Friday, May 12, 2017

In Praise of Princesses

I think I've blogged on this topic before, but I overheard someone making a disparaging remark about all the "Disney princess stuff" marketed towards little girls and how horrible it is, and I felt a need to address the issue again.

I don't deny that Disney is a marketing machine, and that they create whatever will sell. And little girls do love the glamour of princesses. But I don't think that the stories of these princesses are completely without value, even the early Disney princess films which are often accused of depicting vapid, helpless women who live only to find and marry a prince. In fact, I think that nearly every Disney princess can teach a young girl a valuable lesson. Let's take a look at each of the princesses on the "official Disney princess" list, in the order that their movies were released.

Snow White is one of the youngest of the Disney princesses, and one with perhaps the most difficult story. Despite being a legitimate princess in her own right, she is forced to work like a servant, yet never complains, and in fact, actively seeks ways to be cheerful as she works. Her cheerful demeanor and sweet spirit endear her to all around her, which saves her life when her jealous stepmother's attempt to murder her is foiled because the huntsman cannot bring himself to kill her. Her life is saved again when she befriends the seven dwarves, willingly taking on a servant's role, and in return they protect her from the evil queen. Snow White teaches my daughter to be patient in the face of adversity, and not to be afraid of hard work. And that even princesses need to do hard work sometimes!

Next we have Cinderella. She is treated cruelly by her stepmother and stepsisters, but she continues to be kind and well-mannered towards them. She never returns cruelty for cruelty or unkindness for unkindness. Like Snow White, she isn't afraid of hard work, and she is appreciative when her friends help her, even if they are only mice and birds. In fact, she treats her little animal friends, her stepfamily, and Prince Charming all the same way, with politeness and kindness. And she never loses hope that her dreams will someday come true. Cinderella teaches little girls to be kind to everyone, from the least important to the most important, and to keep a positive attitude in the face of adversity.

Sleeping Beauty is an interesting Disney princess, because she spends most of her movie asleep. But even so, her story teaches some positive lessons. For example, her friends, the three good fairies and her little animal friends, all stand by her and help her when she is at her most helpless, so her story teaches us to trust in and rely on our friends. It is also significant that the Prince is only able to defeat the evil queen when he is armed with the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue, reminding us that good can triumph over evil.

Ariel, the Little Mermaid, is somewhat different from the prior princesses in that she has a father - but one whom she rebels against, which results in her becoming entangled with the deceitful Sea Witch. In the end, her father sacrifices himself to save her, which teaches children that even when your parents make rules that you don't like, they're for your own good, and that even when you make mistakes, your parents will be there to help get you out of trouble. Ariel's curiosity about humans also teaches little girls that curiosity and learning are good things (and that ignorance will cause you to do silly things like combing your hair with a fork).

Belle from "Beauty and the Beast" is a more obvious role model than the previous princesses, in that she is clearly shown to be smart, curious, and self-sufficient. Her story begins when she sacrifices her own safety to protect her father. But like the princesses before her, her kindness and sweet spirit endears her to everyone, even the Beast, and this is what saves her in the end. Her lesson is that both learning and kindness will serve you well.

Princess Jasmine from "Aladdin" could easily be a spoiled princess waiting for a prince to come and rescue her, but instead, she fights against years of cultural oppression and refuses to marry at her father's will. She takes her fate into her own hands, refusing to be made into a "prize". The girl has a pet tiger, for heaven's sake - how is she not a strong-willed woman who makes her own choices and takes care of herself?? She teaches girls to stand up for themselves and what they think is right, even if everyone around them thinks otherwise.

One of the things I love most about Pocahontas is her physicality. She is strong and lithe, and has great endurance. She literally runs circles around John Smith. And she has remarkable knowledge about the world around her - the trees, the plants, the animals, the river. She cares for the world - and the people - around her with great devotion. She teaches girls the importance of conservation.

Mulan saves China, man. What more do we need to say about her? Seriously, she disguises herself as a man and fights in a WAR to save her father and her country. She works harder than everyone around her in order to be prepared for what she needs to do. Mulan is the rock star of the Disney princess canon, in my opinion.

Tiana, from "The Princess and the Frog", is another character who begins her story as a commoner but ends up marrying the prince - and, like Belle, she falls in love with the prince when he is in non-human form. Tiana differs from princesses like Snow White and Cinderella in that, although also dreaming about a better future, Tiana is actively working to fulfill her dream. An aspiring chef, she works as a waitress to earn money to buy herself a restaurant. Her relationship with her prince is more of a side effect of her following her dream rather than the dream itself. In fact, she only kisses the prince at the beginning because he offers her enough money to buy her restaurant in exchange for breaking the spell which has turned him into a frog. She's a smart businesswoman, a devoted friend, and a feisty, strong-willed, and independent woman. She may not be one of the most popular Disney princesses, but she's arguably one of the most admirable ones.

Rapunzel from "Tangled" is another princess who takes care of herself  and occasionally her prince, as well. She and Eugene are much more of a team than many previous princesses and princes. She boasts a long list of skills, from cooking, to sewing, to painting, to writing poetry, to wielding a mean frying pan. She teaches girls that they can do anything they want - or need - to do.

Merida is not only a princess, but a princess slated to become the queen of her clan. As such, she has been trained from a young age to be a fighter, a diplomat, and a lady. Much like Princess Jasmine, Merida rebels against the cultural norm of marrying her parents' choice. Merida is undeniably brave but also undeniably impetuous, a combination which gets her both into and out of some serious scrapes. She teaches young women to trust in their own strength and not to blindly obey, yet to listen to the wise advice of their elders. She also depicts a realistic relationship with her mother that is both difficult and devoted.

Finally, we have Anna and Elsa. They are not technically part of the official Disney princess roster, but I am including them due to their popularity. (And because my 5-year-old daughter would never forgive me.)

Anna and Elsa have different lessons to teach. Elsa is an example of the contrast between being afraid of your own potential and taking ownership of and mastering your own skills. Anna, on the other hand, jumps into everything impulsively and without thought, which often gets her into trouble. But when she does stop and think about her actions and how they affect other people, her relationships become mature, and her devotion to those she loves allows her to be self-sacrificing and generous.

So what has my daughter learned from these princesses? To be kind to all, to work hard but cheerfully, to be curious and learn all she can about the world around her, to fight against what is wrong and to fight for what is right, to trust her friends, and to work hard to achieve her dreams. I think those are all worthwhile lessons, don't you think?

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