Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Princess Problem

Throughout the ages of human civilization, little girls have wanted to be princesses. For them, it meant pretty dresses, tea parties, grand palls, and rides in a pumpkin carriage. The advent of Walt Disney’s classic princess movies drastically changed the way girls played princess. Gone were the historical figures in far away lands depicted in grand paintings. Suddenly, princesses were more accessible, beautiful, and perfect. The Disney Princesses became the new role models for generations of young girls the world over.

The Disney Princesses have a long history, with the first movie, Snow White, being released in 1937. With each subsequent movie, the Princesses changed slightly. They were each created to reflect the prevailing opinion towards women at that time. For instance, the original Princess movies, Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, were released in 1937, 1950, and 1959, respectively. During these times, women were expected to be caring for the home, completely dependent on the husband, and frowned upon for any aberration from this norm. Therefore it should be no surprise to see these princesses as homebound, waiting for their prince and falling into trouble when deviating from this path. As we meet Ariel, Jasmine and Belle (’89, ’91, ’92), we see three girls who, while homebound, choose to reject the first prince charming in favor of the unlikely second, although they still run amuck in the process. But now the tides have started turning. As we approach female equality in society, we meet Pocahontas (’95) and Mulan (’98), the first Disney Princesses to eschew the domestic life for the chance to defend her country and peoples. Tiana, Rapunzel and, lately, Merida (’09, ’10, ’12) have continued to further this trend to more independent princesses, much like women are in today’s society. Also important to note: the Princesses are young women in their stories! They weren’t created to cater to toddlers, but to maturing teens looking for any kind of guidance towards becoming a young woman.

The attitudes and appearances of the Princesses have influenced generation of growing girls. In the early years, the Princesses were an example of what a “desirable” woman was like to teach young girls that they should be obedient and accomplished at homemaking. They also taught fashion, through hair styles and clothing during the height of their princess-ness. Unfortunately, the only thing that seems to not have changed about the Princesses is their waist size. Through their perfectly shaped 36x24x36 body, the Princesses are telling girls that being skinny is the universal constant to being a desirable princess. This is wholly unrealistic, degrading and damaging to the girls who just aren’t tiny. However, hope dawned with the introduction of Merida, a realistically sized, freckle-faced, red-headed teenager. Finally, a true role model for girls of all sizes and looks! That is, until Disney decided she needed a “makeover” to match the rest of the unrealistically sized princesses. Way to send the message that being brave isn’t good enough, Disney.

Seeing as the Princesses aren’t being recalled anytime soon, parents with young girls have to make a decision. Do they embrace the appearance or the attitude of the Princesses? Personally, I’d lean towards the attitudes of the more modern Princesses. I’d want my daughter to value herself as a person before she goes searching for her prince charming. That said, I do think there are valuable lessons in the old films. Snow White’s don’t trust strangers. Cinderella’s dreams really can come true (with a bit of bibbity, bobbity, boo!). And Sleeping Beauty’s true love conquers all. As a parent, you have to make that decision on how to approach the films. Don’t kid yourself; it will happen no matter how hard you might fight against it. But above all, you should always be involved in your child’s life and be their very own, real-life Princess and Prince Charming.

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