How Princess Performers Can Avoid Reinforcing Female Stereotypes
I have a confession to make: I love my job as a birthday party princess performer, not in spite of the ball gowns and glitter, but because of them. I also consider myself a feminist. You must be wondering, how is that possible? Aren’t Disney princesses the prime example of how Hollywood reinforces female stereotypes? By “princessing,” aren’t you part of the problem? My answer: while some Disney princesses are less feminist than others, they all possesses at least some feminist qualities. If more performers chose to highlight these qualities while on the job, princessing could become an amazing way to encourage empowerment for young girls.
Many believe that women who wear makeup, love glitter, and own several dresses are simply victims of society’s expectations for them to conform to female gender roles. It can certainly be the case for some women. Mariela Loera supports this idea in “I Don’t Want to be Perfect. I Want to Seem Perfect” when she writes, “Sometimes I wonder how I would act, dress, and think if I had not unconsciously learned the social construct that builds our society and tells us how to live. Would I have gotten out of bed an hour early in order to conform? Would I have long hair? I’m afraid this is one of many unanswerable question of the universe. I will never ever know who I really am, what I truly like and dislike. All I will ever know is who society has shaped me to be, and what I have been told I should like and dislike.” Loera speaks for many in her statement because young people often struggle to understand who they are and the patriarchy takes advantage of this by creating categories for people. However, it is a misconception to assume that female empowerment is only possible when a woman rejects qualities that are considered “feminine,” for lack of a better word. Rejecting “feminine” qualities can certainly be empowering for some women, but everyone is different. There is a difference between wearing makeup because it is expected of you and wearing makeup because you enjoy experimenting with different colors, for instance. I am perfectly comfortable going out in public without makeup, but when I have the time, I like the artistic aspect of it. This is not conformity because it is something I enjoy regardless of what others expect of me. It happens to fit society’s expectations, yes, but it is not something I feel forced to do because of peer pressure. Another example is how I love historical women’s clothing. My closet is filled with my collection of gowns from the turn of the century and earlier. Beads, ruffles, petticoats, bonnets: I love them. I feel empowered when I wear them, which I realize is ironic. After all, they present women as decorative and immobile. It’s very difficult to engage in much physical activity when your skirt reaches the floor and your waist is hugged by a corset or a stay. Yet I feel empowered in ornate clothing because they express my vibrant personality. I feel less empowered in jeans and a t-shirt because they do not feel authentic on me. I feel as though I’m wearing someone else’s clothes. Likewise, someone who prefers the convenience of simple clothing may feel more empowered in sweatpants. My sister is one of those people. She prefers to use her body more athletically and I prefer to use my body to display art. Neither choice is more empowering than the other. The individuality of every woman is something I keep in mind while portraying different princesses. Maria Elena argues that “[t]he reason I love the Disney Princess franchise so much is because it shows you that although all women are intensely different, they’re all made of magic. And ultimately, they use that magic to make their own choices and live their happiest life despite all the unfortunate obstacles life throws at them. The concept that every female character has to be strong and independent is ridiculous. Women are interesting, unique, and far more complex than we could ever imagine. No matter what Disney princess you identify with the most, one thing is clear: You are valid. And so are they.” No one asked Snow White to cook and clean for the seven dwarves. She just has a talent for making delicious meals and enjoys creating a neat living space. Cinderella does want to attend the ball, but it’s because she wants a night of freedom, not because she wants to impress a crowd. In fact, none of the princesses make their decisions because of a desire to conform. They all have individual desires and goals, which they pursue because it is what they want, and is often against the will of their peers.
For each princess I portray, I make it my priority to re-watch their movies, research other details (ages, countries, backstories), and remind myself why each princess is unique. This is the responsibility of all performers, but I take my research to the next level by considering the concerns feminists may have about the characters. The internet is full of criticism when it comes to Disney, and I make it my job to identify which claims are inaccurate (as I did in my Beauty and the Beast article), which ones have merit, and how to use that information to be the best role model possible. Over time I’ve compiled a list of the princesses who get the most criticism and what the most popular critiques are: Snow White is passive and naive, Cinderella’s fairy godmother did all the work, Aurora is flat, and Ariel is a spoiled. Allow me to break down each of these claims.
First, it’s true that Snow White is naive, but she is by no means passive. She’s actually very courageous, considering her situation. After her initial (and reasonable) horror at the discovery that her stepmother planned to cut out her heart and kill her, she composes herself surprisingly quickly and focuses on survival. It’s certainly not advisable to enter a stranger’s home in the woods, but if we consider the fact that it’s between trespassing and starving in the woods, her choice makes sense, especially because she assumes the home belongs to children in need, not seven small men. She cleans up the cottage because she assumes these children are struggling on their own and she wants to make their lives easier. It’s not about wanting to be a submissive housewife. Later, when she agrees to continue to take care of the cottage, it’s in exchange for shelter, so she is actually being compensated for her work. It should also be noted that Grumpy makes sexist comments about Snow White in the beginning, but none of his accusations ring true and he is proven wrong in the end. Of course, I am not claiming that Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a movie is without fault, nor do I think Snow White as a character is perfect. Snow White is in fact my least favorite of the princesses because she takes an apple from a stranger, which can be compared to how children will follow strangers to their cars because they are promised candy or a puppy. Yet, I use Snow White’s naiveté to my advantage if I am ever asked about the apple. I see it as an opportunity to teach children how dangerous it is to accept anything from strangers.
I already mentioned how Cinderella’s desire to attend the ball was just for a night of freedom, but I’d like to take it a step further and say that I believe Cinderella is actually one of the most feminist princesses in the franchise, considering all the active choices she makes, as mentioned in “Truly Feminist Disney Princesses” by Lisa Kaye Cunningham. The article states that “Walt Disney said of his favorite princess, ‘She believed in dreams all right, but she also believed in doing something about them,” and as a response to the argument about the fairy godmother, the article reminds us to “recognize that Cinderella only received and accepted help as a last resort after all her other options were exhausted. Don’t forget that she worked as hard as she could to accomplish her dreams, and don’t belittle her for the strength of her adversary.” Cinderella is courageous enough to stand up to her stepmother and defend her right to attend the ball, she often makes sarcastic remarks under her breath about her stepfamily, and she is determined to achieve her goals, no matter what the setbacks. Therefore, I am proud to represent the resilient Cinderella at birthday parties.
As for Aurora, it’s difficult to argue with the accusations that she’s a flat character. In her defense, however, despite Aurora being the sleeping beauty in the title, I would argue that she is not the protagonist of the film and that the three fairies are actually the characters the audience is supposed to root for. After all, they are the ones who make sure Aurora gets a happy ending. Nonetheless, Aurora will always be the one who is requested at birthday parties, so I take advantage of the fact that so little is known about her. She was asleep for most of the film, so as long as my portrayal of Aurora does not contradict what little we do know about her, I have the freedom to shape her into what I believe is a good role model for children.
Finally, I am honestly baffled that the most popular critique of Ariel is that she’s a disobedient daughter. Yes, she absolutely is disobedient, but she has a very good reason to disobey: her father unjustly calls humans “barbarians” even though he has no evidence to support his accusation. This type of thinking is similar to the thinking behind police brutality, where people in power let stereotypes influence which people they arrest, rather than relying on facts. Irrational judgement and hate have lead to beatings and deaths. King Triton may be Ariel’s father, but the idea that children should respect their parents no matter what the circumstances is a very damaging mindset. Ariel’s arguments were rejected just as feminist writer Bell Hooks’s were when she was a child, as she describes in “Theory as a Liberatory Practice.” Ariel must have also felt as though she was not “truly connected to these strange people, to these familial folks who could not only fail to grasp [her] world view but who just simply did not want to hear it.” In the same way, Ariel’s father does not support his daughter’s passion for human artifacts, even though he has no proof that they are dangerous. He could have locked them away, but instead violently destroys the collection Ariel had clearly spent most of her life creating. He does this right in front of her and leaves her feeling lonely and misunderstood, just as Bell Hooks felt. People argue that King Triton was motivated by love, but no matter what good intentions he had, this is very poor parenting. Ariel may not make the most responsible decisions, but that is because she’s sixteen years old. What I love most about Ariel as a character is that she actually behaves like a real sixteen year-old. Most Disney princesses are unrealistically mature for teenagers, but I have no difficulty believing Ariel is sixteen. I think most adults regret decisions they made when they were sixteen. To be fair, age cannot be used to defend irresponsible behavior when we’re talking about a role model for young children, but as a performer, I can highlight Ariel’s open-mindedness and ability to question common belief.
In the future I plan to start my own princess character company where I put my theory into practice: a company where each character is celebrated for her individuality. Many successful companies typically have a theme or something they are known for. For instance, one of the companies I work for, Pure Imagination, embraces the fleeting childhood belief in fantasy, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before people grow up and are no longer able to dream the impossible. One of the reasons I chose this company is actually because I never had the opportunity to meet my favorite characters when I was still young enough to believe the characters could exist. In a sense, I’m somewhat jealous and therefore love being able to bring magic to children who still have faith. Another company with a memorable theme is Once Upon an Island, where they offer mermaid versions of each princess and under-the-sea activities in addition to the regular princess visits. My company’s theme will be female empowerment. “Princess training” will be less about teaching children to curtsey, and instead, will have lessons that focus on the individual talents of each princess. Children will learn how to hold a bow and arrow like Merida, sing like Ariel, read like Belle, whistle like Snow White, etc. The goal will be to encourage each child to be proud of whatever skills they have, whether that means baking the best cookies or running a mile in five minutes. Every young woman deserves to feel proud of who she is, knowing that whatever path she chooses to take in life, she is worthy of respect, no matter who tells her otherwise. I hope that in a few years, I will be able to start teaching this to young girls through the portrayal of beloved fairy tale characters.
The best way to take advantage of children’s love for Disney characters is by identifying the characters’ most admirable qualities and showcasing those qualities the most. From watching Disney movies closely, it is easy to realize that there is more to the characters than what many people view on the surface. No princess is perfect, but each one is inspirational in their own way. The solution is not to eliminate the opportunity for children to experience magic with their favorite princesses. The solution is to show children that true magic comes from empowerment and celebrating people for who they are.