Four Things Feminists Get Wrong About Disney Princesses
Four foul fallacies frequently forwarded by fickle feminists about Disney’s fairy tale frauleins.
There’s no denying that princesses are popular with Disney. After all, the company has its roots with a princess movie, and some of its more recent animated blockbusters tend to star princesses.
However, with most of its newest princesses being empowered female role models that often belt out pop chart-breaking power ballads, their older princesses, in contrast, appear less empowered, and by extension, less “feminist.”
Some feminists accuse these princesses of being “poor” role models for young girls; at worst, the more radical feminists accuse them of being a sexist plot by the “patriarchy” to help groom young girls into “internalized misogyny” and “cis-heteronormative gender roles” — whatever all that means!
We’ve heard these criticisms before, from Cinderella being a helpless “damsel in distress”, to Belle suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome.” But how much weight do these feminist accusations carry?
Here are four common feminist fallacies about Disney princesses and why they’re as fictional as the fairy tales they attack.
(And before anyone accuses this think piece of being yet another anti-feminist/anti-SJW screed, this rebuttal will mostly cite feminist sources such as The Mary Sue and Lindsay Ellis — in other words, this will be feminists debunking feminists!)
#1: Sleeping Beauty Being Kissed Without Her Consent Is “Rape Culture.”
This Is What Feminists Actually Believe
Sleeping Beauty was taking a thousand year nap, minding her own business, when some random prince decides to rudely wake her by planting his two lips against her own without her permission, thus making him guilty of “sexual assault.”
Many feminists believe that a story about a princess bring kissed without her consent helps contribute to “rape culture”, the notion that a society where rape is considered a heinous crime on the same level as murder, and thus is punishable to the fullest extent of the law, also “promotes” such heinous crime.
As such, some feminists consider this story inappropriate for children, with some going so far as to demand that it be pulled from public schools.
If you think a story about a sleeping princess being kissed without her “consent” is bad, then try reading the original fairy tale.
In the original Italian story, the princess falls into her magical slumber after getting a splinter from the wooden spinning wheel spindle.
You know how the princess is awakened? By having the splinter sucked out of her finger by her nursing newborn child.
How does a sleeping princess give birth to such a child? Well, let’s just say it all happened nine months after the prince in that story did more to her than simply give her a kiss.
When the prince discovers the sleeping princess, he’s so taken by her beauty that, according to the story, “He lifted her in his arms, and carried her to a bed, where he gathered the first fruits of love.”
If you think that’s bad, you should hear the moral of that story: “Those whom fortune favors, find good luck even in their sleep.” (Now that’s your “rape culture” right there!)
But even if the prince in the Disney version doesn’t outright rape the princess, he still allegedly engages in “rape culture” by kissing her without her consent. After all, what man in his right mind kisses some random sleeping stranger?
Thing is, in the movie, unlike the story, Prince Phillip isn’t some random prince, and Princess Aurora isn’t some random chick that he’s only stumbled upon — or at least when he arrives to kiss her.
The two met long before Aurora falls into her magical slumber, with the two falling in love upon their first meeting and with the two agreeing to marry each other.
Now proposing to someone you just met isn’t the wisest choice, as Frozen taught us, but at least it’s not kissing a random stranger.
And once Aurora does fall asleep, Phillip learns that the only way to wake her is to kiss her, which is something she would have wanted him to do anyway, especially given her situation.
As Princess Weekes from The Mary Sue explains: “Phillip doesn’t just kiss Aurora because he’s horny…This is not a drunken accidental hook up, or an older male authority figure taking advantage of a younger co-worker. He is literally saving her from an eternity of sleep.”
And once Aurora is awakened, she shows through her awaking smile that his kiss was something that she wanted from him.
Weekes further explains: “Non-verbal consent is a thing, and Aurora gives Phillip plenty of it in her body language….She is not upset about being kissed, she got kissed by someone she liked, [and] she would have kissed him if she was awake.”
But even if the two didn’t know each other beforehand, weren’t in love with each other, and didn’t want to kiss each other, Phillip would still be in the right for the sheer fact that it’s his kiss of true love that was required to wake her.
After all, if reviving a drowning victim through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation isn’t considered “sexual assault”, then why not reviving a sleeping princess through true love’s kiss?
#2: Cinderella Is A Helpless Damsel In Distress
This Is What Feminists Actually Believe
Cinderella is a helpless damsel in distress who suffers under the abusive whims of her step family until a charming prince comes along to rescue her.
Even Disney seems to have bought into this assumption. Not only did it remake her movie in live action in a (failed) attempt to make her more “empowered”, but also released a song by the Cheetah Girls about the very subject.
But as that song suggests, is Cinderella really just “sitting in a dark cold dusty cellar waiting for somebody to come and set [her] free”?
Arguing that someone like Cinderella is not doing enough to get themselves out of their own situation is something most of us refer to as “victim blaming.” It’s a very prevalent attitude, especially towards victims of abusive relationships.
Too many times we as a society ask why women refuse to leave their abusive partners, or why children refuse to speak up about their abusive parents, when we really should be asking why their abusers are allowed to get away with such abuse for so long.
Asking why a battered wife or abused child refuses to do anything about their abuse is just as heartless as, well, asking why a young scullery maid refuses to do anything about the abuse she receives from her evil stepmother and stepsisters.
“Cinderella doesn’t stand up to her abusers in a traditionally masculine way. She doesn’t physically fight back, make daring plans of escape, or hold back her tears. So writing off Cinderella is on some level buying into masculine standards of strength and weakness. Saying her traits of kindness and perseverance aren’t good enough devalues femininity and it also presumes unfairly that a victim of abuse should fight back…Cinderella has no power in this dynamic, and she has no choice but to obey.”
Cinderella isn’t stuck in her situation because she refuses to do anything about it. She’s not waiting for someone to come along and rescue her. On the contrary, she’s doing the best she can under her circumstances to survive the situation she’s trapped in and finding her own way to escape it.
And when she finally goes off to the ball, her goal isn’t to find a prince to rescue her. As the video explains, “it’s about freedom choice and agency over her own life. Most of all, it’s a fun night off a much-needed brief escape from the oppression of her daily life.”
In the end, the story isn’t teaching young girls to be complacent in their abuse. It’s teaching them to remain strong in the face of adversity by using kindness and hope as their defense. Or as the video further elucidates:
“This is a story about a woman who is both feminine and strong who doesn’t have to rely on a man or take on traditionally masculine characteristics to triumph over evil…A closer look at the character reveals that this has been a story about a strong woman all along.”
#3: The Little Mermaid Trades Her Legs For A Man
This Is What Feminists Actually Believe
Upon falling in love with a human prince, the mermaid, Ariel, trades her legs and voice to a sea witch so that she can be with him, even though she’s only known him for less than 24 hours.
Not only is Ariel considered to be just as bad as every other Disney princess who wants to marry the first man she meets, but worse because she sacrifices everything she has, including her own agency, in order to be with him.
Or as YouTube feminist reviewer Lindsay Ellis put it: “I sold my soul for [female parts] and a man I don’t know.” Clearly, Ariel is the worst role model for little girls, right?
As much as Ariel is often described as being in the same mold as every other “passive” Disney princess, she was once considered to be a revolutionary “active” character who broke that very mold.
Rather than be yet another princess who sits and waits for her prince to come rescue her, Ariel actually takes initiative to go out and fulfill her goal, making her arguably one of the first proactive Disney princesses.
The late and great movie critic Roger Ebert praised her as such in his review of the movie: “Ariel is a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny. Because she’s smart and thinks for herself, we have sympathy for her scheming.”
But how “empowered” can Ariel be when her ultimate goal is to fall in love with a prince? Very much so, because that’s not her original goal.
From the very start of the movie, we see that Ariel is fascinated by the human world, to the point of risking her life just to uncover human artifacts from a shark-infested shipwreck, artifacts that she hoards along with many others in her grotto, and which she sings about during her musical number.
Even after meeting and falling in love with Prince Erik, her infatuation for him only feeds into her own infatuation with the human world, so much so that, following her angry confrontation with her father, she decides to trade everything she has just to be, well, part of his world.
For women like Gwynne Watkins of Yahoo News, such a drive is quite empowering: “Her sacrifice, then, doesn’t have to be seen as throwing everything away for a man: It’s an extreme measure to get what she has always wanted, a life on the land.”
One can question the wisdom behind trading your voice and legs, but there’s no doubt that such ambition is driven, not merely by “lust”, but by a desire to achieve one’s dream.
As such, many young women consider Ariel to be a strong female role model even when presented with arguments to the contrary, something that was confirmed by a 2004 paper by two media studies professors from New York University.
“You could say, she gave up her voice to be with the prince. Or you could say, she gave up her voice as an expression of agency, of independence from her underwater life,” explained Dr. Erica Scharrer, one of the two professors behind the study. “I think that is a reading that is absolutely available to members of the audience.”
#4: Beauty And The Beast Is About “Stockholm Syndrome”
This Is What Feminists Actually Believe
Belle is a damsel in distress who’s held captive within the Beast’s castle long enough to fall in love with her captor and see through his most glaring of flaws — the most glaring of which is holding her captive to begin with.
Such a story is often considered to be a textbook example of Stockholm’s Syndrome, which, according to Wikipedia, is “a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy during captivity.”
Even Cracked, a not-so serious website that takes things way too seriously, insists that Belle goes through all four stages of the disorder. This all makes perfect sense, until you realize…
First of all, Stockholm Syndrome isn’t considered a real disorder, or at the very least, it’s a “contested illness”, as most law enforcement and mental health professionals do not consider it to be a real thing.
As such, calling Beauty and the Beast a textbook example of Stockholm Syndrome is just as ludicrous as calling The Haunting an example of female hysteria, because it’s attributing a fictional disease to a fictional story.
But even if we assume Stockholm Syndrome is a real thing (despite lack of professional consensus), even by its own standards, Belle doesn’t exhibit the symptoms, or at least to anyone who actually paid attention to the movie.
In the original fairy tale, Beauty is forced to live with the Beast after being traded by her father in exchange for his life — and all because he was caught picking a rose, of all things! So she could very well be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome because she’s actually someone being forced to live with her captor until she falls in love with him.
That’s not the case with Belle. In the movie, she chooses to go searching for her father. She chooses to take his place as the Beast’s prisoner, in spite of her father’s objections. She chooses to stay with the Beast, but refuses to accept his invitation to join him for dinner. She chooses to defy his order not to be fed and starve. She chooses to defy the boundaries set by him by visiting the forbidden West Wing. She chooses to leave the castle after the Beast threatens her with violence. She chooses to return and tend to his wounds after he rescues her from the wolves. And she chooses to stay with him for as long as he remains nice to her.
In other words, this is not the story of a helpless damsel forced to remain and fall in love with her captor. This is the story of a heroine who exercises her autonomy and maintains control over her situation for as long as she allows it according to her own terms.
Because of this, rather than falling in love with her “captor”, she only starts to develop feelings for the Beast after he saves her and after he starts to improve his own behavior towards her.
As Veronica Poirier of The Federalist explains: “She does not sympathize with him when he shouts abuses at her and acts violent towards her. Only once he starts treating her better…does she begin to change her feelings towards him.”
“But that’s from a right-wing libertarian website,” I hear you protest. “That’s not a left-wing progressive feminist social justice perspective!”
You’re right! So here’s an actual left-wing progressive feminist social justice perspective from an actual left-wing progressive feminist social justice reviewer, Lindsay Ellis:
“Her goal is never at any point, either stated or unstated, to make the Beast into another person. If he’s a jerk, she replies in kind. If he’s nice, she responds in kind. She treats him fairly, and he decides to improve himself of his own volition out of respect and fondness for her.
…Even ignoring the fact that most law enforcement and mental health professionals do not think that Stockholm Syndrome is actually even a thing, this movie is not a good example of the thing. That does not mean that this term (“problematic”) does not necessarily apply, it just means that this term (“Stockholm Syndrome”) is not a good one, so stop using it.”
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect about these feminist fallacies is that, while they don’t apply to the Disney movies themselves, they do apply to the fairy tales they are based on.
As most of these classic fairy tales were written in a time before the concept of “gender equality”, many of them do contain antiquated tropes about gender that have since lost relevance, from princes being allowed to rape sleeping princesses to women being forced into arranged marriages with beastly husbands.
However, the mistake most feminists make is to confuse the Disney movies with their original fairy tales, and in doing so, neglect to realize how these movies are modern adaptations that have fixed many of these more “problematic” elements, thus updating the stories for a modern audience.
This isn’t just a problem with feminist criticisms of Disney movies. Most feminist critiques tend to have a very surface level approach towards media, which often glances over important details and thus misses the forest for the trees.
For example, feminist reviewer Anita Sarkessian once claimed the video game Hitman promoted “sexual objectification” by rewarding players for killing strippers during a game mission, when in reality, as many critics have pointed out, the game actually penalizes players for doing that.
Another feminist reviewer, Jonathan McIntosh, accused The Big Bang Theory of promoting “adorkable misogyny” due to the often sexist behavior of its characters while ignoring the fact that the characters are usually punished for said actions through humorous comeuppance. As internet reviewer Lily Peet put it, such analysis comes across as “diabolically lazy.”
That’s probably the best way to describe these feminist fallacies about Disney: diabolically lazy critiques that fail to actually apply critical thinking to critical theory. When you base your analysis on presuppositions about media, you tend to only see what you want to see.
So if you’re watching a Disney movie trying to find ways that it’s “sexist”, chances are you’ll probably end up finding what you’re looking for, or rather, assuming that you’ve found what you’re looking for.
But if you actually pay attention to what’s being presented rather than what you think is being presented, chances are you’ll find something completely different.
As such, if you’re a feminist who’s thoroughly convinced that Disney is pushing a “sexist” agenda, if you actually watch the films for what they are, rather than what you assume they are, perhaps you’ll discover that these “sexist” Disney movies are actually quite feminist and empowering.
As a song from another Disney movie put it, you’ve got to dig a little deeper!