It is strange how the mind works sometimes. Recently, a friend and I were walking through the Disney store in the mall across the street from where I live, and after seeing that half the store was devoted to Disney princesses, of which there are apparently eleven: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (from Sleeping Beauty), Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida (from Brave) . It appears that Naala and Lilo and Megaera (from Hercules) weren’t able to make the cut. It is sad that in looking at the eleven Disney princesses that my first thought was in what key demographic they were missing–there was no Latina princess, a curious oversight in light of the massive importance of ethnicity in demography. Of course, there had been no black princess until 2009’s The Princess And The Frog introduced Tiana, and it was not until the 1990’s when there were any minority princesses at all (Jasmine representing the Arabs of the Middle East, Pocahontas representing Native Americans, and Fa Mulan representing Asians (specifically the Chinese)).
I am at least somewhat ambivalent about the importance of Disney princesses to the self-esteem of many young women. On the whole I think it is a good thing for young women to aspire to be princesses in the same way it is noble for young men to aspire to be princes simply because aspiring to be noble might allow people to develop the nobility of character that would merit the respect of nobility. Sadly, wearing princess dresses and tiaras often seems only to make girls bossy and imperious rather than self-disciplined and possessed of an attitude of service to others. Merida, the newest princess from Disney’s Brave, suffers from precisely this problem–a refusal to accept the obligations that come from being a princess. Many of the princesses possess spunky personalities, but are naive (Ariel comes to mind) or are often fairly passive heroines in need of a rescuer (Cinderella, Aurora, Belle, Ariel again), even when they are portrayed outside of their original stories in places like the Kingdom Heart games.
There are, of course, some modern princesses that manage not to be helpless damsels in distress (Rapunzel and Merida, along with Tiana and Mulan), but in many cases this characterization of the women as being “strong” comes at the cost of them being appealing as women. Many of the recent Disney princesses deliberately resent femininity (Mulan and Merida, for example) or the divide between the roles of men and women within their societies. Whether Disney movies are presenting damsels in distress or somewhat bitchier modern women, they seem to get the tone wrong and fail to provide good role models for young women, young women who are capable enough to develop their own God-given talents and abilities without being hostile to men or unable to recognize that a difference in role does not mean inequality or disrespect from others. We could all use at least some visualization of a society where people are treated with respect as equals without that requiring everyone to be exactly the same, where we can find unity in a diversity of roles and abilities and interests.
In other ways, Disney princesses are generally reflective of positive hopes among young women in general–the desire to be treated with respect and honor, the desire for shiny things and pretty clothes and love and happiness. Even if the plots of the movies are often lacking in that balance between the need to represent the activity of young women rather than seeing them as merely passive recipients of male protection as well as the need to show respect and honor for young women and their capabilities without insulting or demeaning men (an all-too-frequent trend of our wicked times), it is better for women to aspire to be princesses (with the honor and love and marriage that entails) than it is for them to aspire to be thugs or unmarried young women plotting whether they would prefer to be murderers or unwed mothers or birth mothers of children adopted by others. In such circumstances it would be far better to be a princess and to recognize the moral demands of that position on the behavior of young women.
It is perhaps of interest, and danger, that there is no corresponding widespread movement for young men to see themselves as princes. It cuts against the spirit of our times, but it is far easier to protect the virtue and reputation of young women if we teach men how to respect others and show them respect for being decent and honorable. Since young men often wish to acquire power anyway, whether it is through athletic prowess or intelligence or cleverness, it is far better to teach young men how to use that power for the good, to serve and defend others, rather than for selfish exploitation. Perhaps the best way we would have to teach such noble character is to model it ourselves. But a woman is a princess to the extent that there is a prince for her to marry–if we want to treat our girls as princesses, we must also raise young men as princes to honor and respect those princesses for who they are.
In order for both young women to see themselves as princesses and young men to see themselves as princes, there needs to be a model of princely virtue for us to see and imitate. This is why demography is so important–if we want a group of people to see themselves as princes or princesses, they need to have a prince or princess of their own who they see as representing them and their hopes and dreams. It would be even better if these princes and princesses could behave in such a way as to provide us with that balance between recognizing the need for harmony in our conflict-ridden society while also providing positive models of action and behavior. We clearly have a long distance to go in these matters, but if we recognize the need to provide an example to others through our behavior, whether in real life or our stories, at least we might make some progress toward that noble goal.