Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What I Think About--Disney Princesses

When I was a little girl my parents owned a video store and I got to see a ton of movies.  I loved the Disney princess movies!  Sleeping Beauty was my favorite and I remember seeing Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid in the theater.  What great shows.

Then I grew up and watched them and noticed some disturbing themes.
  1. Few of the princesses have a good relationship with their moms.  Moms are missing or purposefully away (Aurora, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas) or Step-mothers (Snow White, Cinderella) or dead (Ariel).  Mother/daughter relationships can be so beautiful but you'd never guess it by watching a Disney show.  I mean with the exception of Mulan and Tiana, moms are missing, dead, or down right not nice!
  2. Disney movies are ripe with chauvinistic stereotypes. First, the princess is generally needing to be in the care of a man (father) or hero (prince charming).  Secondly, the princesses rarely have female camaraderie (and then we wonder why girls are "mean girls").  Thirdly, the females are generally very weak and are seen merely as being beautiful.  Sexuality--not character--is what matters (after all, Ariel gets Eric to nearly kiss her just for being pretty--he doesn't even want to hear her speak and know her thoughts?!?!)!  I know, I know, Tiana and Mulan show women being strong and trying to reach their potential (but as a a frog and a man .... hmmmmmmm.....).
  3. The movies are full of cultural/ethnic stereotypes.  Jasmine is forced to marry by law (like all people in the Middle East, right?) and of course she is the daughter of a rich sultan (because no one in the Middle East is poor).  Tiana (finally a black princess!) is wrapped up in voodoo and poverty in a setting that has been highly traumatic for Black Americans.  And don't forget that many African Americans were upset that Tiana was so light skinned and didn't have many prominent "black" features. Pocahontas clearly enforced the stereotype that American Indians/Native Americans all wore Plains Indian clothing and were "at one" with nature.
  4. The movies "mis-educate."  This just in, historians continually discount a romantic relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith.  She married John Rolfe, whom she sailed to England to be with. The film also "forgot"to show the mistreatment of Pocahontas' people by Europeans.
  5. The scary parts are REALLY scary.  Witchcraft, voodoo, spells, sinister laughs, gargoyles, dragons, fire ... sounds delightful! 

When I had a baby girl I was so excited to show her the princess movies I loved.  But when I watched them as an adult and saw some of these disturbing themes, I chose to share princess films with her very slowly and with very deliberate discussions.

Perhaps I'm going overboard but that's my prerogative as a mom.  In the mean time, I'm thrilled that Madisen wants to be Cowgirl Jessie!  Here's a chick who has had a tough life, can be a little distrusting and withdrawn but overall is adventurous, athletic, fun-loving, self-sacrificial, helpful, opinionated, and caring.  Are all those attributes positive all the time?  Nope.  But I like that she's got good and bad--just like me.

That's what I think about Disney Princesses.  What do you think?  Are these princesses a bit messed up or am I overly sensitive (or both)?

Author's note:  In writing this post I've had to come to grips with the fact that I might not "identify" other cultures or groups appropriately.  In fact, how one identifies is intensely personal (Hispanic/Latino/Chicano; African American/Black, American Indian/Native American ...).  If I've used an identifier that is offensive to you, I ask for your forgiveness and hope that you will look past the mis-label to the heart of the post's content.  Thank you.


  1. Great post . . . it's crazy to look back on movies from the past, even from your childhood, and be disappointed because of the subtle, yet clearly visible themes that are not in support of what is right or what is True. One of the most surprising things that Elliot and I both discovered echoes one of your points: the darkness found in the antagonistic situations. The stuff that is meant to be scary, is super dark! It may have been intended for effect and "fun" sake, but we know that it reflects a deeper reality of true darkness in the world. Yuck!

  2. Great post. You bring up some very valid points. I think one thing is forgotten though. Even though the princesses are beautiful on the outside, they are also beautiful on the inside. That should count for something. I do agree that Disney has mom issues. Its not in just the princess films but in most of them, that the mom dies, isnt present, or is not very nice. Disney films are very dark and deal with some very real issues. I think that it is good that you are being cautious and that when you do watch these movies with M.E. that you are discussing things with her. So far I have been lucky, Belle is not into princesses at all, she loves Buzz!

  3. I do agree with a lot of the things you said. My daughter has loved the Disney Princesses since before she even saw the movies. But, she does know these are not real people, and both of my kids know that movies are not real life and its not Ok to act like people or characters in movies. I do think that its parents job to have expectations for their kids as far as behavior and to teach their kids right from wrong and real/make-believe. As much as she loves Princesses, her favorite is Mulan. Although not 100% true to history, she loves how determined and brave she is. Ultimately I believe its a parents choice what their kids are exposed to, and I think its great that we have that choice with our kids.

  4. @Whitney--Agreed

    @Sarah--The princesses do have good qualities which is why I'll show M.E. them. My problem is that their insides are never what count. Cinderella doesn't get the prince because she is a caring, hard worker--she just looks pretty. Aurora is kind but that doesn't matter--she gets Philip because of a political alliance ... I'm glad M.E. loves Jessie!

    @Kristen--I do like that we can expose our kids to the things we choose :)

  5. We're Native Americans, not American Indians.
    People need to realize that Indian is an outdated term for us and that Indians from India DO exist and should be the only people referred to as Indians.
    Thanks for reading.
    Thunder Owl.

  6. Thunder Owl,

    Thank you for your comment. Perhaps how one identifies is very personal. Some very close friends from the Wind River Reservation prefer to be recognized as American Indian which is why I use that term here.

    Here are other sources for the use of this term.

    But objections to the term Native American also arose. The term struck many as dry and bureaucratic, in much the same way that some dislike the Census Bureau's use of Hispanic as an umbrella term to cover the whole of the U.S.'s diverse Spanish-speaking population. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs elaborates:

    The term, 'Native American,' came into usage in the 1960s to denote the groups served by the Bureau of Indian Affairs: American Indians and Alaska Native (Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts of Alaska). Later the term also included Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in some Federal programs. It, therefore, came into disfavor among some Indian groups. The preferred term is American Indian.

    Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs

    Russell Means, the Lakota activist and founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), has strongly rejected Native American in favor of Indian:

    I abhor the term Native American. It is a generic government term used to describe all the indigenous prisoners of the United States. These are the American Samoans, the Micronesians, the Aleuts, the original Hawaiians, and the erroneously termed Eskimos, who are actually Upiks and Inupiats. And, of course, the American Indian.

    I prefer the term American Indian because I know its origins . . . As an added distinction the American Indian is the only ethnic group in the United States with the American before our ethnicity . . . We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians, and we will gain our freedom as American Indians, and then we will call ourselves any damn thing we choose.

    "I am an American Indian, Not a Native American!"
    statement by Russell Means

  7. if the beast's name isnt beast.. what is it?

    :) nice to hear the thoughts of a mother on this. i'm coming across more people who share similiar thoughts and its definately interesting opinion.

  8. @Lecous--Beast's name is actually Prince Adam (since he was a man before a beast).

    Thanks for the comment :)

  9. ! I can name them all!!
    Snow White - Prince Ferdinand
    Aurora - Prince Phillip
    Ariel - Prince Eric
    Belle - Prince Adam
    Esmerelda - Phoebus
    Jane - Tarzan
    Megara - Hercules
    Jasmine - Aladdin
    Cinderella - Prince Charming (I think that's his actual last name...)

    and even though as I'm older I still love Disney Movies I do wish that the girls were more strong.

  10. I DO agree with you on some of the aspects, but I think you might be a little too overdramatic. You mentioned several times that you didn't really see these things until you watched the movies when you were an adult. I think every girl or boy understands that these movies are just fantasies. Everyone likes to dream about a life as a beautiful princess, living in a castle with a handsome prince Charming, but as we get older, we understand that NO ONE really lives in this fantasy (at least not anymore). It’s no longer the movies that make us want to be rich and famous anymore, it’s the Hollywood actors, the sports athletes, pop stars and other billionaires that (usually) work hard to get where they are today. This is just the society works, and no matter how sheltered your kids might be during their upbringing, they are going to learn it eventually, one way or another. I always think it’s better for them to learn on their own, but it is, of course important to guide them, but I don’t make such a big deal out of it.

    I think only mothers and people who likes to overanalyse EVERYthing, are the ones that view the Disney princess movies like this. I don’t think you need to sit down and discuss this with daughter, if so you will then also need to discuss how the society works, and why some people are poor, why some are filthy rich and some have power over a whole country.

    Also, I don't think all them ONLY have their beauty. Take Belle for instance, she is very fond of reading and Beast (or prince Adam), fall for Belles personality, not just her beauty. It takes him a while to warm up to Belle. In Little Mermaid, I always thought Ariel was adorable and clumsy, with the way she used a fork to brush her hair and I will always think that was some of the reason why Eric fell in love with her. Also, I don’t think Disney focus only on everyone being rich in Middle East. Aladdin is the main character, and we see how poorly he lives and how harsh it is living on the street. He has to become to rich to get the Jasmine’s attention, and that is kind of how the society still works today, right? Also, forced marriage is a big problem in Middle East today.

    When it comes to the story of Pocahontas, what does it matter that they "mis-educate", so does almost EVERY other movies that are made. I hardly think it's a life or death importance to know whether Pocahontas had a romantic relationship with John Smith or not.

    I do agree that some of the movies may be a bit TOO scary though. I watched the Princess and the Frog alone at 10pm, and I had to cut it short because I even I got scared (I kind of believe a little in ghosts). I also remember getting a bit scared of the witch in Sleeping Beauty when I was little. But as long as they watch the movie in broad daylight, with an adult nearby, I think it should be fine.

    Another thing, I think it’s actually nice that Disney show the fact that a relationship between a daughter and FATHER can be beautiful as well, since I think many others focus more on daughter/mother relationships. Tiara have a great relationship with her mother, Mulan have a good relationship with both her parents. Even though Disney might not show it, I don’t think you should fear, since children generally tend to attach themselves to their mother better than their father. And therefor I think it’s great that Disney show another side of relationships with parents.

    Also, I don’t understand what people have against Tiana’s looks. I think that no matter how hard Disney tried when making the first black princess, there were always going to be someone who would find something to complain about. But really, who would look upon Tiana and don’t see that she must be black. It’s not THAT easy to give a cartoon figure specific facial features. And you have to blind not to see that she is certainly darker skinned than the other WHITE people in the film.

    Haha, really sorry for responding on your post with another, probably even longer, POST, but I just got so committed to this subject.

  11. By the way, if you want to e-mail me about the review above, the e-mail is: :)

  12. I have to agree with anon above. The beauty about children is they don't look far too much into things, they just take it as it is - A story. It's not brainwashing (I know you didnt use this wording, but thats the affect you portray) but pure fantasy. Everyone is allowed the opportunity to fantasize about the things they most desire. Children should experience the joy disney creates in their movies, ecspecially the ones involving princesses. We all fell in love with disney when we were children. Yes, we look back now and see the flaws, that is because you notice the flaws when your older. You notice life can go either way. Children should not be exposed to that, they should be children. Doubting their fantasies doesn't do justice.

  13. @Both Anons.--Thanks for your responses. If you re-read the post you'll see that I am showing my daughter these movies SLOWLY AND WITH DISCUSSION.

    I do want her to know that moms AND dads love their kids; I do want her to know that there are inner qualities about her that are worthy (besides her utter exterior beauty); I want her to know that in this life there are good days and bad days, good guys and bad guys, wealth and poverty (yes, children should be children but I'd consider myself a horrible parent if I didn't teach her that people can be cruel or that she has an obligation to share and care for people in our world).

    I want her to know all these things in discussion with her father and me and not left to fear the darkness in movies (which do scare her) all alone.

    In the mean time, I encourage a fantasy life in my children through reading, free play, imaginative play, and story telling.

    Thanks for checking out Where is the ME in Mommy? and for agreeing to disagree. That's the real beauty about parenting (and blogging) do and believe what you want :)

  14. While you raise quite serious points as a mother, you can't forget that Disney did not come up with these fairytales. The fairytales themselves are actually hell of a lot darker, more brutal and with considerable more violence (in Cinderella their feet were cut on the glass slippers, Rapunzel's prince has his eyes clawed out by the witch who locks her in the tower and Ariel kills herself/kills her prince and the woman he's sleeping with instead of her - depending on the version you read). Disney fluffed them up like hell before they were ever put into film and I don't think your daughter would actually need a deep, meaningful conversation to explain every one, kids just don't see it. The things you are picking up are very subliminal and were socially accepted at one time. We may not agree with it now, but there are (with the exception of Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocohontas) no set time period's. The majority of the films are set in that wonderful fairytale time where princes did go rescuing princesses and all anyone cared about was beauty and nobility and all that stuff that makes a modern woman cringe.

    Disney is a wonderful stepping stone for children and such a better alternative than the modern Disney series that you see on the television nowadays. I can understand your wish to make your child understand that these things don't really happen nowadays, but, to be frank, i think she would realise that her parents do love her and that these are simply fairytales. After a while, she will grow out of wanting a prince to come and rescue her and then it's time to introduce her to proper fairytales. Aka, the Brothers Grimm or the musical, Into the Woods (when she's a teenager).

    But in the end, it is your decision how you raise your child. Just wanted to say that even though Disney seems quite dark, it is actually all butterflies and rainbows compared to the true fairytales.

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  16. Oh my gosh! Its just a pretty story to make people feel good. And in Snow White, the prince falls in love with her singing, and the same in Ariel, and the same in Sleeping Beauty. In Beauty and the Beast, Prince Adam fell in love with Belle's hobby of reading and her kind nature of accepting him even though he was hideous. In Cinderella, it teaches that if you are kind to others and stay positive, good things can happen. I have to strongly dissagree with you in Aladdin. Jasmine fell in love with street rat Aladdin not the prince he claimed to be. And in Tangled, both of them disliked eachother at first but as the story progressed, they fell in love with eacthother's personality. Mulan and Princess and frog are great too. It has woman power. However, it shouldn't matter how black Tiana is, she is good is what matter. At the end of the day, they are all feel good happy ending movies that are good for any person of any age. It's people like you who analyze it too much and bring out stupid facts who ruin the effect of the movie

  17. Anon. chill. breath.

  18. This is your opinion,but I disagree.I grew up watching Disney princess movies and I have to say I appear to be a feminist, a person who loves nature,animals and try every day show my dreams will come true. I owe that to my parents and second to Disney movies.
    There were some stereytypes in the fisrt princesses (hell, it was 1940-60 back then,of course the beliefs were different).
    Also, princesses are not only beautiful but also smart,inteligent, non-racist, wise. You forget the good things about them and you focus on some bad you found - there is always something bad.
    As far as the historical inaccuracy is concerned, I must say, this is a disney movie,not a documantary or a historical book.
    I think I have a great personality, I am very strong and independent by watching Disney movies.
    A disney lover :)

    P.S. You say you don't like comments right? Then edit it and don't allow people to comment.

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  20. 4-5-12 Anonymous--You are certainly welcome to your opinion, as I am welcome to mine. Please note that NO where in the comment did I say watching Disney movies makes a person unbalanced or anti-feminist. I did NOT say that watching Disney movies was inherently evil or bound to ruin the human population.

    I also DID NOT say that there are no redeeming qualities of the princesses. What I DID say was that I do not like some of the themes and that I would watch theses movies WITH my children and explain to them the parts I don't like.

    As to the comments, it says this:

    {Reverse Psychology}
    I DO NOT like comments. Whatever you do, don't leave me a comment about this post or your thoughts or any connections you have to what I wrote. Seriously, I don't care.
    (Did that reverse psychology work???)

    Clearly I'm using humor here to get people to comment because I LOVE comments!

    Reverse psychology is telling people one thing to get them to do another. Like when you tell a child not to smile and you get a smile out of them? So when I say "don't leave a comment" it's because I really DO WANT people to comment.

    It's a joke. Ha ha ha. One would think that a Disney fan, such as you claim to be, might recognize humor when you read it.


{Reverse Psychology}
I DO NOT like comments. Whatever you do, don't leave me a comment about this post or your thoughts or any connections you have to what I wrote. Seriously, I don't care.
(Did that reverse psychology work???)