Royal Epidemic: The Princess of “Who ARE You?”

I was reading a series of blogs and articles yesterday about the continuing sexing up the Disney princesses (and subsequent continued over-commercialization to younger and younger demographics). There’s a lot I could say on that subject, but many more articulate people have already said it for me. And that’s not what’s really rankling today.

Princesses-2012Do these even look like the women and girls in the movies anymore? Note: After a TON of controversy, Merida has been returned to looking more like a 16 year old and less like… this. But the others are still pretty spot-on with the merchandising images used on products aimed at 3-5 year olds.

No, today I am bothered by something else about the “new” Disney princesses. The celebutanting of Belle and Rapunzel. The Kardashian effect being liberally applied all over Cinderella. Who ARE these girls?

This was all triggered by a side-note on one of Peggy Orenstein’s blogs about the new sexed up Cinderella that debuted last year . (See the first pic above)

cinderellaBeneath this still from the original 1950 movie of Cinderella, pre-ball, pre-Prince, and pre-2012 attempts to make Cindy look like Taylor Swift, Orenstein wrote:

“This [picture shows her as] a servant girl (a part of her character that has disappeared ENTIRELY, but which is the basis for her strength of character and the real reason we’re supposed to root for her…)

And THAT caught my attention. Why do we even LIKE the princesses anymore? Why are they worthy of idolizing and dress-up and hours upon hours of imitation? Besides the seemingly simple accomplishment of simply BEING a princess, why are they important?

What ever happened to their back stories?

Though they are products of their times and the current going opinion of marketability, and though they are certainly flawed, there ARE back stories to each and every one of these princesses.

Note: Although I love Disney movies, I do hate how they butcher the original faery stories… the two tales are almost separate entities at this point, so I’m just going to look at the Disney movies where these princesses were first introduced to the masses in all their silk-swirling splendor.

Whether you liked them or not, each princess (mostly) had other attributes. Like most compelling characters in fiction, the princesses made their way through a tough spot. They were either raised in broken, crazy, restrictive homes or had terrifying adversity suddenly thrust upon them (or they jumped right into it) in an instant. Even for the more milquetoast princesses (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White), part of their appeal is the ability to at least just make it through the worst, and –at best—be an agent to solve/fix the problem.

For the girls who became princesses, we have Cinderella, a servant in clean but definite rags. But she had determination and optimism, a genuine love for animals, and an unbeatable tolerance for the idiots around her. She survived. Then we have Belle, a book worm, wearing pretty, but serviceable day clothes. She read and dreamed and joked and sassed and cared for the people in her life. And finally, Tiana, a modern, ambitious young woman, a workaholic determined to make her own dreams come true. She had friends and visibly healthy family ties, and a basic camaraderie with the people at her two jobs.

Then the already-princesses. (Again, it’s a whole other issue that Pocahontas is basically an afterthought with the princesses line.) Sleeping Beauty grew up as a living-off-the-land orphan, and found ways to amuse herself (it’s a stretch… see “milquetoast” above.) Snow White was all of a sudden out on her keister, and managed to survive in the forest. Ariel had a fabulous talent, a quirky hobby, made a terrible choice, but dealt with it when she suddenly found herself fish out of water (har har). Jasmine, Mulan, and Merida  all fought against tradition and had the guts to take themselves on their own adventures. Rapunzel found a million ways to pass the time in a tower, including reading and exercise and cultivating a great talent for art before heading out on her own adventure.

All of that has been erased from their value statements, replaced with “pretty” and “beautiful” and—if we’re really digging deep—kind and gentle, and maybe fair.

And sure, the clothes are superficial, but c’mon. We never see these girls in their “work clothes” anymore, and it’s too bad. With the exceptions of Merida and Rapunzel who spend their whole films in mostly the same outfit, we don’t see the ladies other adventure clothes, their “real people” clothes. Just the ballgown, the make-up, the hair. (Psst, Disney, how many more chances to merchandise do you want? A whole adventure wardrobe!)

Princess GownsGowns! Gowns for everyone!  …except you Pocahontas. Tough break.

And while I know it’s imperative to encourage the actual, y’know, making believe part of make believe, where you pretend a paper bag is a ragged dress, the bombardment of birthday party themes, bedroom décor, backpacks, shoes, bedding, pajamas, and dolls offers no encouragement to play a story, just wear a dress a call it good enough.

As a parent and a writer and actor, “good enough” bothers me.

My 3-year old daughter loves to play adventure games. She is often a ninja or a knight. She’s a doctor or a superhero who stops a bad guy, and spends long stretched running circles around the house rescuing people. And then she decides it’s time to be Cinderella, and it’s all about the ball and the dress.

Sure, she’s only three, but it bothers me that she doesn’t even think to connect the adventure—the basic narrative—of these stories. It bothers me that she’s missing out on a (more) rounded character and a story opportunity. It bothers me that— far too like all these bland, gorgeous faces in the magazine’s I always and only read at the hair dresser— the origin or interesting back story of Cinderella (Family tragedy! Forced servitude! Talks to animals! Fairy dust, for pete’s sake!) is not important anymore. It’s important that she’s pretty and we know her.

Looking at the billions of images online and on the store shelves, I don’t know where or who she comes from. I don’t know why or how or even if she makes decisions about anything. I don’t know where she’s going, besides a party or a wedding.

I don’t know what she wants, and frankly, I don’t really care.

Yes, sexing up the princesses is a bad thing. But I’m almost positive it’s worse to be sexed up and boring.

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One thought on “Royal Epidemic: The Princess of “Who ARE You?”

  1. I was JUST HAVING this conversation with a friend the other day! The Kardashian effect is such a good description. I am really not opposed to princesses in general, it’s the fact that my daughter just wants to put on a dress and BE a princess. What does the princess do? She doesn’t know. If my daughter was imagining the story and the princess’s adventures, well, I’d be totally ok with that. But in fairness to Disney, I think Pocahontas is on the sidelines because that movie SUCKED.

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