Roughly six years ago, Richard Schaefer decided to experiment. With the help of some makeup, brushes and a bright red wig, he slowly turned himself into his childhood idol: Princess Ariel.
Yes, that Princess Ariel. The mermaid who brushed her hair with the dingelhopper and hung around with a flounder cleverly named Flounder.
Today, the 21-year-old from Orange County, California, runs The Official Ariel, an Instagram account boasting over 242,000 followers, and that one-time experiment has since morphed into a collection of over 40 costumes, 30 wigs, and a steel-boned corset, all geared towards helping him transform.
"I've always kind of been made fun of for being androgynous — so I decided to play around with it and do Ariel makeup on myself," Schaefer told me over the phone. "I figured out that I could look really good. And here I am!"
It seems like an unusual pursuit — but Schaefer is actually far from alone in his interest. Men, and millennial men in particular, aren't exempt from the current trend of Disney princess nostalgia that's been dominating the Internet in recent years. (Just try and count the different versions of "Disney Princesses as hipsters/high schoolers/nerds/moms/lazy girls/insert other character trope here" that you've seen shared on social media.)
I first became aware that men feel Disney feelings when I wrote a story about Beauty and the Beast, earning me my very first Youtube takedown. Clocking in at 7 minutes and 31 seconds, the video, produced by a man whom I'll just call "Gaston," dismantled my story in a rather aggressive way. For more details, I invite you all to view it here.
Since then, the question has been nagging at me: Who are these men who love Disney? And what do they love about it?
For Schaefer, it's a means of self-expression. "I've always loved Disney, since I was super tiny, and it just carried on to my adult life," he said. "It's an escape from real world, into a fantasy world. You just pop in a movie and you're under the sea with Ariel."
While Ariel is his overall favorite princess, Aurora, from Sleeping Beauty, is his costume of choice. "I love wearing a big pink dress, and her hair is really pretty. And I get to wear a crown, so that's a plus, for sure."
Schaefer, who is studying to be a special effects artist, enjoys mostly positive comments on his posts. (As for the haters, he told the Daily Mail, "I often receive rude comments but I'm quick to shut them down by turning their comment into a joke.") But even he admits that there is still a stigma attached to men openly making statements like: "I LOVE Ariel!"
"I definitely think people expect women to say those sort of things," he said.
Amber Hutchins, an assistant professor of communication at Kennessaw State University has some insight on that point. “I find that one of the things that’s interesting is that some of the most prolific fans who are creating communities, creating websites, holding events, are often male," she explained. "Some of the largest Disney fan communities and websites, most popular fan websites are run by men. I see a lot of male Disney fans who are invested in the company and all the media products in general and including the theme parks."
In fact, Hutchins, who has studied Disney fandom, points out that it's actually one of the more diverse fan communities out there.“If you look at something like the Harry Potter fandom, I think mostly what you’ll probably see is women. You know, Twilight, that’s obviously going to be women, but I actually see a lot of diversity in the Disney fandom,” she explains.
But while two of the more major fan sites dedicated to reporting the ins and outs of the Disney theme park universe — DISBoards and Inside The Magic — are run by men, more stereotypically feminine things like Disney princesses speak to something more subtle than outright fandom. "What they seem to be more interested in, rather than specific narratives — although they can probably tell you what their favorite film is — is the sort of Disney values that are portrayed." Hutchins sums these up as "faith, trust and pixie dust," but more specifically, they refer to a certain kind of nostalgia that children who grew up with Disney films tend to feel towards them."
In other words, unlike Schaefer, most men may not consider themselves hard core Disney princess fans. But that doesn't mean they don't care about them.
Kyle Marshall, a Film and American Studies student at Columbia University, says his interests lie more in the historical development of Disney Land and the music than in the actual characters, but even he has a princess favorite: Tiana, from 2009's The Princess and The Frog.
"She's a hard worker and she understands that sure, wishes are important, it's good to have goals, but at the end of the day, you're going to have to do some work. I think [she] presents a really good role model, like an aspirational model — more so than other princesses — but she's also so charming. She's funny, she can stand up for herself — she has actual character traits."
It's interesting that he says that because, according to Hutchins, students — especially millennials — tend to point to Belle, from Beauty and The Beast, as their favorite princess for very similar reasons.
There seem to be two main elements at play in the millennial male fascination with Disney princesses. On the one hand, there's a sexual awakening thing going on. Young straight men are exposed to these films at a young age, and a seed is planted as to what "acceptable" male/female behaviors are. Marshall sees this as "these specific princesses are the ones I'd want to wife."
But there's also an empowerment aspect. Men who grew up with Michael Eisner-era Disney films ( The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King — basically, any Disney film produced between 1984-2005) are used to seeing princesses with a little more agency. They represent the values that they want to see in the world — just like what Marshall says about Tiana.
These men may not even realize that they have such strong feelings about Disney princesses, because they've absorbed cultural values from these franchises at such a young age. For a certain generation, Disney has simply become part of who they are as human beings.
Take, for example, Jerrod Carmichael's new HBO special, which includes jokes about why fairy tales don't have sequels. "It would be way too much for any of us to handle. Cinderella 2 would just start with Cinderella asking her prince 'How come you didn't come home last night?' And the prince just feeling indignant like, 'Bitch I rescued you from the gutter! You were making dresses with mice when I met you, never forget that!'"
As it happens, there is a Cinderella sequel, called Dreams Come True, which came out straight to video in 2002. But that's not important — the point here is that a straight, millennial comedian is so comfortable with his Disney references that he can make jokes about them, and the audience will immediately get it.
"We trust Disney with our cultural stories, we trust Disney with our children and we trust them to educate all of us on being a good citizen and having a happy life and all those things," Hutchins pointed out. So much so, that Disney has even proven to be a therapeutic tool — just think of the 2016 documentary Life Animated, which showed how young Owen Suskind, diagnosed with autism, used his connection to Disney films to develop his communication skills.
Since this is all a little abstract, I turned to a place where I could test these theories: Reddit, the place where everyone feels safe to be themselves — and not always in a good way. But even there, I was pleasantly surprised.
Marshall's first point definitely stands up. For some (straight) men, Disney princesses — or one in particular — are synonymous with early sexual awakening. (Women experience this too — I still get hot and bothered when I see Aladdin. And if Simba happens to be your cup of tea, I recommend this excellent ode to his fire.) But beyond the obvious sexual references to which princess is most fuckable, there exists a really fun community of men invested enough in the topic to go back and forth with each other.
The easiest point of comparison is probably the Bronies, the community of adult males who love My Little Pony. That too, takes something that is ostensibly meant for young girls, and transforms it into a fandom embraced by grown men in a very (and almost surprisingly) earnest way. As Kevin Fallon wrote in The Daily Beast: "They’re not overly effeminate. Many aren’t gay. They aren’t predatory, or even being ironic. They are just guys. Dudes. Dudes who like My Little Pony."
And here is where the empowerment aspect comes into play. In December 2016, a Redditor who goes by the username Veneficium posed the following query in the AskMen subreddit: "Men of Reddit, which Disney princess would you be?"
There are over 300 responses on this thread (above average for this particular subreddit) — and they are surprising. Not because hundreds of men gathered on Reddit — that happens all the time — but rather because hundreds of men felt comfortable enough to share their thoughts about a seemingly feminine topic in a positive (and for the most part, not creepy) way.
And then there's the fact that some of these are truly observational gems. Are we even worthy of such comments?
If you look past the jokes, and amusing obsession with curls, what shines through is that these men openly appreciate Disney princesses for their empowering characteristics. They have internalized the values put forward by the films of their childhood, be it Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, or Mulan. A quick search through the thread shows Mulan as the most sought after princess, with Jasmine and Belle as close runners-up. On the other hand, there is almost no mention of more traditional princesses like Cinderella, Snow White, or Aurora, famous for having only 18 speaking lines in her own movie. Another, older thread asking men which Disney princesse they would choose to be for a day shows similar results. If there was ever any doubt about the importance of showing powerful women on screen, then ladies and gentlemen, I show you the receipts.
After creating a Reddit identity of my own (journalism!), I asked Veneficium to shed a little more light on those who feel so passionately about the merits of Mulan vs. Merida.
"Disney should be for anyone and everyone," he wrote, when I wondered what his reaction is to those surprised that men can enjoy Disney as much as women. "Don't be surprised and proudly sing 'Hakuna Matata' together." (If you feel so inclined, here's the sing-along version, with lyrics.)
"Men relate to Disney differently, and Disney relates to men differently," he wrote back to me. "We’re just not in any of its target demographics. On a societal level, any interest a man has in things designated for children, especially girls, is seen as downright pathological. So while women can get away with a Tinkerbell sweatshirt or Little Mermaid figurine on their dash without anyone raising an eyebrow, there’s no room for that with guys. I think we’re seeing a reversal of that trend with Lego and superheroes to some extent, but it’s still a huge disparity."
Case in point: "I’m not exactly a macho dude, and my girlfriend’s a staunch feminist, but you’d better believe I watch any kids' movies I want to when she’s out of the house to avoid the jovial but merciless teasing that would surely follow if she found out."
This isn't uncommon. "I’ve seen Disney fans who say they’re not 'out,' because they don’t share their Disney fandom with people that they work with or even other family members because they are afraid that it will seem sort of infantile," Hutchins explained. "There’s still definitely a distinction between Disney fans versus Marvel fans and Star Wars fans who are typically seen in a more masculine sense.”
But that is changing. The brand is seriously progressing, largely as a result of the expectations of its fans. The shift first became noticeable with Frozen, which for the first time ended with strong female protagonists choosing each other over love. 2016's Moana gave a much-needed push towards diversity. Beauty and the Beast, which opened last week, reimagines Belle as a feminist inventor in her own right, and has made headlines for featuring Disney's first "exclusively gay moment." Who knows, maybe 2018 will be the year we see a gay person of color actually head his or her own narrative.
In the meantime, it gives me hope to see men so openly flaunting their Disney knowledge. Traditional feminism has encouraged women to join male worlds — to play with toy cars and trains, to learn to code, to enter STEM courses and shatter the glass ceilings as fierce CEOs. But men are rarely coaxed to enter female spaces. If men wants to sing along with Belle, learn to fight with Mulan, or travel under the sea with Ariel, why shouldn't they too, be part of that world?