Shaking up the princesses in our media

those plastic tiaras always really hurt my scalp. anyone else? church of the king via Unsplash

A reflection on a Disney+ rewatch

Taking a trip down nostalgia lane wasn’t as fun as I remembered it being.

Well, that isn’t entirely true. It’s absolutely fun to laugh at the cringey corniness of old Disney Channel Original Movies with friends (since there isn’t much else to do, Thanks COVID.) But were some of the messages being tossed my way during those movies uncomfortable to sit through? Oh, definitely.

Before going into this article, I should clarify that no, I’m not going to be ripping into the campy plots or the premises of these films. That campiness is always part of the fun. Instead, what I want to talk about is the morals and views of women and femininity that I saw, within the “princess movie” framework. More specifically, I want to talk about the idea that you need to break through your ‘femininity’ in order to be seen as strong.

Purging through Disney+ landed me and my friends on The Princess Diaries (and the sequel, of course), as well as the Princess Protection Program, all three films produced by Disney. The Diaries franchise and the Protection Program are eerily similar in a lot of ways, and those ways are a little worrying when it comes to the messages they send.

In both of these princess films, what it takes to “become a princess” revolves around the need for the protagonist to change her physical appearance (i.e., to be attractive by conventional beauty standards). Princesses in both cases also need to embody a feminine way of walking, talking, sitting, standing, speaking, waving… the list goes on and on. By ‘feminine,’ what is meant seems to be delicate, fragile, quiet, docile, and polite. Yikes.

Now, both of these films also make a point of noting that the progressive mindset of the teenage, protagonist princesses is what inevitably ends up “saving the day” toward the film’s climax. Despite that, these girls (come the end of the movie) have nonetheless embraced their conventionally “feminine” fate. They wear the dresses and do the walk, they wear the heels and get their makeup done. Hell, even the tomboyish Carter in PPP (I hate that that’s even what they call the Princess Protection Program in the film) ends up caving and getting all dolled up to go to their high school dance.

I’m not asking for us to end the princess trope in campy movies. Rather, I’m asking for us to consider what we fixate on when creating a “princess” or a highly feminine character. Why does she “transform” herself into a “pretty woman” by removing her glasses and dolling herself up in a dress and makeup, despite her original interests and personality? If this is always the moral we are teaching our girls, how do we expect them to grow up with a healthy balance of self-confidence and courage?

To be fair, we do see this system “shaken up” plenty in modern times. Movies like Moana, Frozen and Frozen II, Wreck It Ralph, and any other modern animation film about princesses and royalty, shift the conventional way we see princesses. These women aren’t perfect, which makes them more relatable. They make mistakes and act rashly, they save themselves and support those around them, and they are resourceful and craft when needed. They don’t all wear dresses or concern themselves with appearances, and many of them are against our traditional standards when it comes to being a royal woman.

In films like these, the importance of a “princess” no longer lies in appearance or marital status, but mainly has to do with one’s ability to take charge of a situation and mediate chaos. Regardless, all these characters still need to be congenitally beautiful – it isn’t perfect.

In truth, I would like to see a princess film where the underlying focus is not on transforming a “normal” teenage girl into a “proper lady”. Let girls just be girls. Let young girls be who they want to be. That is enough.

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