March 2016

Line in the Sand: Are Disney Princesses good role models?

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Opinion 1: Barry Kaufman

So do you guys remember that time Cinderella got busted for driving 95 miles an hour the wrong way down Wilshire Blvd. with a trunk full of cocaine?

Or that crazy music video The Little Mermaid did where she’s dry humping construction equipment?

Probably because neither of those things ever happened, or will ever happen, and it’s a big part of why I’m so pro-princess. I’d like to talk about role models for a minute.

I have two brilliant, funny, beautiful daughters who, between the two of them, have ensured that my home currently contains more pink plastic princess toys, dolls, accessories and miscellanea than should ever conceivably fit under one roof.

My oldest grew out of it years ago, but in her heyday could name every princess and sing every song from every movie the Walt Disney Corporation had ever chosen to pull out of the dustbin of public domain. She had the Cinderella shoes, the Belle necklace, the Tiana tiara, the Sleeping Beauty dress; she had as much as my budget would allow for…and then some.

She adored the Disney princesses. They weren’t role models, necessarily, any more than I viewed the Super Mario Brothers as my role models when I was her age. They were just the faces that smiled back from all her favorite things.

And then one day a Justin Bieber poster showed up on her wall. And a Hannah Montana necklace found its way to her dresser. Then she started knowing the words to songs on the radio that I’d never heard. And then she stopped watching the princess movies and started watching Disney’s tween shows, where the only dialogue comes in the form of sarcasm and insults.

The princesses, for all their naivety and saccharine sweetness, all wanted the same thing. They wanted love. They wanted happiness.

These new faces smiling back from her favorite things didn’t want love. Their songs were about lust, not love. They wanted to be cool, not happy.

And when the inevitable occurred, and her new favorite things hit their rebellious stages, I was stuck trying to explain to my daughter why the heartthrob pop idol on her poster was in jail. Or why, as much as she loved the song, she was not allowed to watch the video for “Wrecking Ball.”

And then one day she shut herself in her room, threw on some Taylor Swift and immersed herself in a series of YA novels.

And then my youngest was born. Just in time for Frozen.

It’s hard to put into words the religious fervor that my youngest daughter feels for the movie Frozen. We’re way beyond merchandise with her. There is a fundamental part of her very soul that is entwined with this movie, to the extent that she’s only really truly happy when she’s singing along.

Her first words, I kid you not, were “Let it Go.” I have to sing “Let it Go” to her every night or she will not go to sleep. And I don’t even know the words. Half the time I start singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” because they’re pretty much the same song.

And you know what? I’m okay with it.

Because Frozen is, at its heart, a story about two sisters and how much they love each other, even when the older sister shuts herself away in her room. And how, through that love, they can save each other. Imagine that; princesses saving themselves.

If you want to call them role models, fine. But my oldest learned from Belle that there’s nothing like losing yourself in a book. She learned from Mulan that girls can do anything boys can do. And she learned from Frozen that every once in a while, it’s okay to open the door and let your little sister in. 

The people have spoken:
The most popular disney princess is: Belle
And here are seven major reasons why…
1. She doesn’t want a prince.
2. Her name means beauty.
3. Asserts nerd pride and reads, despite the town mocking her.
4. Rejects the good-looking jerk for the kind-hearted Beast.
5. Has the ability to break spells with her tears.
6. Wasn’t born a princess.
7. She doesn’t need talking animals…SHE has talking FURNITURE.

Opinion 2: Courtney Hampson

I don’t know about you, but to me that does not an epic life anthem make.
Pink’s “So What,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory,” even Gloria Gaymor’s “I Will Survive” – these are anthems.

How can you even take a woman, or a hand-drawn animated character, seriously belting out “Someday my prince will come”? Women need power songs. Statement songs. Something that says, “Make no mistake, this is who I am, and who I am is not a princess pining for a prince.”

Barry, my dear Barry, if a woman (ahem, hand-drawn animated character) can’t even come up with a good theme song, how can you consider her a role model? And aren’t role models actual people, not fantasies? Disney princesses are not role models. Unless of course you believe that being a good role model means being obsessed with your looks, your ruby red lips, and shiny and flowing raven (or blonde, or red) hair. Or you believe that being a good role model means you do indeed need a prince to be happy, must live in a male dominated world, and need to be royalty.

I’ve always been a tad miffed by Disney princesses and movies. I mean is every stepmother really evil? Does everyone have an angelic singing voice? And how many people actually ride horses, or magic carpets, for that matter?

I remember reading a story about why Disney seemed to generate a lot of motherless characters in Glamour. In an interview with Disney legend and producer Don Hahn, he revealed a bit of Walt’s past. “In the early 1940s, Walt Disney bought a house for his mom and dad to move into. He had the studio guys come over and fix the furnace, but when his mom and dad moved in, the furnace leaked and his mother died. The housekeeper came in the next morning and pulled his mother and father out on the front lawn. His father was sick and went to the hospital, but his mother died. He never would talk about it, nobody ever does. He never spoke about that time because he personally felt responsible because he had become so successful that he said ‘Let me buy you a house.’ It’s every kid’s dream to buy their parents a house and just through a strange freak of nature—through no fault of his own—the studio workers didn’t know what they were doing. There’s a theory, and I’m not a psychologist, but he was really haunted by that. That idea that he really contributed to his mom’s death was really tragic. If you dig, you can read about it. It’s not a secret within their family, but it’s just a tragedy that is so difficult to even talk about. It helps to understand the man a little bit more.”

So, that may answer the mom angle, but I remain stumped about the need for a prince in order to live happily ever after. I imagine it has to do with the era in which Walt lived. Or maybe, Walt’s guilt over his mom’s death is the reason behind his need for all of his female characters to find a “perfect” man. Or maybe, Sleeping Beauty was his mom and he the prince willing her awake. Or maybe, I should stop playing psychologist.

Heck, there is a 30 year gap between the original princesses – Cinderella (1937), Snow White (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) and the next generation who appeared at alarming rates in the 1990s: Ariel (1989), Belle (1991), Jasmine (1992), Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998); all of whom scored higher on the spunk and sass scale than the originals. In a January 2016 Washington Post story (the one that sparked this debate) the writer explored the gender gaps in the franchise, based on data from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyze all the dialogue from the Disney princess franchise. And there is some hope. (Some.) Yet when talking about the class of 1990s princesses Fought said, “Part of the problem is that these newer films are mostly populated by men. Aside from the heroine, the films offer few examples of women being powerful, respected, useful or comedic.”

“There’s one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things,” Fought says.

Walt is long gone, and ironically “frozen” (ok, I’ll let it go), so I’ll assume his lack of influence can be directly correlated with the change in roles of the princesses. The Post story cites, “In the latest batch of films The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave, and Frozen — the pattern is finally reversed. For the first time, women are more likely to be praised for their skills and achievements than for their looks. On average in these films, 40 percent of compliments directed at women involve their abilities or accomplishments, while only 22 percent involve physical appearances.”

Now, I am no mathematician, but this means that 38% of compliments weren’t related to abilities, accomplishments or appearance, so one can only assume that percentage went to singing voice. 

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