely. But apparently it’s not hard to keep them from looking too much alike. You know who didn’t get unnecessarily sexualized in ways un-befitting to either age or accustomed activities? Mowgli. Or Arthur. Or Pinnochio.

According to (one of) my feminist hero[es] Caitlin Moran, “the residual hold [princesses] have over female ability to imagine our own future is sneakily harmful” (How to be a Woman, p. 294). Moran believes  that the idea of “being a princess” correlates with the cultural idea that women must “be” while men “do.” Kind of like Aurora is a beautiful, naturally talented singer (as a hobby) who sleeps attractively while Prince Whatever-His-Name-Is gets imprisoned, escapes, and fights evil shrubbery and a witch who is also a dragon.

Being a princess comes with “wealth, glamor, and privilege,” but also, the “implicit acceptance that your powerful husband is going to cheat on you and that you just have to accept that” (293-294). In other words,  because all you’re good for is being really pretty, your social currency both devalues as you age and is essentially interchangeable with the currency of all other similarly pretty and compliant women.

The harmfulness of the Disney princess as an aspirational concept has never been clearer to me than in the response to David Trumble’s cartoon princess renderings of ten real-life female role models. This includes Anne Frank Princess and Princess Harriet Tubman, all of whom look like glittery, toothy fools compared to their real-life selves. According to Trumble, he created the images as a response to Disney’s more sexualized re-design of Brave  heroine Merida. The sparkly, simpering, and certainly more-sexualized image of the adventuresome heroine sparked outrage among fans of the film as well as feminist groups who felt that the new image enforced the idea that even someone as downright  cool as Merida had to change and be “prettier” if she was going to fit in and be a “real” Disney princess.

Trumble says he created his “real world princess” images because he, “wanted to analyze how unnecessary it is to collapse a heroine into one specific mold.” He says, “I decided to take 10 real-life female role models, from diverse experiences and backgrounds, and filter them through the Disney princess assembly line…The statement I wanted to make was that it makes no sense to put these real-life women into one limited template, so why then are we doing it to our fictitious heroines?”

Now, I totally agree with what he’s saying. The problem is, I don’t think his project worked. I saw a few people re-post the articles about Trumble’s art on various social media outlets, and a lot of people don’t seem to be getting the subversive message Trumble is trying to put out there. In fact, a lot of people thought the concept was, like, so, so cute! What a great idea! Trumble himself even notes that some people who saw the image, “saw no harm in it at all and wanted to buy the doll versions of them.”

Part of the reason I don’t think the project worked is that “Disnified” versions of other characters and re-imagined Disney characters are really popular on the internet right now, so it’s likely that people glanced over the pictures for five seconds, said oh, cute! and went on their merry cyber-ways. Which is, in my opinion, terrible, because it says to me that the idea of the Disney princess as a positive cultural force is so ingrained in us that plenty of people don’t see any problem at all when real women are turned into 2-dimensional characters whose main traits are white teeth and glittery dresses. It says to me that there are plenty of people in the world who are still OK with women being, first and foremost, pretty.

Caitlin Moran says that finally realizing she would never be a princess is the thing that has given her, “the most relief and freedom in [her] adult years” (294). This is because it made her realize that if she was going to change the world, she would actually have to do something. She couldn’t just be someone’s pretty, well-dressed muse. 

What I’m trying to say is, I’d like to see the reverse of what Trumble has done. I don’t want to see any more real women turned into princesses. I want to see some princesses turned into real women.

So. Any artists out there want to tackle that for me?


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