Disney princesses and #MeToo have shared headlines recently, in a weird way. In some ways it’s a classic attempt at clickbait to make people crazy, but since it’s touching on some cultural notes that are gaining traction—criticism of Disney princesses as problematic for feminism—I couldn’t help but read on.
Actress Kristen Bell, who voice-acted the role of Anna in Frozen, told Parents magazine that she alerts her kids to problematic elements in Disney princess movies like Snow White. "Don't you think that it's weird that the prince kisses Snow White without her permission?" Bell recalled asking her daughters. "Because you can not kiss someone if they're sleeping!"
Similarly, Bell asks her daughters, “Don't you think it's weird that Snow White didn't ask the old witch why she needed to eat the apple? Or where she got that apple? . . . I would never take food from a stranger, would you?”
The New York Post highlighted Bell’s commentary alongside words actress Keira Knightley shared on The Ellen Show in which she criticized Cinderella who “waits around for a rich guy to rescue her. Don’t! Rescue yourself. Obviously!” And regarding The Little Mermaid, Knightley exclaimed, “The songs are great, but do not give your voice up for a man. Hello.” The actress has banned the films from her home.
As a feminist, I get the criticism of some of the Disney princess tropes of the past. I can appreciate critical observations of Disney princess storylines, reminding our daughters that their lives aren't meaningless without men, and that it's not OK to make sexual advances on sleeping people—I really hear what they're saying and see why it’s worth noting. I don't think those are the biggest messages in these stories, but I do think they can provide fodder for us to have age-appropriate discussion of real issues with our kids.
Where I think we can start losing perspective, though, is if we think we need to ban our kids from viewing these films. First, if we start banning storylines that have protagonists making bad decisions (like taking the food from a stranger, or gambling one’s well-being for a love interest), we’ll have no lessons to share with kids at all.
Second, I think the criticism of Disney princesses who did nothing redeemable but be saved by a prince is a bit short-sighted. Snow White endured refugee status after being kicked out from her home—the free life of her choosing having been disrupted by a tyrannical queen. But the prince’s coming to her wasn’t a show of prowess on his part; Snow White knew the prince before her crisis and literally prayed on screen for him to come to her aid. Romantic relationships aren’t an affront to feminism, are they?
Or take Cinderella, who was enslaved and suffered many hardships. Her fate was changed not by a man directly, but by her choosing not to give up hope when tempted to despair in the garden (cue the entrance of the supernatural aid, the Fairy Godmother).
Fairy Tales Don’t Normalize Abuse—They Warn Against It
The biggest culprit for some feminists is "true love's kiss." But this is less a plot device of exploitative proportions and more a literary symbol of true love between a man and a woman. It’s telling that the men in these stories display no evidence otherwise of exploiting the princesses in any of these storylines. These plot devices are not normalizing the activity of making sexual advances on sleeping girls; they are visual representations of the power of love to bring someone back to life.
To think somehow the Disney story writers or the fairy-tale writers of ages past are responsible for any amount of the exploitation of women today is ridiculous; does anyone really think it's boys' exposure to princess stories that influenced our rape crisis? (If we're concerned about content boys are watching we should be concerned about the rape porn boys as young as eleven are being exposed to.)
Now, if we want to pause and tell our kids that Snow White’s kiss is not a scene to replicate literally, that’s fine! I am all for fostering active conversations about things we’re watching with our kids. But if we’re looking to highlight abusive behavior for our kids, we might start with the clear signs of abuse written into the storylines (evil stepmother, anyone?).
Clearly fairy tales are not the source of our culture’s problems with consent and abuse, but since these are real problems for girls growing up (boys co-ercing girls into sexting is a major problem today, for instance, as Peggy Orenstein demonstrates in her book Girls & Sex), these films provide opportunities for us as parents to discuss problematic social issues with our kids. Ariel gave up her voice in The Little Mermaid—so we can talk with our daughters: "How did that help Ariel achieve her goal of getting to know Eric? It didn't! She was tricked by Ursula and her bad choice did not help her but hurt her." It's a cautionary tale of what not to do.
Same with Snow White accepting the apple from the evil queen; these stories offer great opportunities to have intelligent discussions with our daughters about how to behave wisely, and how to spot unsafe behavior in others—starting with bullying step-sisters or powerful, jealous antagonists. This is actually what fairy tales are all about—not to trick children into dangerous situations, but to teach lessons of caution to protect readers and viewers from harms of the world. Indeed for the women in these fairy tales, their lessons ultimately empowered them to come back from a whole range of abuses, turn over a new leaf, and start again.