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In Defense of the Princess
How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Smart, Strong Women
By Jerramy Fine
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Enter Jerramy Fine — an unabashed feminist who is proud of her life-long princess obsession and more than happy to defend it. Through her amusing life story and in-depth research, Fine makes it clear that feminine doesn’t mean weak, pink doesn’t mean inferior, and girliness is not incompatible with ambition. From 9th century Cinderella to modern-day Frozen, from Princess Diana to Kate Middleton, from Wonder Woman to Princess Leia, Fine valiantly assures us that princesses have always been about power, not passivity. And those who love them can still be confident, intelligent women.
Provocative, insightful, but also witty and personal, In Defense of the Princess empowers girls, women, and parents to dream of happily ever after without any guilt or shame.
IN DEFENSE OF DISNEY PRINCESSES
“They can’t order me to stop dreaming.” – CINDERELLA
“You have a library?” – BELLE
I APPROACH EVERY NEW DISNEY princess movie with a mixture of unbridled enthusiasm and mild trepidation. Will it be as good as I know it can be? Will it live up to my sky-high royal standards? Can the Disney Studios of this new millennium compete with the magical films of my childhood?
A few years ago, my brave British husband agreed to go with me to see the newly released Tangled (2010) on the big screen (but only if I agreed to go with him to see a movie about a guy who gets stuck in a ravine and cuts off his own arm). We settled down amid the rows of children wearing 3-D glasses, and as the opening scenes unfolded and the narrator told us the story of baby Rapunzel, my heart began to swell.
There is something indescribably moving, almost blissfully spiritual, about those first few Disney moments when you’re awash with billowing Alan Menken music and pastel images of royal kingdoms. Even before the teenage Rapunzel appeared on screen, my eyes were welling with tears of happiness. Because I knew for the next one hundred minutes I could allow the sacred princess dream to envelop me completely. Sitting in that darkened theater, I briefly entered a fairytale world—and, just as it had been with Snow White, for that small space in time, I was home.
Tangled is based on the classic Grimms’ fairy tale Rapunzel, and I’ve always had a strong affinity for her. This is mainly because my flower-power parents didn’t let me cut my hair until fifth grade, and my bohemian tresses reached well below my waist. At school I was a bit of a freak show, but hoping to use my hair as an advantage, I announced that I was tired of being Snow White for Halloween; this year I would be Rapunzel.
My always-artsy mother jumped at the challenge (there would be no store-bought costumes in this house!). She found a refrigerator box, spray-painted it silver and drew castle-like stones on the outside before gluing on several vines of silk roses. Finally, she cut an arch-shaped window, out of which I let my long hair tumble while I stood inside.
Safely ensconced in my cardboard tower, I no longer felt like an outcast; I felt regal and I felt powerful. But I also felt that familiar aching that perhaps someone, somewhere, would recognize me—and explain the strange royal yearnings that seemed etched into my soul.
Watching Tangled brought all those feelings back again. When Rapunzel recognized the royal symbol on her tower wall and finally realized who she was, my heart pounded with an ancient recognition of my own. Rapunzel is a princess who was lost but then found—a notion that embodies the very core of the entire princess genre, a notion with which so many girls, myself included, fiercely identify.
Although early Disney princesses like Snow White and Cinderella are often accused of being too meek and too mild, in this movie, Rapunzel is very much the opposite. With her long hair, bare feet, and obvious talent for wall murals and chalk drawings, I knew from the start that my bohemian parents would adore her. But, more than this, Rapunzel is completely unassuming. If you asked her if she wanted a palace and jewels and all that royal prestige, I’m fairly certain she’d say no.
Rather than waiting to be rescued, Rapunzel actually succeeds in rescuing the male lead on more than one occasion. And appearances don’t matter to her one bit. She is not remotely attracted to the hero’s smoldering looks (she eventually falls for his honesty and kindness), and, when her magical golden hair gets cropped short, she couldn’t care less. Yes, she is beautiful, but more than that she is bold, and most of all she is brave. (The name Rapunzel is actually derived from the botanical Latin for Rapunculus, a beautiful plant known to survive in harsh conditions.)
As my husband and I sat in a Thai restaurant later that evening, I tried to describe to him the inexplicable “high” I experienced while watching Tangled (and all other princess movies). To his infinite credit, he was able to keep a straight face through most of my gushing. But then he shrugged and said, “I guess that’s kind of how I feel when I surf the perfect wave. You become part of something completely indescribable and for those few seconds the world makes sense.”
And they say the British aren’t in touch with their feelings?
There it was in a nutshell: princess stories, and all they entail, are perfect waves—and it’s clear to me that little girls, young and old, all over the world are desperate to surf.
PRINCESSES ARE WOMEN TOO
LET ME PRE-EMPT YOU and get right to the point: Can loving princesses coexist with everything we hope and want for women of the world? Can loving princesses coexist with everything we hope and want for our daughters? Of courses it can. And it does.
I have to tell you that I definitely didn’t set out to write a book that had anything to do with feminism. But as I began to draft the chapters of this book, the topic kept rearing its princessy head. And it suddenly became impossible for me to even mention the word “princess” without someone bringing it up.
It’s true that women have endured some form of oppression or injustice for most of human history, and sadly there is no straight-forward solution to fixing this. It’s an incredibly complicated and emotional topic, and, let me tell you, when you put a princess nut like me in a room with people who have studied feminism at Harvard, it’s not always pretty. But when the last of the wine is poured, we do agree on one thing: however it happens, our ultimate goal is to obtain equal power for women.
It’s a very simple goal, and yet it connects all feminists in history—be they suffragettes from the past century, 1960s “bra burners” like my mother, subscribers of Ms. Magazine, readers of Jezebel, fans of Beyoncé, followers of Lena Dunham, or devotees of Emma Watson. This goal even connects all these feminists with princess nuts like me.
Because you know what? Female empowerment is also the fundamental message of the princess. And if viewed this way, we can see that our worldwide princess obsession is not damaging—but actually a healthy, natural, and essential mechanism to help all of us reach the same goal.
My idea of empowerment may not be identical to your idea of empowerment, but even if you disagree with anything or everything that I say, I want you to know that, deep down, we are on the same side.
Part of what made me want to write this book was watching how, year after year, the Disney princesses have taken punch after punch in the name of feminism.
At first it was a slow beating. But it’s turned into a rather violent thrashing that shows no signs of abating.
“I’d happily blow the brains out of a Disney Princess!” read one recent headline in London’s Telegraph.1
“Disney princesses are the evil disciples that the cult of Disney sends out into the world,” continues the columnist, “pretty little hookers . . . turning tricks on the minds of our young.”
That’s only the beginning. There’s a hostile undercurrent within the “princess free” movement that seems to say if a little girl likes princesses, then she can’t also be intelligent or independent, or that her mother is obviously ignorant and uninformed about marketing influences. In this way, princess critics often seem just as guilty of making blanket statements about girls and women as the commercial patriarchy they are supposedly fighting against.
As things stand, many believe the genre’s single purpose is to instill unrealistic expectations in young girls’ minds, and Disney princesses are now getting blamed for everything from bulimia to date rape. Mothers across the country are now questioning themselves, wondering whether letting their daughters play with the likes of Cinderella and Snow White (not to mention Ariel, Belle, or even the girls from Frozen), that they are somehow damaging their self-esteem and setting them up to be weak, submissive women. Disney princesses are regularly called helpless, brainless, passive, and superficial—when actually they are anything but.
(I find it maddening when “feminists” fiercely challenge such connotations when they are used to undermine women yet seem to think it’s totally fine to use these same labels to undermine princesses.)
The bottom line is that princesses are easy targets because our society dismisses anything feminine as weak or second best. But if we want to stop the oppression of women and the oppression of all things feminine, we must also stop the oppression of the princess dream and all it represents.
So, just as I wouldn’t allow any real women to be thrashed in front me, I can’t allow these animated women to be bullied any longer.
After all, princesses are women too.
And if no one else is going to stand up for them, I will.
WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
AN OLD HIGH SCHOOL friend of mine is what I call a reluctant MOP (mother of a princess)—and, just as my parents did with me, she finds the origin of her daughter’s all-consuming princess fascination to be a complete mystery. To the best of my friend’s ability, she actively shields her toddler from anything princess-related and refuses to purchase any Disney-branded toys, movies, or merchandise. She shops at independent stores that carry products devoid of princess-themed marketing images, her daughter is enrolled in a Montessori school where commercial images are not allowed on the children’s clothing or backpacks, and all of her daughter’s playmates have like-minded parents.
“And yet,” her baffled mother confides to me, “my daughter can happily name every Disney princess on the face of the earth. She wears her father’s socks on her arms and tells us they are princess gloves, she puts on my shoes and insists they are glass slippers, and she has been known to employ everything from a cardboard box to her own underwear as a princess crown. Where did this come from? I honestly have no idea.”
There’s that eternal question again: Where did it come from?
I tried to explain that the princess dream doesn’t exist just because Disney is selling it. That it’s actually an ancient archetype that girls subconsciously recognize and subconsciously crave. When our daughters dress in their princess regalia, they are not attempting to be sexual objects or resigning themselves to domestic passivity—they’re asserting an ancient feminine force.
My friend stared at me blankly, but I persisted.
You see, children don’t resist their greatness like grown-ups do. They know that playing small does not serve the world. Before adults start telling them their dreams are impossible or silly, children tend to dream big. They come into the world knowing that they were born to rule and, with makeshift capes on their shoulders and plastic tiaras on their heads, they have zero shame expressing it. If wearing a Disney princess dress helps their cause, more power to them. Why tell little girls that “good enough” is okay, when they prefer to be exalted?
My friend continued to look at me as if I were a bit bonkers.
“So you mean to tell me this has nothing to do with Disney?” she asked skeptically. “Can’t you see how they are indoctrinating our children purely for profit?”
I couldn’t ignore her point. Is the princess craze making lots of money for Disney? Yes. Absolutely. But there is nothing new about begrudging the forces of advertising aimed at our children. There’s nothing new about begrudging the forces of money and marketing in general. We all know that sex is used to sell beer and clowns are used to sell hamburgers and pink is used to sell princesses. If we want to attack the evils of corporate greed and its overall effect on our world, that’s a whole other subject (and a whole other book).
Instead, we need to look beyond this and understand that the princess phenomenon is not simply a case of marketing genius gone berserk—it’s about recognizing our girls’ desire to bring the intrinsic princess archetype to life. So while I told my friend that she was free to vent her frustration with Disney’s corporate strategy and their commercial profits, we had to be clear about one thing: my royal girls are blameless.
REGAL ROLE MODELS?
PROFESSOR AMY M. DAVIS, a scholar after my own heart, embarked on an academic study (that I am actually quite envious of because it sounds so fun), in which she painstakingly analyzed female depictions in all past and present Disney movies as a whole.2 After years of research and countless viewings of more than seventy years’ worth of Disney footage, Davis concluded that “far from portraying weak, passive females, the Disney Studio has presented an image of women—and femininity—which, although not perfect, is largely positive in its overall make-up.”
I could have told her that.
But critics will insist that parents should absolutely not turn to Disney princesses if they are serious about presenting good role models to their girls. In her bestselling book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, author Peggy Orenstein asserts that these animated royal women have nothing to offer anyone other than their beauty and melodic sensibilities.3 (Orenstein does make an exception when she admits that Snow White’s lone virtue is “tidiness”—but that’s about it.)
I’m not suggesting we negate all critical thinking when it comes to viewing Disney films with our children—but if someone tells me that Disney princesses possess zero redeeming qualities, I must and will protest.
If you look carefully, you’ll find that Disney has never actively championed the passive domestication of women—rather they champion female characters who are underdogs, outcasts, or exiles. Admittedly, Disney’s earlier movies (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, which were released in 1937, 1950, and 1959, respectively) hail from a historical era when American women played a much more compliant role in society. In this context, it’s not surprising that Cinderella, Aurora, and Snow White embody this early American ideal of female deference and sweetness; they were what feminist author Virginia Woolf referred to as “the angel in the house”:
. . . intensely sympathetic . . . immensely charming . . . utterly unselfish . . . excelled in the difficult arts of family life . . . sacrificed daily . . . Above all, she was pure.4
Not bad qualities, but not particularly liberating either. Still, we must remember that Cinderella, Aurora, and Snow White, even though they are two-dimensional cartoons, suffered the same societal restraints as our grandmothers. But living in a man’s world doesn’t mean that our grandmothers were weak women. And it certainly doesn’t mean they were bad role models. So please keep that in mind before passing any judgment on these erstwhile princesses.
Though the early Disney movies may seem outdated, what’s interesting is our modern society clearly believes these particular princess stories are worthy of preservation. If Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty did not resonate with us on some level, if they did not resonate with our daughters on some level, then despite the best efforts of Disney’s marketing departments, they would have faded from popularity long, long ago.
GOOD GIRLS WITH BIG DREAMS
I ONCE STAYED HOME from fourth grade with a bad case of strep throat. I remember the day clearly because it was the day my dad gave me a book he had found at the Salvation Army (his favorite shopping destination). The book was entitled The Complete Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm.
It was a thick, tattered volume with a fading burgundy cover, a broken spine, and ragged corners, but it also had pages that were edged in gold. To me, it seemed a medieval relic. Something that would not have been out of place in the rooms of a seventeenth-century palace. Needless to say, I devoured it.
I did not have the luxury of constantly rewatching my favorite Disney movies on an iPad, DVD player, or even a VCR. But now I could read the text that they were based on over and over again. Of course, I always started with my silly-sounding favorites: Aschenputtel (Cinderella), Schneewittchen (Snow White), Dornröschen (Little Briar Rose—the Grimms’ version of Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty), and then I would move to The Princess and the Pea or The Twelve Dancing Princesses.
Whispering to the deepest hollows of my heart, those ancient fairy tales got right to the point: Hold on. Hold out. Work hard. You will find your own way.
IN A WORLD HEAVING with male-driven narratives, fairytale princesses—and the classic movies inspired by them—demonstrate to young girls that their stories deserve to be told. (It’s worth noting in both Snow White and Cinderella, the story itself is named after the heroine, while the prince remains nameless throughout!)
Besides, it takes very little deconstruction to find redeeming qualities beneath the retro storylines. For instance, both Snow White and Cinderella make the most of their dreadful situations. Rather than become jaded or cynical (or moping over the more comfortable life that they’ve lost), these girls stay true to themselves and never lose their inherent kindness.
In The Curse of the Good Girl, author Rachel Simmons warns that by idealizing the “good girl” (one that is unerringly kind, selfless, and polite)—we are teaching girls to be cautious, apologetic, and conforming.5 Apparently by elevating this princessy ideal, we are teaching girls to steer away from taking risks, speaking their minds, or entering any kind of leadership role that might require courage.
I can see where Simmons is coming from; after all, even if girls outperform boys in school, it hardly matters if once they enter the real world they’re too afraid to go after what they deserve. Many like to throw the same accusations at Disney princesses because if they aren’t classic “good girls,” then who is? Yet these royal ladies may surprise you. Because although they are certainly kind and polite, Disney princesses do not conform; they are hardly afraid of speaking their minds, and they have never, ever been afraid to take risks.
No matter which decade or era they hail from, all Disney princesses have one thing in common: the aching need to break free. Although all the princesses are loved (be it by their parents, siblings, dwarfs, mice, or godmothers), they feel trapped in a life that they know in their hearts is not meant for them. Snow White and Aurora are trapped in tiny woodland cottages; Rapunzel is trapped in a tower; Cinderella is trapped in an attic; Ariel feels trapped underwater; Belle feels trapped in her provincial village; and both Jasmine and Elsa feel trapped by the confines of royal duty.
This idea of breaking free is one of the most timeless princess messages in existence. It doesn’t matter whether you’re four or forty-four, it doesn’t matter whether your parents treated you well or treated you terribly—we all experience the same urge to break free and forge a path that is entirely our own.
This basic princess dream speaks directly to the girl who is unpopular at school, the daughter who is an outcast in her family, the wife who is lost in her marriage, and the woman who feels out of place in her religion, her workplace, or her country. This princess dream is so mesmerizing because it speaks to all women. It provides hope in the form of redemption. It is a royal promise that, in spite of life’s seeming bleakness, someday, somewhere, someone will truly understand the achings of your heart.
THE RETRO ROYALS
WE MUST KEEP IN mind that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937—in the middle of the Great Depression and only seventeen years after American women received the right to vote.
Walt Disney remortgaged both his house and his studio to finance the film but I’m so glad he did. Because until Snow White came along, Betty Boop was the only cartoon series that featured a female in the lead role. (Even Minnie Mouse was there purely to support Mickey.) Yet Snow White took center stage with grace and aplomb.
And so what if tidiness is one of Snow White’s greatest skills? More power to her. Society’s obsession with office-based careers (and the competitive, materialistic values that often come with them), doesn’t automatically appeal to everyone. “Having it all” is a myth because not all women want it all. And as far as I’m concerned, if a modern woman prefers open domesticity (in a thatched cottage full of dwarfs or a suburban home full of children), it hardly means she has failed. We have to stop ridiculing and devaluing women the minute they look after others. And we can start right here, right now, with Snow White.
Besides, if we look beyond all the wishing wells, the washing, and the whistling and look more closely at the real challenges Snow White must overcome through no fault of her own (for starters, her jealous stepmother throws her out of the castle and tries to have her killed), we see that the underlying theme of the story actually deals with the dangers of vanity and how beauty can hinder you if you allow it to. (A cautionary tale about beauty? Sounds rather feminist to me.)
Next up we have Sleeping Beauty—a movie that, at its worst, exposes young ears to Tchaikovsky. Throughout the film, we watch Aurora wander barefoot through the woods completely uninterested in aristocratic affairs. (She’s actually devastated when she learns that she’s a princess.)
When I was a little girl, the scene from Sleeping Beauty that really hit home with me was during the iconic song “Once upon a Dream.”
As Aurora dances through the forest humming about the soul mate she knows is out there, even as a child, I sensed she was touching upon some greater wisdom. Aurora never worried whether her prince would appear one day; she knew he would—she knew it because she dreamed it and she trusted her dreams. Her stress-free certainty that someone was out there for her not only taught me about the power of manifestation but brought me much comfort during the tumultuous dating years of my twenties.
And although many assume that the prince does all the rescuing in Sleeping Beauty and it’s another terrible tale of female passivity, if truth be told, it is the three female fairies (Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather) who are the actual rescuers. (It’s worth nothing that long before Frozen celebrated female alliances, both Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella relied on female fairies for guidance, support, and assistance.)
In Sleeping Beauty, the three fairies break Prince Phillip’s chains, lead him out of the dungeon, and constantly clear his path as he rides out to rescue Aurora. The prince would be hopeless without these little ladies, just as the very existence of his character would be irrelevant without Princess Aurora herself.
(And Prince Phillip is not the only guy whose Disney character is defined entirely by a woman. The validity of Prince Charming (both of them!), Aladdin, and Flynn Rider is also directly linked to their successful pursuit of a princess.)
And here’s something else that’s almost never mentioned: all the Disney princesses (retro and modern) enjoy an extraordinary connection to animals. They chat with birds, dance with owls, and sing with squirrels; they talk to dogs, converse with mice, and confide in horses. As only animals can, these creatures sense the tremendous inner beauty of each princess, and, totally unaware of human concepts like royal rank, they happily devote themselves to serving her—teaching us all how true kindness brings its own power and creates its own kingdoms. It’s a simple but quite valuable lesson and its right there, hidden in plain sight.
"The book serves as a reminder that feminism should provide women with the freedom to be anything they wantincluding princesses. Parents on all sides of the princess debate will find food for thought in this entertaining and provocative book."
"I love counterintuitive theories-they not only keep us on our toes and keep smugness at bay, but they provide truths hiding in plain sight. Jerramy Fine shows us-with personal insight and wit-what we kind of already knew: there's power, not weakness, in the princess fantasy."
--Sheila Weller, author of Girls Like Us and The News Sorority
- On Sale
- Mar 22, 2016
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Running Press