Pretty Power: Activate!

Sociological Images has an interesting recent post about deconstructing just what assets Disney princesses (or heroines) are allowed to have.  It mostly boils down to women needing to use their Pretty Power TM in order to save the day (or more often BE saved).  While some of the generalizations are very broad and the comments do bring some interesting discussions up especially regarding my favorite lady (Belle) it was a good overall conversation starter and thought-poker.

I’ll admit right here that I love watching Disney movies and love looking at the shiny colors of the princess product line.  However, the concepts that the portrayal of these women brings up are worth discussing so I am enjoying that thread.

What is it about the idea that you must be “pretty”?  In the movies discussed at Sociological Images the women are all very pale (if not all glaringly white), conventionally thin, symmetrical of face and smoothly complected.  Browse a “how to draw Disney princesses” search results list and you’ll find that aside from a few variations on eyes and lips; these faces are all the SAME FACE.

In essence, the women are interchangeable.  Add a few background details here (love of animals, something which brings the viewer a distinct knowledge of her “pure” motherly heart); add a few hobbies there (collects “human” items, reads (hu-yuck, she might be Book Smart y’all!)) and with just a change of wardrobe and makeup you have a Whole New Princess! I’m not sure where to go with the idea that these women (who are sometimes marketed as being Strong Role Models for their intelligence (books!) or rebellious nature (escapes Richness for a Day In The Poor Life!) or what have you) are really so very much the same.  I feel Mulan breaks the mold a bit but perhaps that is just me enjoying the movie more.  Is she just as much the same?  Dresses as a man (because only Men Have Power other than that of looks) to fight for a cause, but ends up winning people over at the end thanks to…her personality? I don’t know.  Maybe I’m not up to in-depth analysis this afternoon!

At any rate; do you have hopes for the upcoming Disney film with Tiana?  While the beautiful, thin, partially “rebellious” but good-at-heart leading princess-y ladies may not be leaving the Disney line anytime soon do you think that you’ll still be watching?  Are you ready for some NON-Princess action for women?  A bit like Mulan only not afraid to be feminine AND rough and tough.  Like a teen Dora before she was turned into a Pink Product Placement girl; going on adventures and living life without apology?  Well perhaps I’m a fool for hoping for such things but I still hold out that glimmer of hope.  (It is the same glimmer wherein I keep my desire to one day own a pony…)


18 thoughts on “Pretty Power: Activate!

  1. The thing is that “princess” is all about fancy clothes and hair. A four-year-old wants sparkle and swirly skirts. She doesn’t particularly care about the princess’s personality. I don’t really have a problem with princesses as portrayed. I just think Disney should expand their range of marketable goods to go with their non-princesses. Why not have a Lilo hula dancer / alien trapper kit? Why not have a Mulan horserider / swordweilder kit? There’s no push to sell things that might not be as massively popular but could hold non-princess characters in little girls’ hearts longer.

  2. I think it was the bland interchangeability of Disney princesses is one of the primary reasons they never resonated with me.

    When other little girls I knew wanted to grow up to be Cinderella or Snow White, I wanted to grow up to be Emma Peel or one of the girls on Lost In Space. I was identifying with Sara Crewe in A Little Princess and Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. These were intelligent, capable women and girls who had specific skills rather than a generalized sense of if you’re just pretty enough and don’t rock the boat too much, your Prince will come and rescue you. In short, while most of them did marry and had men’s love in their lives, they weren’t entirely dependent on someone else to magically take care of them.

    Even as a little girl, I couldn’t stand the idea that my value as a human being relied mostly on my value to an equally random Man Who Would Save Me.

    Sure I loved fairy tales. I just never wanted to be in one. I wanted a different – and more individual – story. That’s a good thing, since fairy tales rarely happen in a workaday world. Quirk is both more common and more fun.

  3. I saw the princess comment so I came over to read. My littlest one is princess-OBSESSED and has been her whole life. It’s certainly nothing we promoted, God knows, but it’s what she really was pulled toward. (You can guess what she’s going to be for Halloween.)

    It makes my feminist heart go into atrial fibrillation and want to explode, but she is inexorably drawn to the princess figures so we’ve stopped fighting it.

    We just try to make sure she sees a variety of princess figures, not just Disney figures, and we emphasize Mulan and Jasmine and Lilo/Nani so she sees women of color as princesses and role models too. We will be going to the new film with Tiana; I hope it will be worthwhile and shake up the Disney princess mold a little more.

    _The Paper Bag Princess_ by Robert Munsch is a fun kick-butt princess story that we really enjoy, and there are others. And we have several empowered chick stories she will read as she gets a little older to balance the whole Disney princess thing, but I’d sure like it if there was a wider range of choices available.

    It’s funny. My oldest daughter never had much use for the princesses, and I was always into stuffed animals instead of dolls or Cinderella. I liked fairy tales, but I was really more into comic books and superheroes. There’s a lot of that around our house even today. And then suddenly we get this youngest child who is the most avid princess fan and girly-girl of them all.

    *shrug* They just come how they come, and the best you can do is to provide them with some context and positive role models and exposure to lots of different kinds of literature.

    • My middle child, who’s six, is the princess fan and yeah, she gives this feminist the hives. But, like you, I’ve found it’s not possible to de-princess her (or de-pink her), so I am, like you, trying to expose her to a wide variety of princesses.

      This weekend, she found my Xena action figure and she had Xena surrounded by Doctor Who (9 and 10), ET, a green alien, and a small chicken. Xena was preparing to battle her way out.

      It’s the best I can do, but I hatehatehate Disney, Barbie, et al soooo much for making it difficult to associate women with power.

      • Miriam I loved the mental image of Xena battling her way out of that group of baddies :o) Perhaps the point in all this is that we’ll end up liking what we like but encouraging a variety is certainly a good way to encourage all possibilities to be explored first.

    • My favorite princess book when I was a kid was The Ordinary Princess. It’s about a princess who is given all these fairy blessings at her christening (grace, charm, musical ability, wit, etc) and then the last fairy says “You will be ordinary.” So she still has the grace, wit, etc, but her hair turns mousy brown and she has freckles and grouchy days like any girl. Her name is Amethyst, but she just wants to be called Amy.

      When she becomes a teenager she decides that she doesn’t want to just marry whoever her parents can con into taking her, so she runs away and finds her own true love while she is looking for something to be other than a princess that doesn’t fit in.

      I’d recommend checking it out if you haven’t.

  4. It seems the popularity of the Disney princesses, as far as marketing is concerned, really didn’t pick up until after the success of The Little Mermaid. When I was growing up in the 80’s, it was all about Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake, Barbie, Cabbage Patch Kids, etc. Disney films were more along the “old stuff” to be appreciated in a more adult sense. Not being the targeted demographic, I have no interest in this phenomenon.

    I agree with Trabb’s Boy that most girls are into the princesses because of the clothes and hair, and also the colors. I really don’t have a problem with how they’re portrayed. They’re fairy-tale characters sanitized for the young crowd, as the original stories are more like horror tales. Sure, they’re boring to us old women 😀 but to little girls, it’s magic. I can’t see taking that away from a child, especially in these cynical and uncertain times. Now, if the child is 30 and still waiting for that prince to come on a white horse, that’s a different story. 😉

  5. You know who’s a bitchin’ Princess?


    She does kung fu, never takes shit from anyone and loves herself for who she is. And, in ogre form, she’s plus sized!

    Actually, I think I’m going to go see if I can get a Princess Fiona doll.

    • Anna yeah I really do love Fiona 🙂 She’s awesome and I love her green dress! (Though like Trabb’s Boy pointed out that could just be the “Ooo! Shiny Colors!” part of me reacting!)

  6. I was a kid before they turned the dial up to 11 with the Disney princess branding. I remember liking fairy tales for the magic and adventure, but I preferred stories where the heroine actually got to *do* something.

    I really liked The Snow Queen, because the *girl* is the one who goes on the quest to rescue her true love.

    I would be thrilled to see Disney emphasize a more active role for their heroines and get some body diversity. I’m not holding my breath though.

  7. I was never into princesses growing up and so far as I know, I never owned a princess doll. Not sure exactly how I managed to avoid all this. Probably because back in the day we didn’t have a VCR or cable, and we didn’t go see kids’ movies in the theaters until ET came out. But now Disney has its own CHANNEL, so you don’t have to leave your house to be aware of the princesses.

    I’m curious to see whether my daughter shows an interest. I was a Laura Ingalls/Anne Shirley/Sara Crew/Jo March/Harriet the Spy/Ramona Quimby/Nancy Drew girl myself.

  8. I was totally into the princess movies growing up, mostly for the OOH SPARKLY component. 😉 And the various song-and-dance routines from the movies. My sister and I always thought the various iterations of Prince Charming were stupid, so they never played much of a role in the adventures of our Ariel and Jasmine dolls. I knew that every fairy tale princess had a prince, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. The princes were boring.

    Those readers who have young daughters, I highly recommend the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede! Princess Cimorene is a strong, determined person, Wrede plays with a great many fairy tale tropes, and the books are also funny as hell. They’re geared toward a young adult audience, but I bet they’d also be great for reading aloud to younger would-be princesses.

  9. I second the recommendation of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. They are indeed wonderful, funny, entertaining books which in no way follow the formula & the characters are interesting & unique. I am 60 & I love those books, but, then again, I often read books which are aimed at the 9-13 or so crowd & enjoy them more than most of the adult books. I also love Disney cartoons a lot & think Mulan is a pretty strong character overall, but my favorite Disney characters (aside from Goofy, who is kind, warm-hearted, gentle, & well-meaning if a total screw-up) are Lilo & Stitch; Lilo is strong, smart, brave, independent, very adventurous, & absolutely adorable. I also love Kim Possible, even if she is a thin, popular, cute cheerleader; she is also strong, smart, gutsy, saves the world, & ultimately loves her somewhat goofy, clumsy, dorky best friend over the popular pretty boys.

    However, I am not a ‘princess’ person overall & pastel colors, especially pink, tend to make me break out in hives. I also, before I forget do love Fiona, especially in her ogre form, & I do wish that there were more variety in the sizes, shapes, & appearances of Disney heroines. I haven’t yet seen “Up”, but I have read that they did do a good job with the characters of the fat little boy & the grouchy old man, so that is at least hopeful.

  10. The thing that really gets me is Mulan being sold with all sorts of fancy dresses. Especially none that she appeared wearing in the film. Mulan’s main focus isn’t being pretty, it is using both strength and intelligence to get on in life. I was glad as a child that at least one of the barbies had her military uniform, and that the Burger King toy had an interchangeable set of armor and dress. (The dress ended up being thrown away. :D)

    I am afraid of whatever they’re going to do with Tiana.

    • I know! After Mulan (the movie) came out, I thought it would be really cool to have a Mulan doll with armor and sword. So I went to the Disney store… and all they had was Mulan in a dress. WTF, Disney? Mulan spends most of the movie in the Chinese army! I wanted the kickass Mulan, not Mulan the demure bride!

      Also, I was quite disappointed in the movie’s ending. “I fought in the Army better than most of the men, I saved China, so now I’ll get married and spend the rest of my life subservient to my husband.” Wow, what a progressive message to send to the little girls in the audience, Disney.

    • Yeah I have a bit of an angry reflex when I see dolls or action figures marketed in outfits they never wore! It is one thing to try a “Halloween Costume” thing; quite another to put Mulan in puffy princess gowns and such…

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