The Great Princess Debate: messages on sexuality, body image and relationships
I was 10 years old when Disney’s Aladdin came out in theaters. I grew up on Mickey and adored the music and magic of the full-length feature films, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the more recent (at that time) Little Mermaid. I remember watching a scene in Aladdin in which Jasmine attempted to seduce Jafar (the villain) in order to create a diversion so that her prince Aladdin could save her. I remember thinking that one day I might need to use that same “skill” to get myself out of a pickle. At 10 years old I was by no means a feminist, I did not know of the sociological arguments behind the potential detriment of these classic stories made accessible to children via the creative minds at Disney. I just knew that swaying your hips and batting your eyelashes and slinking towards a bad guy could get you something valuable.
The second layer to my childhood interactions with Disney Princesses was that I never looked like the “women” I idolized. Some would argue no little girls do, after all the audience is “little girls” and the princesses in question are in their sexual prime- romance being the end goal for most of them… “Happily ever after.” They are curvy in all the right places and yet slim and waif like in a way that we’ve come as a society to understand as innately feminine. I shopped in the Pretty Plus section of Sears- I was not created in the image of Belle, but rather a genetic reflection of my father in a body more like the 1980’s image of Rainbow Brite. The closest we would come to an animated princess like me would be Fiona from Shrek… but only when she is an Ogre, the human Fiona embodies the same princess archetype- think Giselle Budchen rather than 10-year-old Emma. None of my friends looked like Giselle but at least they could find a little mermaid costume or t-shirt with Ariel on it in their size- these were not available in Pretty Plus. This theme of representing our diverse children is most commonly noted in terms of race and ethnicity, with people citing Mulan, Pocahontas and more recently Tiana. This is progress, however one black princess does not, cultural diversity, make.
Disney Princesses are not benign. I want to believe they are, I truly do- like I said, the music and magic of these films draw me in, even as an adult. But I cannot forget the lessons I learned as a child- to use sexuality to get what I want, that I will only be acceptable if my body looks like the archetypal princess, to find happiness in nothing less that a happily ever after with the prince of my dreams, that I would never be enough alone or single. Its tempting to ignore these not-so-subtle messages because I want my daughter to have the music and the magic- I want her to fit in with her friends who will likely don the copious amounts of princess couture available at any store clothing children. But I cannot ignore the messages about womanhood that these ladies: Snow, Aurora, Cinderella, Jasmine, Belle and Ariel provide. I do not want to draw a conclusion about this topic- mostly because I am non-confrontational and don’t want to argue with die-hard princess lovers. But I do want to highlight some important things to consider, in a vulnerable way that tells you I am not just making a blanket judgment based on feminist philosophy. This issue impacts girls and women and I hope we can all be thoughtful rather than rush to conclusions in the great princess debate.