Around Halloween, there are plenty of princess-bashing articles floating around because of all the princess costumes and hoopla. The general idea is that having Cinderella or Snow White as a role model isn’t great, when you should be steering your girls toward warrior princesses like Mulan or Merida from Brave. The other princesses, people argue, set back feminism by a hundred years.
I’ve got nothing against warriors. I’m in the middle of a book about a real-life female samurai, Tomoe Gozen. But if I’ve learned anything from writing a historical novel, it’s that sometimes women’s choices were limited, and they had to do the best with the choices they did have.
Also, not everyone is athletic and physically strong. If your male child was more artistic than athletic, would you cajole him to abandon his paints for football? I feel like that’s part of what’s driving the princess-dissing—you’re supposed to want to be strong and tough, and that might be an aspiration more than a reality. It’s not necessarily possible for every individual. Nor is physical resistance always the best response (Gandhi, anyone?).
I, for instance, consider myself to have a strong spirit, but I bruise easily. If I had to fight, I’d have to do it offensively and with skill and determination, or I’d have to run really fast. Frankly, one of my reasons for choosing my husband is because he’s a lot physically stronger than I am, and he will use his Special Ops training to protect us during the zombie apocalypse or the downfall of the U.S. government. I don’t feel bad about my lack of physical prowess, because I can only change it to a certain extent (working out, practicing sports, etc). I’ll never be shaped like my husband (which I think he prefers). It’s just how it is.
We should value and celebrate emotional strength as well as the physical. My Tomoe Gozen book also has a contemporary part, with contemporary women—it’s difficult to write about a warrior who’s battling people to the death; and then have the same emotional resonance going on for a woman who’s not battling to the death, but has deep psychological issues she must address. Battles are not always of a physical nature.
Also consider that these stories took place during eras when choices for women were very limited. Women used to be property, you know. In some places, even in the United States, they still are. I think the princesses did the best they could, given their physical and historical-era limitations. There are always exceptions, like Tomoe Gozen, who lived during the 12th century. Yet even she, a captain in an army, was still considered property despite her mad sword and arrow skills.
Here’s my take on some of the Disney princesses, and why they’re not all that bad.
Poor Belle. She’s being forced into marriage by the town bigwig douche, Gaston. Everyone loves Gaston except Belle. Belle loves her books and has higher aspirations. At the time this film takes place, it’s highly likely that Belle would have been told to marry Gaston no matter how she felt about it.
Her father, a good-hearted but failed and doddering inventor, gets lost on a trip. Upon meeting the Beast, Belle’s father has promised to spend the rest of his life imprisoned there. So Belle nobly volunteers to serve in his stead.
Exactly how is it weak to volunteer to be imprisoned for the rest of your life with a monster? To save your father’s life with your own?
Additionally, she probably didn’t even go to school—girls weren’t regularly educated in Europe until when, the 20th century? This film takes place at least a hundred years earlier, right?—and Belle lived in the countryside– so she had to teach herself to read all those books. Possibly her father taught her. Nevertheless, that shows some damn initiative.
She also dresses down the Beast for his lack of manners. She might not be able to kill the Beast with her bare hands, but she’s definitely brave.
Ariel’s only 16, and already people are talking about her marriage, her need to grow up, her impending responsibilities. Because people used to get married young.
Ariel wishes she could go ashore like a human. So when Ariel falls in love with Erik, which also feeds her desire to go on land, she’s got to make a hard choice. Her undersea world, or the uncertainty of the dry world and the loss of her voice.
Ariel must display courage in leaving her known world for the unknown, the untested, where she could die much more easily. That doesn’t seem to me to be an easy thing. Besides, what the hell else is Ariel going to do? Marry some boring Mer-Man that King Triton chooses for her and start popping out babies?
You could argue, I suppose, that she shouldn’t be throwing her life away for a boy. But Ariel always wanted to leave the sea anyway. Plus, every great love story that feels like it’s destined to happen has elements of sacrifice and tragedy and oh-my-god-I-found-my-soulmate. In Casablanca, do you choose your love, or helping the Allies win the war? In Wuthering Heights, Catherine declares, “I am Heathcliff,” pointing to how strongly they’re, well, kind of one person. You know I could go on forever.
Next is Cinderella, whose dad died and left her in the worst possible situation, with a stepmother and stepsisters who make Cinderella into their servant. Except she’s not—I’m sure they’re not paying her a salary. She’s a slave, being kept against her will.
Now, what else could Cinderella do? Escape the house, but where would she go, with no family, during that time? She couldn’t get a job at Burger King and work her way through community college. No, she’d be singing, “I Dream a Dream” with Anne Hathaway in prostitute alley.
Instead of succumbing to her miserable fortunes, Cinderella manages to keep a somewhat sunny disposition most of the time, befriending the mice (the mice!) to keep her company. That’s some fucking ingenuity.
Snow White is the most annoyingly Goody Two Shoes princess. She’s kind of has no personality, a cipher. She’s just got that squeaky voice and an innocence where she seems to not notice all the bad shit going on around her. She’s not particularly clever, Snow White, but can I hold it against someone like her? Like Cinderella, Snow White’s stepmother forces her into labor. How intelligent and funny can you be when you’ve been kept in a castle and forced to scrub floors for most of your life? You’ve got to admit that would take a psychological toll on anyone.
But Snow White manages to keep her cheery attitude and even trains animals to come to her (in modern-day world, she’d make a fortune as a pet trainer). She sings, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” true; but perhaps we can interpret that song to really mean, “Someday My Life Will Not Suck So Much, because I’ll be dead or an army will overtake the palace and things must always change.” Keeping her hopes up.
After the queen convinces a huntsman to murder Snow White and bring back her heart, he takes pity on her. I guess she could have armored up, gathered an army, and taken over the castle—except that a) We’ve already established Snow White’s limitations and b) her stepmother’s a fucking sorceress who tried to cut out her heart.
So then Snow White, naïve Snow White, flees into the forest where she lives with seven random miners. Now, if my mother had just hired a hit-man to kill me and I fled into the forest, and I came upon seven men who said I could live with them, I would keep on walking. Even if they seemed totally on-the-level. Because I’m cynical and that seems might suspicious. But I’m not Snow White, and Snow White is not modern-day me. Snow White makes the best of it by seeing that they need some order and straightening their beds and whatnot. Again, where the hell else would Snow White go? Her stepmother’s the damn queen. Somebody would rat her out for some gold.
The qualities these princesses embody—resilience, courage, integrity, optimism—are not the worst things ever to pass onto your daughters. You can point out how shitty it used to be for women and how these had no real say in the course of their lives and did the best they could, and how freakin’ lucky we are because we get to do whatever we please.
What else would we say the princesses could have done, in their plots? “Belle should have stolen a sword and killed the Beast and taken his castle,” or “Cinderella should have poisoned the soup,” or, “Snow White should have been practicing jiu-jitsu this whole time.”
We don’t want to say, “The only good princesses are the ones who can kick somebody’s ass.” Because then what you’re really saying is, “You’re only worthwhile if you too can kick somebody’s ass.” And that’s sort of devaluing these other qualities I mentioned above, or at least ignoring the other qualities.
It’s just not possible for everyone, or in everyone’s personality, to be good at hand-to-hand combat. We shouldn’t pigeonhole the sexes into roles, tell a non-tomboy that she’s GOT TO LOVE SPORTS, just as you wouldn’t tell a tomboy to wear a pink dress.
As for my own daughters, I have one who liked to dress in Scooby Doo shirts when she was little (only available in the boys’ section) and never really cared for princesses or baby dolls. She loved the villains. That was fine. My other daughter liked princesses and wanted princess everything—but she also enjoyed using random objects as weapons (we have a great photo of her wielding a toy stroller in a Christmastime battle against her older relatives). My son’s not particularly into sports, but though we encourage physical activity for the sake of health, we don’t shame him or force him to participate in group sports.
My children may not be the strongest physical warriors, but I’ve witnessed all three of my kids speaking up for other children who are being bullied or shunned.
Strength of spirit comes into play far more often than physical strength. I’ve only been challenged to an actual physical fight a couple of times. However, on a daily basis, all of us have to enact these other character virtues. And if I want to do it all while wearing a frilly ballgown and a tiara, then I will.