I just read an intriguing article from the New York Times called What’s Wrong With Cinderella?, written by Peggy Orenstein, a feminist mother struggling with a daughter who is drawn to all the pink, frilly, girly stereotypes once considered damaging to a young girl’s psyche. It’s a well-balanced piece illustrating the struggle I think most of us go through when trying to figure out what’s harmful, what’s sheer marketing, and what’s just a fun princess costume.
The article covers the recent rise of Disney’s “Princess” line, which groups past heroines like Cinderella, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Ariel from the Little Mermaid, Jasmine from Aladdin, and Mulan.
There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girlsâ€™ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs â€” who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty â€” are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception.
I take issue with the assertion that Disney’s princesses are necessarily bad role models. Does Mulan teach children to avoid conflict? In Mulan, that character cut off her hair and dressed as a boy in order to go to war to save her father. I was a big fan of Jasmine when I was younger — she dressed as a peasant in order to escape her wealthy upbringing and experience the real world on her own. Belle stood up to a terrifying Beast and saved the day with love and kindness. Cinderella, easily the most famous princess, was a bit of a pushover, but what if Disney had made the movie today? Cinderella would surely be reimagined as an ass-kicking, take-this-job-and-shove-it glamour girl. In fact, the Cinderella tale has been done and redone — in 1998, Drew Barrymore played the role in Ever After, portraying a strong-willed woman who rescues the Prince.
As a woman who loves her irony as much as her sexual independence, I found this paragraph particularly interesting and insightful:
In the 1990s, third-wave feminists rebelled against their dour big sisters, â€œreclaimingâ€ sexual objectification as a womanâ€™s right â€” provided, of course, that it was on her own terms, that she was the one choosing to strip or wear a shirt that said â€œPorn Starâ€ or make out with her best friend at a frat-house bash. They embraced words like â€œbitchâ€ and â€œslutâ€ as terms of affection and empowerment. That is, when used by the right people, with the right dash of playful irony. But how can you assure that? As Madonna gave way to Britney, whatever self-determination that message contained was watered down and commodified until all that was left was a gaggle of 6-year-old girls in belly-baring T-shirts (which Iâ€™m guessing they donâ€™t wear as cultural critique). It is no wonder that parents, faced with thongs for 8-year-olds and Bratz dollsâ€™ â€œpassion for fashion,â€ fill their daughtersâ€™ closets with pink sateen; the innocence of Princess feels like a reprieve.
I think that is a very good summary of what has happened over the past few years. It leaves many of us conflicted — is Britney a powerful symbol of our feminine sexuality, or is she a talentless twit sent from the depths of hell to torment us? Perhaps she is our Osama. We gave her the weapons needed to fight for freedom, and now she’s using them against us. Oops, we did it again.
Orenstein ends her article by referencing Disney’s next marketing push: fairies. Tinkerbell, who was at first accepted and then booted from the Princess pantheon, will lead her own team of sassy fairy chicks. In theory, I like it — they seem a bit tougher, a bit smarter, a bit rougher around the edges than the princesses. In practice though, they threaten to be whored up fantasy girls with more physically impossible bodies (and I don’t only refer to the wings). For Christmas, my brother and his wife gave me a great book about myths and legends around our home state of New Jersey. To keep my place, they included a bookmark that my brother found gleefully ironic — it featured, yes, one of Disney’s new fairy girls.
“A slutty, female Peter Pan?” I asked. My sister-in-law pointed out the fairy’s name: Beck. Oh dear god. I visited Disney’s fairy site and read up on Beck and her friends, and I have to say that I would have loved these when I was a ten-year old tomboy. Hell, okay, I kind of even like them now that I’m a 26-year old tomboy. “Rani’s” bio even notes that she sweats. SHE SWEATS. So, our young girls won’t exactly be following the exploits of a bunch of brain surgeons, but at least the kids can take comfort in the fact that their favorite characters have glands just like them. That’s gotta be a step up.