Here’s what I’d like to do with the Disney Princesses:
I’d like to throw them all in a beat-up station wagon, drive them into the middle of back-country Appalachia and tell them I’ll pick them up in a week. No men. No hairdryers or magnifying make-up mirrors. (I imagine it would be hard to trailblaze in those layered, taffeta gowns.)
That would be a princess tale that maintains my interest.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not hoping for their demise. I wouldn’t want them to be torn to bits by bears or to develop Lyme disease from all the ticks. I just want to see them in a situation that inspires a bit more toughness. Given that they’ve all come from horrific family backgrounds, I’d love to see what those girls are really made of.
For the bulk of my childhood, I was obsessed with The Little Mermaid (until I hit high school and embraced a more gothic affect). To this day, I know every word, nuance and pause from the soundtrack.
When I was a kid, it didn’t occur to me that the story was rather shallow.
I was entertained by the talking crabs and humor—though much of it went over my head. What stayed with me over the years was the music and the grand, glorious scenes of the world beneath the sea. Not the fact that this movie, as so many other Disney Princess movies, conclude with a wedding and happily-ever-after-with-a-man.
That’s where most of the stories end.
So you know, I’m hardly a stalwart feminist. I’m not oversensitive and I enjoy a good boob joke as well as the next guy. When a beautiful woman walks by, I call a spade a spade. I like to play dress-up and I compliment Opal’s outfits. Until recently, the Disney Princesses ranked in my book as being as neutral as Clifford-the-dog or Madeline.
Being an English Major and a relentless writer (for better or for worse), I am an advocate for excellent writing, and I am aware of the influential power of a well-told story.
It has come to my attention that, in this arena, the famous gang of Princesses is drastically falling short.
Recently, Opal and I were at the library, picking out some magazines for a road trip. Granted, the selection was limited for a kid Opal’s age— superhero magazines, a few on animals and Disney Princess Magazines. She headed straight towards the Princesses. After unsuccessfully trying to convince her of the splendor of a blowfish or puffer penguins, I acquiesced and checked out three issues of Princesses.
Due to a slight mix up in packing, a bag of books was left in the living room and we spent the entire weekend with nothing to read but those three god-forsaken princess magazines. Hence, they inadvertently became a study.
The stories were limited and totally lacking substance.
They were about princess weddings, shopping and being in love (in a boring, Disney-G-rated sort of way). Princess Mulan was the only one who portrayed a different message—she rescued a little boy from a cave faster than two huge men who had discounted her for being just a girl. (Go Milan!)
My eyes became weary from looking at these cartoon girls (not women) ad naseum. With their gorgeous, flowing locks, their Miss America poses, their prom gowns (that presumably signify success), their wide, doey eyes and do-I-look-pretty expressions and the image of them snuggled up next to their man. Oye.
The image not only sets a dangerous precedence, but it hugely lacks creativity. Can we have one chunky princess, please? Or one with big teeth? Or a different ending?
“Read it again, Mommy!”
After reading these stories again and again, I felt off. Like I needed something dark, inappropriate and lacking veneer to balance things out.
So I envisioned Cinderella putting Comet on her step-sisters’ Bundt cake, Mulan as a man-hating feminist who was filled with unexpressed rage, and Snow White as a closet meth-user who developed a constellation of sores on her face. Swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction brought me closer to a state of equilibrium.
I’ve cooled off a bit since then.
But still, let’s get real here. Disney is a $50 billion dollar industry. They certainly have the funds to hire some decent writers to compose story-lines for these characters that are curious and thought-provoking. My daughter is four. She loves when I make up stories about things that resonate with her.
Impromptu storytelling plays a major role in our household:
“Did I ever tell you the story about the little girl who didn’t eat breakfast and then she got to preschool and was too grumpy to play with her friends? Or about the Queen who was kind to all people equally, even though she was very, very shy? Or of the RV that transforms into a magical play-factory when it rains outside?”
If I had more time and perhaps a staff, I’d love to write an underground zine about my own troop of Princesses. And no, they wouldn’t save the world in overt, impossible ways. They wouldn’t have superpowers.
My Cinderella would find a way to rework the public school system so that children from all socio-economic backgrounds would have access to the same quality education. She would ride to and from work on a unicorn with a saddle woven directly from a rainbow. (Nothing wrong with having a little fun.)
My Ariel would do the work of the 400,000 volunteers around the world who pick up 6 million pounds of plastic trash from the ocean in a single day. Then she’d party all night with the singing crab and his wild posse of sea-crooners.
Or, my snow white would be an excellent mother to two children instead of seven dwarfs.
She would console one sick kid while getting the other ready for school and juggle play dates, work and domestic endeavors without losing her mind. She wouldn’t blame herself when things didn’t go as planned and she’d smile at her aging reflection in the mirror.
Now that would be a powerful story.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman