Since I started working in Catholic media almost a year-and-a-half ago, I have seen a number of articles lamenting the intrusion of the “princess culture,” sometimes with much ire directed toward Disney. The most recent article that triggered this post is from Millennial. It refers to the princess culture as “toxic” and offers ways counter it.
In the article, Robert Christian laments girls’ obsession with physical appearance, “play-sexiness” and disordered desires to be swept off their feet by Prince Charming — all fueled by “rabid materialist” princesses.
I also saw the marketing efforts of a Catholic academy for girls make the rounds. The ads quipped, “Life’s not a fairytale,” “You’re not a princess,” “Don’t wait for a prince. Be able to rescue yourself,” and the like. Girls were encouraged to “Prepare for real life,” which includes ruling the world with critical thinking and knowledge. While in some ways admirable, I still find attitudes like this troubling.
Are princesses really that bad?
First, many commentators seem to assume a fairly direct causal relationship between princesses and our sexualized culture, as well as all the problems that come with that — without really looking at the in-between. Many condemn princesses as the launching pad for sexualization and point to young girls with eating disorders and body image issues. But take a look at a couple of princess stories: Shrek (they end up quite happily together as ogres) and Frozen (Anna’s love for her sister, and not “true love’s kiss,” saves the day). This line of reasoning also neglects other critical cultural factors that are, I believe, even more damaging. Negative influences from many celebrities, immodest clothing, degrading music, sex-filled movies and TV shows, seductive advertising, contraception, abortion, pornography and the like are quite capable of sexualizing girls without the princess connection.
Second, critics often overlook the good. Now, I am certainly not going to defend Disney movies tooth and nail. However, as one commentator points out in an article defending princesses, they do exemplify some admirable characteristics, even virtues. Mark Tapson identifies the following: kindness (Snow White), compassion (Ariel), intelligence (Belle) (I would also add sacrificial love and bravery — can you tell she is my favorite?), humility (Cinderella), courage (Merida in “Brave”) and determination (Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog”). I do not know all these stories well enough to agree or disagree with all of them, but it is not too hard to see where Tapson is coming from. Obviously Disney princesses are not perfect, and those listed here certainly have their faults, but then who does not?
In addition, the typical understanding of princesses as helpless, superficial, self-obsessed damsels in distress whose only ambition in life is to meet a prince, get married and be taken care of happily ever after, is really a thing of the past. You hardly ever see the traditional fairy tale stories about girls waiting for their knights to come anymore. Even back in the mid-90s, Belle put the Beast in his place when he misbehaved. “Princesses” — at least Disney ones — have been strong lead characters for some time now.
Third, why do we take Disney princesses so seriously? At what point are we just looking for trouble via over-analyzation? In the end, they are stories — mostly cute, entertaining stories that have some redeeming qualities to them. Just like with any other fictional story, history, folklore or saint story, we should talk about it with our children, but we do not need to nitpick every little detail.
Finally, there seems to be a fairly intense focus on women’s usefulness. Many articles cite Peggy Orenstein’s book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” in which she criticizes how the culture does not tell girls they are “competent, strong, creative or smart,” but rather encourages them exclusively to pursue physical beauty. Others quote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said, “pretending to be a princess is fun, but it is definitely not a career.”
While the elements listed by Orenstein are not bad, shouldn’t we embrace the totality of the person? Views such as those expressed by Orenstein, Sotomayor and the publicity stunt for the academy seem to neglect the physical to a fault. The focus turns to what women do, instead of who they are, and to careers, instead of to their inherent value as a woman. Yes, little girls need to be taught how to be strong and develop their talents, but they need to learn about love too. I am not saying that princess stories are the ideal place to learn about love, but the fact that they are not career-oriented should not be a deal breaker.
In the end, I think we misunderstand the notion of princesses, or at least what it means to a little girl. When they dress up as princesses and watch princess movies, they are not looking for a career, and they are not seeking to model the lives of princesses to a T. Rather, they are just enjoying being little girls, and they are looking to be loved and cherished. Is that really so bad? Girls that have loving, Christ-centered parents can be loved, cherished and formed to Christ. In time, they can understand the totality of their dignity as a woman and a servant of God. Being a princess does not have to take away from that.
And besides, Mary is exalted as queen of heaven and earth, so royal titles are not completely off limits.
Jennifer Rey is the web editor of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing.