On Wednesday, Keira Knightley (appearing on an episode of Ellen) mentioned that she forbade her daughter from watching certain Disney films. Cinderella was on the banned list, because, as Knightley explained it, the protagonist “waits around for a rich guy to rescue her.” The Little Mermaid was also frowned upon because of its purported message – as Knightley put it, “Do not give your voice up for a man.”
The comment initially struck me as someone ungrateful, as Disney paid Knightley millions of dollars to star in three Pirates of the Caribbean films (where she played a character who – in the first film, anyway – needed a man to rescue her). But I didn’t think much of it.
Shortly after, Kristen Bell mentioned her own concerns with Snow White, which she uses as a “teaching moment” for her daughters – how one should not take food from strangers, nor kiss someone while they’re sleeping. (The latter message is seemingly treated by the film as a “happily ever after” catalyst.) On its own, Bell’s comment could be viewed as charming and innocuous, but on the heels of Knightley’s, it got special attention from both the princess-loving and princess-hating factions of the Internet.
I cannot count myself in either of those camps – though I’ve long been a fan of the Disney canon, including many of their female-centered films, I was never the target market for the studio’s princess line. But over the years, I’ve spoken to many girls (not to mention a few boys) who love and cherish Snow White, or Cinderella, or Belle, or any of the ever-increasing number of other leading ladies in their lineup. And I’ve come to appreciate many of their showcases myself (to date, Beauty and the Beast remains one of my favorite animated films ever).
So I’d like to take a moment to address some of the criticisms leveled at the “Disney princess” – not merely the ones leveled by Knightley and Bell, but the more general complaints often lobbed with the genre. Suffice to say, I don’t believe Cinderella deserves to banned in any household. (Ditto The Little Mermaid, although I’ll grant that film has some issues.)
Before we begin, I should point out that yes, I’m aware that some folks likely won’t think that I’m the best person to dispute Knightley’s claims, as I am not a girl, a mother, or a princess fan. True as these claims may be, I can guarantee you that most adult males do not put as much intellectual stock into the intricacies of Disney princess films as I do. (I’ve even touched upon their nuances in the past.) I’m hoping that’s enough to let you go along with my arguments, which aim to counter a number of false claims. Starting with:
1. Disney princesses are just damsels in distress.
This complaint has been muted in recent years, as films like Tangled, Frozen, and Moana have put its female protagonists front and center. But older Disney flicks, particularly those from the studio’s original Golden Age, are accused of pervading the sexist stereotype vocalized in “Someday, My Prince Will Come.” (If the trailers are to be believed, the upcoming Ralph Breaks the Internet will poke some good-natured fun at the studio’s longstanding princess tropes.)
I can’t argue that no princess fits this mold – characters like Snow White and Aurora don’t have much personality, and spend a good chunk of their respective films fast asleep, waiting for the all-rescuing power of true love’s kiss. (There’s a reason that everyone remembers the dwarves from Snow White and the fairies from Sleeping Beauty – the main characters in those films are spectacularly forgettable.)
But I’d defend several of the more recent additions. Belle may be imprisoned by the Beast, but she’s portrayed as far from a dimwit, and ultimately ends up rescuing him. Ditto Pocahontas, in a story that’s based on true-life events (and only had to rewrite about 90% of them).
Even Cinderella is more well-developed than Knightley’s comments would have you believe. Yes, everyone remembers the prince fitting her with the glass slipper and whisking her off to a happy ending, but we tend to forget how little the prince actually factors in the story. Much of the film sees Ella (or is it Cindy?) forced to fend on her own against the crummiest family imaginable. And though her stepmother and stepsisters bully and belittle, she doesn’t let them break her. She works hard, gets through each day, and even breaks into optimistic song. She’s also funny and occasionally acerbic, in a way that the Disney Princess toy market tends to overlook. And the prince doesn’t have nearly as much of a hand in “rescuing” her as another woman, i.e. the Fairy Godmother.
What the animated Cinderella realized (and its ineffective 2015 live-action remake seemingly forgot) is that a princess can be an interesting and admirable character even if her ultimate goal is to settle down with a handsome man. You don’t need to turn her into an action hero (though the later DVD sequel, Cinderella III: A Twist Through Time, was an interesting attempt to do so). You done good, Cindy – enjoy your happily ever after.
2. Disney princesses reinforce feminine stereotypes.
I’m reminded here of Disney’s temporary panic when The Princess and the Frog underperformed at the box office. Several reasons were suggested for the film’s relative fizzle, such as (1) it was animated in traditional 2D, which went out of style around the time of the second Shrek, and (2) it was released a week before Avatar, which dashed its financial hopes in subsequent weekends. (Oddly enough, few people cited racism as a reason. Then again, the film was released in 2009, back when people thought racism had been vaccinated from humanity or something.)
But the reason that most haunted Disney was the fact that the film contained the word “princess” in the title, which marketers feared had turned off young boys from seeing the film. In response to this, the next Disney film received a swift, less-girly title change (from Rapunzel to Tangled), while the “Snow Queen” adaptation was labeled Frozen.
It does seem likely that some boys were turned off by the film’s title. Still, I was always vaguely bemused by the controversy, as Princess Tiana doesn’t spend much of her film in “princess” mode – most of the movie has her stuck as a frog. It also gives her some rather non-princessy-type lines of dialogue (“It’s not slime – it’s mucus!”), on top of a funny, human prince and an action-oriented plot. Ironically, the film struck me as more boy-targeted than the average princess flick.
Still, girls gravitate more naturally towards princesses, just as boys tend to prefer Disney’s more overtly male-oriented films. (Back in childhood, a poll among my male friends would have guaranteed Aladdin as the overall favorite.) This seems natural, as kids tend to identify with heroes they can more naturally envision themselves as. What it boils down to, then, is whether these heroes are depicted in admirable fashion.
And as I’ve argued above, not all of them are. Ariel is far from a good role-model – she disobeys her father and kingdom at every turn, and eventually learns her lesson by… getting everything she wants. The same holds true for some of the more male (or animal)-oriented films of the Disney canon – the lesson of The Lion King (a film I generally quite like) boils down to “Take responsibility for your actions, except that they weren’t your actions in the first place.” Disney films have plenty of wonderful morals, but their batting average is far from perfect.
And yes, some of their princesses conform to the “feminine” stereotypes. Just as some of the prince-type leads (Aladdin, Tarzan, Simba) conform to “masculine” ones. Oddly enough, no one ever comments on the latter issue. Perhaps, then, that’s because it isn’t an issue. Sometimes men crave action. Sometimes women crave love. And sometimes the vice craves versa. (Did I say that right?) Disney films touch all the bases, and it would be a shame to deny young girls their chance to play the field – particularly when so many of them seem to admire the studio’s Princess line.
3. Awakening someone with “true love’s kiss” is a form of assault.
A note to any men reading this: Never kiss a woman while she’s sleeping. It’s rude, it’s gross, and it’s immoral. Can we agree on that?
Okay. I’m not going to spend a ton of time on this one, because most of it is pretty straightforward. In many cases, a man leaning over a sleeping woman and planting a kiss on her lips could be justifiably viewed as an invasion of privacy, and likely something worse. However, in the case of Snow White (as well as Sleeping Beauty, Disney’s other famous “true love’s kiss” story), the kiss from a handsome prince serves to save the life of the sleeping (or unconscious/comatose/legally dead) maiden.
We take it for granted now, since Disney has cliched the “true love’s kiss” device into oblivion. But it’s important to make note of context, even in a children’s story. Snow White teaches kids not to take food from strangers, but it does not teach them to avoid kissing someone while they sleep. It is a good lesson to teach your children, but contextually, Snow White is not the proper venue to do it.
For the sake of fairness, I will note that the undertones of the “true love’s kiss” trope grow more disturbing once you strip away Disney’s patented homogenization of the classic stories. One popular early version of the Sleeping Beauty tale involves the prince – rather than just kiss her – having his way with Beauty, and impregnating her, while she’s still in her spinning-wheel-induced coma. There are likely other, more sexualized versions of these and other fairy tales that I probably shouldn’t get into on this mostly PG-13 website – let’s just say it kind of makes sense that the live-action Maleficent decided to go a different route with its kissing scene.
Still, this helps put the refreshingly tame Disney versions in perspective. I think there is a good lesson to be learned from these movies – don’t kiss sleeping people, unless your lips have the power to resurrect the dead.
Tell that to your daughter the next time she needs a teaching moment. I’d love to hear her reaction.