It happens every time a new Disney princess movie emerges. An avalanche of articles, reviews and critiques, saying that finally we have a princess worth going to see. Finally we have a Disney character that can be a good role model for girls, because this princess isn’t entirely focussed on romance, this princess has a story and ambitions outside of her prince, this princess actually has character and strength of her own. Unlike all the princesses who came before her, she’s a Strong Female Character and worthy of our time.
What utter nonsense.
Far from being a matter of opinion, these critiques don’t even make factual sense. Mulan and Pocahontas don’t get married, for one thing. For another, every princess since the Disney revival in the late 1980s has had a plot centered on her, and her dreams and ambitions. Ariel has been criticized for giving up her whole life for Prince Eric, but she sings Part of Your World and makes clear that she wants nothing more than to be in the human world before she ever sets eyes on him. He’s just the cherry on top, the final push driving her to take action. Belle and Mulan both put themselves in differing dangerous situations to save their fathers. Jasmine isn’t the protagonist of Aladdin, but her entire story is about how she doesn’t want to be forced into marriage against her will, how she’s struggling to choose her life for herself. Snow White is a rather simpering product of her age, but even if we step back to the 1950s, Cinderella has defiance and determination to her, and while Sleeping Beauty doesn’t do much in her movie, the true protagonists are three older female fairies, who brim with personality, bravery and strength, and whose plots are not even close to being about romance.
Yet whenever a new Disney princess movie emerges and turns out to be an entertaining, enjoyable story with a dynamic and engaging female protagonist, critics are quick to praise her as not like the rest. I don’t really understand how critics can do this for Merida in 2012 and then again for Elsa in 2013 without noticing the contradiction (perhaps Brave being a Pixar movie helped with the cognitive dissonance), yet it’s a definite trend.
And the reason, I think, lies in the “pinkification” of the Disney Princesses as a merchandising line.
Unlike a lot of feminist writers, I see no inherent problem in the Disney Princess line for girls, as long as there are other, non-pink options as well (a caveat that is rarely the case, but that nonetheless doesn’t mean that the Disney Princess line is therefore a bad thing — just that more variety is necessary). Disney has made some serious errors in branding over the past year or so when it comes to character redesign, but the existence of a merchandising line all about the princesses is not, in itself, a bad thing. In fact, the Disney Princesses are an incredibly rare and positive thing: a series of diverse female children’s characters, offering girls media figures that they can love and aspire to be. Male characters still outnumber female characters in children’s TV and film three to one, and when we think that it took Pixar thirteen movies and seventeen years to have a female protagonist, it’s pretty astounding that Disney has produced so many incredibly successful, female-driven stories. Yet it’s this very fact of appealing to girls (and, gasp, girls who like pink) that drives the criticism and dismissal of the Disney princesses as characters and role models.
Society generally tells us two things about “pink” and “girly”: that they’re things that girls should be, and that they’re bad, silly, superficial things to be. Neither of these things should be true, but the existence of that first idea means that even generally feminist writers and critics have embraced the second. Pink and girly is bad. It’s bad and anti-feminist for anything aimed at girls to be that way, because it’s bad for girls to be that way. If they embrace the pink and the princesses, they’ll be weaker for it. They’ll be obsessed with romance. They won’t be self-sufficient. They won’t be inspired to be leaders. They will be girly, and there’s nothing worse to be.
And, thanks to the Disney branding machine, the princesses have been positioned as the height of pink girliness. There’s definitely been some valid criticism of how some of the merchandising redesigns have made the princesses “sexier” (and some less publicised but even more valid criticism of how recent redesigns of Mulan and Pocahontas have lightened their skin tone), and it is unnecessary to put every group shot of the princesses on a pink background, but the idea that the Disney Princess line is therefore harmful seems to come mostly from people’s preconceptions of pinkness and girliness, rather than from the line itself. And that association with pink girliness has, in turn, affected how people see the Disney princess characters and their movies in general. If these characters are on girl-focussed toys with pink backgrounds, they must be weak, romance-focussed, anti-feminist characters. Ariel can’t live in a castle, get married and be a rebellious character full of self-assertion, determination and a yearn for adventure. Belle can’t be redrawn with a super pretty curl in her hair and yet also be a brave dreaming bookworm. Mulan can’t fight to save China and be presented wearing a dress similar to the one she wears at the end of her movie — if she was truly an inspiring figure, she’d be constantly presented in her soldier disguise, even though that was a disguise and Mulan’s story doesn’t end until she’s able to save China while clearly a woman, showing everyone who she truly can be.
If looked at with an accepting eye, the princesses show that “girly” doesn’t mean shallow and weak. That someone can like pink and also be brave and determined and independent and ambitious. That these traits are in fact “girl” traits too, and that even a category that might be dismissed as “girly” and one-note, like princesses, is in reality a group of diverse women full of individuality. But the stigma around this pinkness means that people don’t look at them with discerning eyes. They’re instantly dismissed. They’re derided in comparison to the newest princesses who (shock, horror) don’t turn out to be shallow, man-obsessed, weak ciphers of characters. They’re girly, you see, and therefore they must be weak.
So yes, the latest Disney efforts have been rather fabulous, if also incredibly white (an important topic that I think many people have addressed better than I could). Not perfect, certainly not racially diverse, but enjoyably written films with compelling female protagonists. But those strengths are not in contrast to past weaknesses. In fact, compared to the 90s, the past few Disney Princess movies have shown less diversity, compared to Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan and non-princess characters like Esmerelda fifteen to twenty years ago. Yet the negative associations with “pinkness” and “girliness,” and their inextricable link with the Princess line, mean that all of those past merits are forgotten. To be worthwhile, we seem to suggest, a female protagonist must be not like other girls. She must eschew all femininity, or at least not sink to having a romantic subplot in her story. She shouldn’t really have pretty dresses. And she absolutely must not be linked to pink in any way.
There are many valid criticisms of Disney as a company, of Disney movies, of the princess line, and of girl-focussed marketing in general. But we shouldn’t let the core message that “girls are as good as boys” blind us to the strengths and values of characters that dare to be somewhat “girly,” and for those things that dare to be pink.