Responding to the Princess Culture

by Nalini Haynes

Andrea Philips wrote a defence of princess culture.

I wanted to shriek, ‘NO, NO, A THOUSAND TIMES NO!’ in response although she has some very good points.

I agree with Andrea: there is nothing inherently evil in the colour pink. Even though pink looks AWFUL on me, it’s not actually EVIL. I’ve been described by others as an Amazon but never as feminine. (Unless you count my partner, but really? He’s biased.) I avoid frills and sparkles like the plague because I fear looking ridiculous.

When I was a young adult I noticed that I received a lot of the wrong kind of attention. A LOT. I learnt that young women won’t be taken seriously in the workplace and will be sexually harassed on the street even when wearing modest clothing. I wanted my daughter to be independent, to have a career and to be taken seriously, so I encouraged her art (which she loved), her strength of character and critical thinking, while discouraging Barbie dolls. (She had Barbie dolls regardless.)

Andrea says:

It’s sort of true that The Little Mermaid, for example, is about how finding a man is important enough for self-mutilation. But that’s a very uncharitable reading, and overlooks the film’s significant and overt themes: how young women need freedom and agency apart from their parents, so they can make their own mistakes and live their own lives.

My first reading of the Little Mermaid was the ‘original’ fairy tale, the one where the mermaid sacrifices everything to be with a man who doesn’t want her. The price she paid for her mistakes was to become foam on the sea, tossed this way and that, living alone and isolated for eternity. To me, this is another reason to have independence and a career: you can never depend on another person for your livelihood.

Andrea says:

Let’s look a little closer at one of Disney’s older films: Cinderella. In this one, the princess does literally nothing to affect the outcome of the movie, beyond being pretty and pleasant at a party. She’s a victim of circumstance who gets out of an oppressive situation by capturing the love of the right man.

But look, even Cinderella is fundamentally about how the hopes and wishes of a woman could matter, be important, even transform her life. Against the grand backdrop of history, that strikes me as not a terrible message.

I remember reading and strongly identifying with Cinderella when I was about seven years old. At this age, Mum used to regularly snarl at me, ‘We’re going on a family outing and you’re not family so you’re not coming.’ I stayed at home alone. No phone. No emergency plan. Nothing. I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere or talk to anyone although I used to visit the neighbours’ kids sometimes.

So I identified with Cinderella. The thought of waiting until one day, maybe, perhaps, a man would like me enough to rescue me? It was NOT encouraging nor happy-making. I remember looking at the pictures in my book and thinking through the possibilities. I knew women who had jobs and careers. I wanted to be one of them. I wanted it so much I could taste it.

Andrea says:

For a child who has basically zero agency in their own life, the message that someone in authority could help to make it all better if you talk about your problems is… you know, maybe not the worst thing.

Although she has a point, this can also backfire. When I was 15 years old I started living with Mum again after four years of living with Grandma. Things were worse. Things were so bad that, after a bad night, Mum would give me money for the cinema and give me the day off school.

I ended up talking to a guidance counsellor but I didn’t tell him how bad things were at home. I wanted to see if I could trust him first. He violated my trust; none of my begging or pleading or crying prevented him from going to see Mum. She was FURIOUS. The only thing that stopped her – temporarily – was the fear that I’d tell the guidance officer.

The combination of having zero agency and talking to an adult is very dangerous. If the child is lucky, he or she may get help. If not, well… look at the crowds waiting to testify at the Royal Commission into sexual abuse by institutions; listen to their stories of coming forward years ago and the consequences.

Andrea says:

Ah, but they’re all still romances, right? Disney propagates the idea that being in a relationship is the most important thing. Look, there’s nothing wrong with romance, and suggesting that a story fundamentally about love has cooties and is bad is its own kind of misogyny.

In principle I agree with Andrea on this point but romances as childhood stories, long before romance is appropriate in a girl’s life, is out of balance.

Andrea says:

Remember, the idea that being a feminist means hating men is abject slander from the 1970s. You can be a feminist and a loving wife and mother all at the same time. You can be a feminist and still want to fall in love.

I agree with this 100%.

Andrea says:

But progress has been made, and lots of it. When we look at the modern princesses, we have Mulan and Merida, both warriors. We have Tiana the entrepreneur. Belle the bookworm. Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa are all complex and well-drawn characters that defy being pigeonholed by any single descriptor at all. Disney’s not perfect, but they’re trying as hard as they can, I think. The princesses get more interesting as characters and people, and not just as fashion dolls, with every passing princess film.

Andrea goes on to discuss ethnic diversity and tokenism but doesn’t mention the absence of people with disabilities.

Andrea discusses the average age of women when they marry for the first time and the pejorative use of the term ‘princess’.

Andrea makes some excellent points but the flip side of the coin is the general level of women’s bitchiness and competition for the menz – competition for attention – as if it’s a finite resource in a battle for survival. The overarching theme of the Disney Princess movies is that every princess needs her prince, her prize, and she’ll walk over anyone to get hers and put up with anything to keep him. Movies like Brave, where the princess fights for a career as an independent young woman, are few and far between.

In contrast, boys are fed a diet of creativity, engineering, problem solving and adventure; romance is not on the menu until they’re old enough to tolerate girl cooties.