Thursday, January 23, 2014

Once Upon a Princess


Like most females, I grew up watching and reading Disney and my earliest ideals about womanhood came from watching Disney princesses. I never thought much about negative messages that these characters might be giving, all I thought of was how wonderful it would be to someday be in love, be beautiful, be a princess.

Most recently, there has been a lot of controversy about these characters. They are always thin, always beautiful and typically rely on the male figure for their happiness. As an adult who has grown through a historical period of female liberation, I, too, felt that Disney may be sending the wrong message to young girls. Where are the fat princesses? The lesbians? The woman who just want to succeed based on their own worth?

 A few weeks ago, I read an article on the University of California's website by Lydia O'Connor titled, "The Princess Effect: Are Girls Too 'Tangled' In Disney's Fantasy?" and basically, the author agreed with me: Disney needs to change and show 'princesses' as normal woman, not just dependent sheep of impossible beauty. Although this particular article could be seen as supportive of my own previous argument, reading it made me understand how ridiculous that opinion might be.

Young children go through a period in their development when they establish a gender identification. Of course, not all young girls identify with the female role models, however, there do have to be defined lines for them to recognize the differences between male and female. Androgynous figures might be more confusing than helpful. True, once they get older and identify more with their own selves, that may be the path they are most comfortable with, but as young children, they need to see the differences in gender in order to understand the similarities.

Additionally, imagination plays a huge role in the development of a child's intelligence. I would think there is more imagination being exercised  when pretending to be a mermaid who wants legs than costuming as a popular historical figure. I do think young girls should be exposed to contemporary, positive female role models, but I don't think overexposure and excessive emphasis on these women's lives offer more options for young girls. Not all will grow up to be the next leader of a people or run a corporation. Some will grow up to be stay at home moms, and that shouldn't be seen as less admirable. Finding a fair balance between magical places and realistic settings may offer them more in the long run when they begin understanding who they are in relation to the world.

Disney is trying. Although some of their attempts have met with ridicule, such as the racial stereotyping of Tiana, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, they have made some strides in other directions. Mulan, for example, is a warrior. And when given the choice, Fiona opts  to be an overweight, green princess instead of the raven haired beauty.

As an adult, I don't feel that my constant wearing of a mermaid fin when I was six made me less aware of myself as a woman.  My refusal to eat apples given to me by my stepmother or my fascination with riding horses, side saddle in a long skirt, didn't result in any lifelong psychological damage.  And maybe the Disney princesses taught me something else about life that we deny focusing on because we are too blinded by their exhibition of beauty; life has a lot of challenges, and in order to live the dream, whatever that dream may be, you do have to work at it.  And as for finding a prince? Yes, you do have to kiss a few frogs.


-G said...

I concur. Society and entertainment, and society's entertainment, does a number on women and girls. This could explain the fact that, whilst playing "Frozen" with my niece last month, she got to be BOTH princesses and made me be Olaf the bumbling snowman.

Susan E. Kennedy said...

I agree with you that girls being exposed to the Disney "princesses" (I use the quotes because some of them, such as Mulan, aren't princesses at all, and many such as Belle and Cinderella don't become princesses until the ends of their stories) does no harm. As you said, their stories encourage imagination and dreaming, which encourages forward thinking, setting goals, and working hard. Many of these stories (like those I mentioned above) are old or ancient tales that Disney has "barrowed," and whether the company realizes it or not, some of the lessons from those stories remain, often in metaphor that I think people who take a more literal view of the tales miss. For example, Cinderella spends her life in service to her stepmother and sisters. Today, we look at that and see a woman who allows herself to be, what amounts to, abused and forced into slave labor. But, if we consider the context of the story: that Cinderella lives in a society where she appears to have no other options (there's no talk of educations or careers, none of the female characters appear to have a chance at either, no matter where they are on the social or economic scale), her virtues of patience, hope, and love for all creatures, even her "enemies" (the stepmother and sisters) should be applauded and, I think, cultivated in girls. If we see the stepmother and sisters as a metaphor for the things in life that just can't be changed--a terrible illness, a dependent loved one, any number of other things--wouldn't we want girls to have the hope, patience, and love needed to step up and face these things, instead of running away from their problems? (Such as some people argue Cinderella should have tried to do.) Of course, children don't consciously see the metaphor, but I think it will sink in if we adults give it the chance.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

LOL. What a great imagination she has!

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

And if we as adults guide them in that direction. It's hard to explain the historical context of some of these stories to a six year old, but as they get older, there may be a lot of lessons gleaned with the right teacher/parent.

Susan E. Kennedy said...

Oh, I agree, Kelly. I requires parental guidance and/or maturity.