I just spent the past 6 days at Disney World. It’s legitimately a magical place, and going as an adult didn’t dull the impressiveness of the experience. But being an adult at a place made for children did give me an outsider perspective on it. Specifically the princesses. The trip was really planned for my nieces, a 4-year-old and almost 2-year-old. They love the princesses, they love the princess dresses, and, my God, did they love meeting the princesses in real life.
Which is cool. I’m actually OK with the Princesses themselves. I have a small issue with the way their stories are often focused on romantic love, but that’s like 90 percent of stories in general. And I wish that more of the stories could be about non-royalty, but I understand that stories have to have a hook. Being a princess means you can include castles and princes and ballgowns and I get it. Fantasy novels are set in fake medieval Europe for the same reason. There’s a lot of fun shit that we can add to that world.
No, my real problem is that, by and large, the Disney Princesses are boring. Interchangeably, unremarkably, why-even-bother-picking-a-favorite-they’re-all-the-same boring. Real quick: name three characteristics the Cinderella has that Sleeping Beauty does not. Did you say “Mother is dead”? Because that’s all I could think of either.
Or, let’s try this. I’ll describe a princess, and you try to guess who I’m talking about:
1.) A blonde princess faces hardships early in life at the hands of an older woman with a strong connection to her family. She remains good natured and kind despite the loss of her rightful social position. With the help of her animal friends, she eventually finds love with a handsome prince she met briefly.
2.) A headstrong young woman rejects cultural pressures, and pursues her interests despite the being ostracized. After traveling a great distance and overcoming great danger, she finds love and learns that one’s true self is more important that physical appearance.
3.) A woman with surprising abilities strikes out despite her parent’s disapproval after encountering a new, dangerous group of people. Despite being undervalued at first, she eventually saves her community proving that adaptation is more important than blindly following tradition.
Did you say Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty? Or Ariel or Belle or Jasmin? Or maybe Mulan or Pocahontas?
A couple of caveats: The princesses are getting better. Elsa and Anna do have their own stories and personality traits. Merida wants to not get married. Some things are changing. But the core group of princesses is still made up by super boring Stepford Ladies. And I get that this isn’t a phenomenon that only the Princesses experience. Harry Potter’s story could be a fill in for Luke Skywalker’s at their bases. The difference being within those stories, you’ve also got Ron and Han Solo and Dumbledore and Yoda. When all young girls have is Princesses and when they Princesses are as big of a deal as they are, the least we could do is make sure that when they do pick a favor character, it’s because of a personality trait and not a dress color.