To start, let me clarify that there is a hierarchy of princesses that stems mostly from the era in which they were dedicated to film. Snow White is at the bottom of my list. I've never really liked Snow White and she was the first Disney princess. She enters the public consciousness at a time when women were still expected to grow up to be homemakers and child bearers. Nearly a decade earlier women were eating pizza in bathing suits just to annoy men. Snow White would never do anything as indelicate as eat pizza. But you know what she did teach me? That in a frightening situation, after your initial panic, things are almost never as bad as they seem. You are allowed your terror and your tears. But if you give yourself a little time, the calm will set in and you can rally. I also learned that hard work can be enjoyable if you do it with whimsy. I'm not much for whistling, but blasting some Skrillex while washing dishes definitely does the trick.
Next up are Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. I like both of these movies more than I ever liked Snow White, but they are still weak in the strong women department. But do you know what? When I was little and had to do chores I used to pretend I was Cinderella. It was my way of coping with unwanted tasks with grace instead of complaining. (Who am I kidding, I totally complained too. I'm a complainer. But I felt like I was taking it more gracefully when pretending.) I never quite expected to get a fairy godmother, but I did realise that good things come to those who wait. If you finish your chores you can go to the ball. Sleeping Beauty was...I don't think I have anything to say about Sleeping Beauty. She has very little agency in her own story. But I am excited for the new Maleficent movie! Woooo female villains. But that's another post entirely.....
Now is when we start getting to the good stuff. The Little Mermaid and Jasmine and Belle. All these women (or girls depending on how you want to look at them) long to be somewhere other than where they are. They want to experience life. I've read some disparaging things about that type of escapist thinking. How it teaches girls to disdain the present; it makes them ungrateful for the lives they've been provided with. Well, most children and teenagers are going to think like that, Disney movies or not. There is nothing wrong with longing for an adventure! For desiring something more. It may be a small world after all, but it's still worth trying to see. Belle is a reader, like I was. Books open the mind and heart to things you might not otherwise come across. Is that wrong? Should all books be therefore banned? NO. Belle might begrudge Gaston his boorish ways, but she doesn't look down on the townspeople for their narrow lives. She just knows it isn't for her. Same with Ariel and Jasmine. They are princesses and privileged. They should be happy and grateful for their palace lives. But a life of privilege like that also has its restrictions, its walls and guards and etiquette and expectations. It is true that they are very naive of the hardships that accompany common life, but I don't think we can fault them that. Hell, Jasmine would have lost her hand 20 minutes into the movie if it hadn't been for Aladdin. I guess what I mean to say is that desiring to live life, to have adventures and take risks is ultimately a trait that is worth praising. The pioneering spirit should be praised in women as well as men, despite what form it takes. And if you just so happen to fall in love at the same time, congratulations! The universe is smiling down on you. But you'll notice these women didn't want to see those other worlds originally for the sole purpose of finding a man. After all, Ariel sings Part of Your World before she meets Eric.
Jasmine also finds love on her adventure. And it is a hard love, a love that defies expectations. She is out of Aladdin's league and Aladdin is beneath her. But isn't it a powerful message to girls everywhere that love can help overcome society's pressure to marry someone who is 'worthy' of you in terms of wealth and standing? Marry someone who is worthy of you in spirit! Love is your choice, not society's. Prince William just married a commoner. And if Prince Charles had been allowed to do the same maybe there could have been a little less tragedy and scandal in the British monarchy.
And then there is Mulan. Mulan, like Jasmine, is running away from an arranged marriage. She doesn't want adventure though, she wants influence and respect. She wants to be in a position to help her family. Do you think she scorns her family for the life they have given her? No! She loves her family very deeply. That is her motivation. Her actions may be foolish, but they are done for the sake of her family. She chooses how best to live her life and secure her family's safety. I used the word agency previously in this post and I'm going to bring it up again. Mulan seeks agency for her and her family's future. Isn't that a gift worth giving girls? The right to decide their own path in life? Maybe they don't want to marry into wealthy, upstanding families. Maybe they would rather be poor and single, teaching other young people what it means to be human. Maybe they would rather run their own business than entertain their husband's business partners. Maybe they want it all- children, a career, wealth, happiness and health. It's not up to us to deny this to anyone. All options are valid. As long as it is what they want, and are willing to work for it.
There is nothing wrong with a happy ending, or an ending that includes marriage. Just look at Jane Austen's novels. Her women are representative, but they are not flat stereotypes. They are well rounded individuals who just happen to find love in the course of their stories. And while it may be true that love and marriage may be the focus of the novels, you can tell that it is not the only thing that defines those women. Elizabeth Bennet, god bless her, wants to be married, but quite frankly doesn't spend every waking hour hoping for it. She reads. She walks. She shops and gossips and loves her family, even her ridiculous mother. Her inner life is much more rich than we ever see on paper. And isn't that the true measure of a person?
So go ahead and let your children watch the Disney Princess movies. Maybe someday they will have to come to grips with the disappointment that is discovering mice will never talk and sew fancy dresses for them. And maybe that will prompt them to learn to sew for themselves. Or maybe they will finally accept that a prince will never come and spontaneously join their duet. And maybe that will prompt them to stop waiting and instead help others sing their own songs. Or maybe girls will learn that all humans are equal and capable of doing jobs that were once reserved for others. There are lessons to be learned everywhere. Instead of sheltering children and thereby narrowing their development, why not expand it, and let them choose for themselves. Being a princess isn't everyone's one true desire, even for those who grew up watching them. But if they do want to be a princess (I wanted to be one for the longest time), don't disparage them from that either.