In Defense Of Disney Princesses

Back in 2014, MoviePilot declared 2014 the year of Disney princess reincarnations, with illustrators reimagining the animated heroines with real waistlines, as Star Wars characters, as the ultimate hipsters, and as historically-accurate fashionistas. And since then, Disney princesses have taken over the internet (including here at Refinery29).

There are Disney princesses without makeup, Game Of Thrones characters as Disney stars, Anna and Anastasia as plus-size princesses. And then there are the real-life people becoming princesses, IRL: the brides wearing princess wedding gowns, the woman who dresses as a princess every day, the girl who went to prom as Sleeping Beauty, arriving in an ambulance to be woken up by her prince.

The biggest question to come out of this colorful onslaught of cartoon royalty: Why are grown women still so obsessed with princesses? Last year, Betches Love This published a "Strongly Worded Letter to Girls Who Are Still Obsessed With Disney Princesses." Vanity Fair, Bustle, and Amy Schumer have also weighed in.

Let's be clear: It's not just women who love princess fairy tales. "You kind of assume that those who are interested [in fairy tales] are a certain age and a certain sex, but I've met people — single guys in their 30s, older couples in their 70s, couples without children — and they all react to these characters," says Jennifer Rouch, a 39-year-old mother who has wowed the internet with her Disney costumes for her daughter.

That said, the princess trope is strongly tied to female audiences. It's not surprising, really. Many of them based on centuries-old fairy tales, the films in which these princesses live have catered to girls all along. "Any woman who is alive today in North American culture has been exposed to Disney princesses," says Catherine Connors, former editor-in-chief of Disney Interactive Family. "It's a cultural juggernaut. They were a big part of almost every woman’s life."

So, why is it so terrible that women feel an emotional connection to a touchstone from their childhoods? Granted, the princess effect is oftentimes considered "a feminist's worst nightmare." But, those same criticisms are often precisely what fuels the more subversive reimaginings that have proliferated around the web. For instance, what would it be like if Disney weren't obsessed with rail-thin princesses? What would princesses look like without loads of makeup? "I went through my own phase of being a Disney cynic in a very big way," Connors says, who admits that she has sometimes shielded her own daughter from the princess genre. "But, the images themselves are powerful, and they come from a storytelling culture that goes back a couple thousand of years."

Cinderella was not going to get a job as a Google Exec in 16th-century France, but she could transcend her class and marry a prince.

Catherine Connors, former EIC of Disney Interactive Family
Connors argues that these stories are not anti-feminist: At their core, she says, they tell the tale of a woman overcoming adversity. The themes address bullying, interpersonal conflict, and being part of a community. "One of the earliest versions of Cinderella was a Chinese story 2,000 years ago," Connors says. "That's many hundreds of years before we had any idea of women being anything other than wives and mothers. Cinderella was not going to get a job as a Google Exec in 16th-century France, but she could transcend her class and marry a prince. It's a story of overcoming her situation." We would never say that being rescued by a prince is remotely feminist — and let's not forget all the deeply ingrained woman-on-woman misogyny in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. But there are germs of positivity buried in these tales, if only in the idea that these heroines are not going to put up with any more bullshit.
Of course, the makers of these movies aren't stupid. They know that we're no longer living in the 16th century. So, they've made a point of creating heroines who reflect a decidedly more modern ethos. The protagonists in Mulan, Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, Brave, Frozen, and even the latest live-action Cinderella aren't wide-eyed waifs pining for Prince Charming. They're smart, strong, independent, plucky, and in the case of Frozen, they know the importance of sisterhood (quite literally).

So, maybe it's time to stop giving women shit about enjoying princesses. "They’re not perfect, I won’t say I want my daughter to grow up thinking that a man can rescue them from all their problems, but there are still messages of compassion and kindness that are good," Rouch says. After all, you can enjoy something while acknowledging its problems. You can love Return Of The Jedi and hate the Ewoks (trust us).

Some days I'm extremely focused on my career development & future goals. Other days, I just want to quit & become a housewife and bake shit.

And these stories do touch on something universal. "We all want to be able to do what we want to do, and we want to be cared for," says Yalda Uhls, PhD, a child psychologist and author who has written about the Frozen phenomenon. "Sure, parts of the traditional norms of princesses and princes are confining, but there are parts that are also incredibly appealing. I have a 15-year-old daughter, and she subscribes on Instagram to Betches Love This. One post was, like, ''Some days I'm extremely focused on my career development & future goals. Other days, I just want to quit & become a housewife and bake shit.'" In other words, we have every right to have the best of both worlds.

So, let's rethink our criticisms of dressing up in a big puffy dress and a tiara. There is, inherently, nothing wrong with wearing either — and looking feminine doesn't have to mean looking weak. "Princess cosplay is no different from any cosplay. It’s not about being that character, it's just playacting. When a guy dresses up as Spider-Man at Comic-Con no one bats an eye," Connors says. "So when we look askance at people dressing up as a princess, it says more about what we think about the 'feminine' than anything else." Right on.

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