Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Princess Problem

My daughter is a typical 3-year-old in many ways: She loves to dance. She loves to squeal. She loves to play with dolls and figurines. And she loves to dress up like a Disney princess.

Back in my day, the fascination with Disney princesses was simple. We watched the movies (if we were lucky enough to have a VCR and a collection of Disney videos), we sang the songs (which we had learned from vinyl records), and we wore the dresses (if we happened to have a mom who could sew). And no-one thought anything about it except that it was cute.

But today, many people have less than positive opinions of Disney princesses. Some complain that they are too helpless, that they teach our daughters to wait for a man to come rescue her, that they are terrible role models of complacency and symbols of female subservience. I, however, disagree. I think that every Disney princess has a positive lesson to teach our children, both male and female.

Snow White and Cinderella, for example, were both raised in a family where they were neglected and abused. And yet, they both maintained their sweet, kind, loving, and hard-working natures. In Disney's versions, neither princess tried to get vengeance on her family, even when she had the power to do so. Isn't that a positive role model?

Ariel, on the other hand, was adored by her father to the point of being spoiled. But instead of sitting back and expecting everything she wanted to be handed to her, she explored the world around her and found a way to learn on her own, discovering that there was a whole world beyond what she knew. She pushed herself beyond the boundaries of familiarity and braved the unknown. Isn't that a positive role model?

And how about Mulan? She realized that she could not protect her family's honor the way they wanted her to, so she found another way to do it. She could have simply run away, leaving her family in shame. But instead, she put herself in danger so that those she loved would be safe. She became a warrior. Isn't that a positive role model?

Belle, who is not only beautiful but smart, is devoted to her father, also to the point of sacrificing herself and her own future to save him. And her kindness and compassion is so great that she is able to see past the Beast's ugly, angry exterior and recognize the sadness and loneliness inside. Isn't that a positive role model?

Jasmine is an interesting case, being a princess who is aware that she is being forced into a subservient role which she does not want. She rebels against the society that tries to force her into a marriage which she did not choose, and in the end, uses her power and privilege to make the world a better place. Isn't that a positive role model?

Rapunzel, similar to Ariel, has a parent (in this case, a mother) who loves her to the point of smothering her, purportedly keeping her "safe" from the world, but in reality, keeping her from learning and exploring on her own. Rapunzel also manages to escape her boundaries and discover the world around her, embracing all its warts as well as its beauty. Isn't that a positive role model?

What about the most recent of the Disney princesses, the sisters from "Frozen"? Each struggles with rejection early in life, Elsa feeling forced by her parents to hide who she is, Anna feeling rejected by the older sister whom she loves. But both put their own comfort aside for the good of the people of their kingdom, going through trials which eventually teach them to ask for help and work together. Aren't those positive role models?

So when my daughter begs to put on her Snow White costume, or her Cinderella costume, or her Little Mermaid costume, I will let her do so without reservations. I'll remind her that Snow White worked hard making the beds, cleaning, and cooking dinner for her "family." I'll remind her that Cinderella did as she was asked without complaining, even when it seemed unfair. I'll remind her that Ariel learned everything she could about what was around her, and studied it with an open mind. I'll remind her that each of these women made choices about their own lives, and lived with the consequences, for good or for evil. I'll remind her that they loved and respected their parents, that they loyally stood by their friends, and that they took their destinies into their own hands instead of complacently accepting their fates.

But best of all, they did it all while wearing glittering gowns and great shoes. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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