Monday, July 1, 2013

The Problem with Sexy Disney Princesses

I was reading an interesting article today that points out that, while Disney creates “strong leading female characters in its movies,” they suddenly get changed before the merchandise comes out: “they’ve all been reduced to flowing hair and off-the-shoulder dresses and coy looks in their post-cinematic incarnations.”

As I soon as I read this, something clicked. You know why Disney movie heroines are brave, wise, and kind, and the merchandise princesses are just sexy?

Because stories do something for women that images cannot.

When a princess is a picture in a coloring book, a figure to hang pretty clothes on, or a design on a notebook, she is there to look pretty. That’s the whole point. And, in just about every other area of life, that’s fine. You wouldn’t necessarily want to buy a dishware set with an imperfect pattern, or seek out wallpaper that was ugly.

Somehow, though, this standard changes change when it comes to people. We instinctively realize there’s more to them than just aesthetics. People are not lawn ornaments that we arrange around our lives for decorative purposes.

For example, take a look at the pictures you have in frames around your house, attached to the fridge with magnets, or displayed on your Facebook page. The images there probably aren’t of perfectly designed and sculpted looks, (unless all your friends are models who don’t allow any candid pictures, in which case I feel sorry for you). Those pictures are imperfect…and completely wonderful, because you know and love the people in them. They are not just images. They are people.

Images alone tend to reduce the Disney princesses to something very superficial. What you see is what you get, and Disney seems to think we want more jewelry (check out Pocahontas on the Disney site—didn’t even know Native Americans had that much bling), sultry expressions, and tiny waists.

There’s been a lot of hype about Disney’s attempt to rebrand Merida from Brave. That’s because many people think that the images we feed our children show what we value, and that we can easily transfer those values from 2-D animated figures to real people.

To be fair, in the actual movies, especially the later ones, Disney does a good job of having strong female role models. That’s because in order to pull any weight at all in a movie, most princesses actually have to do things and show personality and possess character traits. Without those things, audiences wouldn’t like them, no matter how sparkly their dress or flawless their hairstyle.

The only time Mulan really talks about her physical appearance is when she wonders “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” And who she is inside is someone who can kick some serious Hun butt.

Tiana, issues of how incredibly creepy the villain in her movie is aside, is the classic American dreamer who works hard and saves for years to start her own restaurant.

Pocahontas is actually pretty nuanced and articulate about prejudice and greed and why we humans tend to lean towards both of them.

Rapunzel is an absolute sweetheart, an accomplished artist, and a hopeless idealist (but, hey, if you’re going to be an idealist, there’s no better place to be than a Disney movie).

And no one can talk about Belle without mentioning how “odd” she is for loving books, speaking her mind, daydreaming, and not fawning over Gaston simply because he’s the most handsome man in town.

All that to say, there is some serious material here, people. But none of that—not one scrap—shows up in Disney princess merchandising. And maybe it can’t, because when we reduce a person to an image, we lose who they are as a character. (Incidentally—or not so incidentally—this is also a central theme of pornography and why it’s a cheap imitation of real pleasure. When we separate a physical image from all the emotional and spiritual aspects of a relationship with a real person, bad things happen.)

This is why I love stories. Stories dignify people. They let you get inside their minds, learn things about them that matter, and identify with them in a way that pictures can’t. That’s why “flat” characters are so terrible. It means having a medium with the power to transform even the most unimportant person into a meaningful, interesting, well-developed character…and deciding to feed cliché lines to a talking stereotype instead.

Disney might never learn the power of story to give value to people, at least not when it comes to selling tiaras to little girls. But that’s okay. Maybe that means that we’ll have to learn for ourselves, and teach our daughters, that people matter for more than just their physical appearance.


  1. I didn't see this when you first posted it, but this is great! I completely get what you're talking about. It always pains me when people trash Disney for giving unrealistic images of women. Mulan fought to save her family; Belle sacrificed herself to save her father; Rapunzel gave up her powers to save someone she loved. Those aren't unrealistic images. Disney has tons of great messages, too, and I'm glad you remembered that.

  2. Good point... I prefer stories too...
    Oh, and I still want to say. I really hate the less-than-modest wardrobe they're dishing out to some of these princesses. Grrr. Merida was a breath of fresh air--no skirt that was too short, and most of the skin at her neckline covered. Though the tight dress was a bit much.
    Okay, okay, I admit it. It was the kinky red locks that sold me. My hair is that curly in real life. Also I loved the tapestry. I've always loved tapestries and was sad that they didn't ever show them fixing the tapestry from "Quest for Camelot."