Commentary Sexual Health

The Disney Paradox: Advertising Princesses as Strong and Brave While Making Billions on the “Meek and Beautiful”

Martha Kempner

In an (almost) inspiring ad, Disney attempts to equate being a princess with being brave, strong, and generous. The ad is good but is it enough to counter the company's own marketing machine that tells girls being pretty is most important?

I admit it: the Disney Channel was on a lot in my house on a recent weekend. It was a long weekend, most of my daughter’s friends were away for the holiday, and I seemed to spend the whole weekend cleaning the house (first to make it nice enough for guests and then to put it back together after they left). So I let Rocky and CeCe of Shake it Up entertain my six-year-old for more hours than I should have. During one of those hours, as I tried to yet again to free a carpet from dried play-doh, I caught an interesting Disney-sponsored cross between a commercial and Public Service Announcement (PSA).

The “I am a princess” ad begins with a shot of a little girl dressed up like Snow White and continues on to show girls doing archery, surfing, balancing on the high beam, presenting science projects to judges, and helping old people. The girls (and families) featured in the one minute and 46 second video range in age from pre-school to high school and come in many shapes, sizes, and skin tones. (The casting agent took her task of finding multi-cultural talent very seriously.) On top of these images inspirational music plays and a young, but authoritative, voice-over tells us:

I am a princess. I am brave sometimes, I am scared sometime. Sometimes I am brave even when I’m scared. I believe in loyalty and trust. I believe loyalty is built on trust. I try to be kind. I try to be generous. I am kind even when others are not so generous. I am a princess. I think standing up for myself is important. I think standing up for others is more important but standing with others is most important. I am a princess. I believe compassion makes me strong. I believe kindness is power. And family is the tightest bond of all. I have heard I am beautiful. I know I am strong. (Video clip of Tangled: “I promise and when I promise something, I never ever break that promise.”) I am a princess, long may I reign.

It turns out that this commercial was released in September (I can’t believe it took me this long to see it) by Disney as part of a “…celebration of what it truly means to be a Princess, today. To be brave. To be kind. To be generous and compassionate. Join Disney as we celebrate the Princess inside every young girl. Long may they reign!”

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I loved it. It was, as it was meant to be, moving and inspiring. I actually got chills on the line, “I’ve been told I am beautiful but I know I’m strong.” I want my daughters know that being strong is more important than being beautiful.

Perhaps if I were less cynical, I would applaud this as a new direction for Disney maybe even suggesting that it’s the influence of Pixar, the makers of the Toy Story movies, which in an odd David and Goliath moment took over the larger studio a few years ago. But I am a cynic, and this is not a PSA, it’s an advertisement. 

The only reason to add the line “I am a princess,” is to tie this ad back to the brand off of which Disney has made a fortune since Snow White was released in 1937. When you watch the ad you’ll catch glimpses of many of their princesses. There’s a shot of Snow White, an appearance by Cinderella, a clip of young girls watching Tangled, and a scene in which a father and daughter are dancing in front of a television while watching Beauty and the Beast

In reframing their princesses as strong and generous and brave, Disney is clearly working to answer its critics who have been railing against the messages in princess movies for years. Many parents (including this one) have complained that the princesses want nothing more out of life than to find a prince and live happily ever after and that this is not an inspirational or aspirational message for our daughters. 

The original princesses of the forties and fifties—Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty—all underscore the idea that a girl’s ultimate goal in life is to meet that one man, fall in love, and live happily ever after without ever really taking an active role in shaping her own future. Real women came along way in the next few decades but princesses seem to have gotten stuck in a gender-role rut as the 90’s entries into the genre had even worse messages. In the Little Mermaid, for example, Ariel makes a deal with Ursula, the sea witch, to give up her voice at least temporarily. She then has to get Prince Eric to fall in love with her without talking. What follows is a series of scenes in which she bats her eyelashes a lot but says nothing—and it works. The take away: shut up and look pretty and you’ll the get the guy. Beauty and the Beast’s Belle wants more than her small-town life and reads every book she can get her hands on which is admirable but as soon as the Beast starts being a little bit refined and kind of sweet, she seems to forget that he is still holding her captive. 

In the 2011 book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, best-selling author Peggy Orenstein notes her own challenges raising a daughter in our princess-obsessed culture. She points out that Disney has more than 26,000 princess-themed objects on the market and that these royal women are “…part of a $4 billion-a-year franchise that is the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created.” Orenstein doesn’t buy Disney’s argument that the company is simply giving young girls what they want. As she sees it, today’s girls have few alternatives. True, the princess phase is not unique to today’s young girls, we dressed up in tutus too, but Orenstein says there is something new:

It’s not that princesses can’t expand girls’ imaginations. But in today’s culture, princess starts to turn into something else. It’s not just being the fairest of them all, it’s being the hottest of them all, the most Paris Hilton of them all, the most Kim Kardashian of them all.

As Jessica Bennett put it in Newsweek: “Translation: shallow, narcissistic, slutty.”

Orenstein posted the “I am a princess” ad to her website last month and asked her readers if the company can really, “re-brand the princesses as being about strength of character and self-efficacy while also peddling tens of thousands of products to our daughters that emphasize beauty and consumerism?? Does the brave Rapunzel in the movie offset the one who is on the Escape From the Tower Lip & Nail Set?”

I have to say no. It is true that the newest major offerings in the Disney princess world, Brave and Tangled, have heroines who at least seem to be able to take care of themselves be it with a bow and arrow or a frying pan. But why must they still be princesses? 

Actually, there is an even newer princess out there, Sofia the First (though she may be a lesser princess, perhaps of a smaller Kingdom, as she went directly to TV). In her debut movie, which aired on the Disney Channel and ran a mere 47 minutes, Sofia is “rescued” from a perfectly fine life with her loving (and notably living) mother by King Roland who marries mom and brings the pair to the castle to live happily ever after. 

In some heavy-handed meta-text, the movie tries to be comically aware of its place in the princess pedigree. Her mother, for example, promises King Roland’s children that she will not be an evil stepmother. When Sofia gains the ability to understand the happy animals that help her get dressed, they tell her in a song that the only reason they’ve been following princesses around for generations is because the palace has good food. And as a tie-back to the rest of the brand, Cinderella shows up at the end to give an inspiring lecture on sisterhood and assure Sofia that all princesses are connected. 

Despite this self-awareness, the movie does little to rise above its genre. Sure, Sofia is already a princess with a closet full of dresses and a butler (voiced by Project Runway’s Tim Gunn) so I suppose she doesn’t have to go searching for a prince. Still, the biggest challenge facing her in this movie is being able to waltz with the King at the upcoming ball without embarrassing herself. No worries, princess school (or perhaps prince/ss school since it’s actually co-ed) will help her learn everything she needs to know. And while the headmistresses—Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather of Sleeping Beauty fame—pay lip services to teaching her how to fence and making sure she reads classic books, what we see are lessons on proper curtsying, waltzing, and pouring tea (which is apparently very difficult).

If this is the best Disney can do in rewriting the princess then I can’t accept their commercial, no matter how well done, as an accurate portrayal of what the brand is trying to tell young girls. And even if their new princesses continue get better or stronger or more inspirational to girls in the vein of Brave and Tangled, why must they still be princesses? I liked watching Kate Middleton’s wedding and I think she has a fantastic wardrobe but I don’t think becoming a princess is a realistic or worthy goal.  (For one thing she may have taken the only open spot.) 

Without the line “I am a princesss,” the Disney video would be fantastic but as it stands it’s just a commercial and a bit of a hypocritical one at that. Personally, I prefer the Sesame Street clip that we posted on Rewire a few weeks ago in which Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor tells Abby Cadabby that “princess” is not a career. Now, if only I could get either of my kids interested in watching Sesame Street

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