Disney Princesses: My Daughter Deserves Better

In a little less than a month from now, Lord willing, my wife and I will welcome our first child into the world–a girl. Knowing that my baby is a girl has opened my eyes to the trends, advertising, and messages being communicated to young girls by popular culture.

Peggy Orenstein recently wrote a book called Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture in which she warns against what she calls the “princess culture” which encourages young girls to find their identity in their looks. “Princesses are just a phase,” Orenstein writes, but they mark a girl’s “first foray into the mainstream culture…. And what was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants — or should want — to be the Fairest of Them All.”

I am far from an expert on how pop culture influences children, and to be perfectly honest, when I first started noticing all this talk about the princess culture, I thought this was just another example of parents blaming the culture rather than taking responsibility for the early sexualization of their girls.

Now that my wife and I are expecting, I am seeing things differently. We live in a media-saturated world, and the values we seek to instill in our children at home are often contradicted in the surrounding culture. When that happens, we ought to at least take notice.

Orenstein says “the Disney Princesses” tell her daughter that her value is tied up in her appearance. But before we join Orenstein in lamenting how far our culture has fallen, let’s actually consider some princess movies.  Sadly I can’t say that I have kept up with the most recent princess movies, but I have seen most of the Disney staples of the last few decades–so I’ll start there and as soon as Tangled arrives in my mail box from Netflix I will look at that one too.

I want to look at three princess movies, though they are not all technically “princess” movies each of these films has a lead female role that has been marketed as a princess for years: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Each of these movies has a beautiful female lead character who finds herself in a conflict that she cannot overcome apart from the intervention of a “prince.”

1.  The Little Mermaid – A young mermaid falls in love with a man she has never met and sells her voice to a wicked witch in order to become a human. Ariel must win Eric with her beauty apart from her ability to speak. Its a very short romance–one based essentially on looks. Ariel willingly leaves behind all that she has ever known to be with a man that she doesn’t know at all. Additionally she swims around the ocean in the first half of the movie in a sea shell bra with a tiny waist and ample bosom.

2. Beauty and the Beast – Belle is essentially imprisoned by a bitter and potentially crazy “man,” Beast. He is verbally abusive toward her, yelling furiously at her when she does not do as he asks. He has her locked up and tells his servants not to feed her. When Belle escapes only to be attacked by wolves, we are led to believe that the Beasts’ true character comes out. Over time Belle sees this and falls in love with a man who imprisoned, controlled, and verbally abused her. The potential message that this movie conveys to young girls is disturbing–behind every crazy and potentially abusive man is a heart of gold.

3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – While the original Disney animated feature was first released in 1937, it very much feels like a movie from my generation due to how often it was remastered, re-released, and re-watched by so many young girls. This is at the very outset a story about physical beauty. Snow White’s step mother puts a curse on her because she is jealous of her being “the fairest of them all.”  And again the movies ends with Snow White being saved from her wicked step mother by a dashing prince.

Some themes are clearly present–the exaltation of physical beauty over inner beauty, romantic relationships that have very little if anything to do with character, and young girls who find themselves at the mercy of more capable men who must save them from peril.  To be clear, I am not ready to say that Disney and the myriad of princess movies that followed these films are to blame for the sexualization of girls, but I do look back on these films in a whole new light when I begin to think what they might be communicating to my daughter.

I want my daughter to love Jesus–I want her to ultimately find her identity in being made by God and offered redemption in Christ. I want her to know that she has value to offer that goes far deeper than the physical. I want her to see that she is fearfully and wonderfully made and I don’t want her to wait around for some boy to give her purpose.  I want her to dream big and make a difference in this world for the sake of Christ. Of one thing you can be sure, I won’t sit idly by while my daughter is encouraged to try to “be the fairest of them all” so that some silly boy will come and rescue her from a mundane life.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • http://pos51.org/ Charles Jones

    I didn’t notice much of this stuff before my daughter was born, either. I hadn’t thought much about the older Disney movies, except that I thought Cinderella did a great job of emphasizing character and perseverance, until the Fairy Godmother shows up. I had more of a problem with its message that, essentially, you should be good because karma will get you—and get you instantly.

    I actually really like Tangled, as well as some of the Dreamworks movies, specifically Megamind and Monsters vs. Aliens. Both have strong female leads who have no need of a romance. And while neither has a message that’s close to Christian, they both emphasize that what’s needed is a change within yourself, rather than a change of circumstances or a change in someone else, which is a good start.

    Actually, the most infuriating thing that I’ve seen along these lines has to do with McDonald’s toys. My son was obsessed with MvA around his birthday last year, and asked for a toy of one of the characters. We managed to get the whole McD’s set on eBay.

    In the movie, Susan (the heroine) transforms from dainty and terrified to a strong and confident world-saver. And how does McDonald’s represent her in the toy? The figure is her running away, which she does only once, about 3 minutes before her first heroic act (of which there are several).

    If I didn’t have a daughter, I wouldn’t have cared. But it frustrates me that a company would throw away a chance to emphasize the positive qualities of one of the few movie heroines who’s success isn’t based on beauty or sex-appeal.

  • Andrea

    I loved Disney movies when I was little, especially Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. I think I still have those movies memorized. I agree with your assessment, but my eight year old self didn’t walk away from those movies worried about how I looked. Little Mermaid was fun because I liked to swim and explore new places. I loved Beauty and the Beast because Belle was brunette and loved to read. Though, the last time I watched that movie, I was more disturbed by Belle’s acceptance of bestiality than anything else – but that’s the topic for another article. In the end though, it was still my parents who made the most difference in how I viewed myself and the world.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    Love this post. And I have to say that this worry is not something merely confined to parents of little girls. Even if I didn’t have a little niece, I would be worried about the portrayal of women in media (as Alan can tell you, it’s sort of a pet project). I find the transition from Disney’s earliest to the more recent ones an interesting reflection on the women’s movement.

    In earlier Disney movies, the princess is passive, weak, and needs to be rescued. It transitions, slowly, to a woman who is the hero of her own story (I enjoy Mulan particularly for this reason, even though she has to become a man to be her own hero, which is problematic in itself). And Disney’s last princess movie (and the first one featuring a black princess – the Princess and the Frog) is a great example of an independent woman.

    So, while it is very, very important to keep track of what media your daughter is consuming and what sort of media impressions she’s getting, and attempt to counterbalance them, you can also be slightly reassured that there is more and more media out there that reflects a healthy attitude toward womanhood. Plus, you can be reassured that when she becomes a young adult, there is A LOT of literature featuring good, strong, independent female leads.

  • http://moviegoings.wordpress.com/ Jared

    Nice post. I have been developing an awareness of these issues over a long period of time, but having a daughter a month and half ago has given the question an urgency and an immediacy that it didn’t have before. I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts about Tangled, which I thought did an excellent job dodging the pitfalls you laid out above.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Charles and Jared,

    I actually recently saw Tangled (in between when this article was written and when it was actually published) and I would agree that it sends much more helpful messages to young girls. I guess if there is any objection I had to the movie it was the way in which the romance was carried out–but that is something I go into movies regularly expecting to be disappointed by.

    Anyway–I am glad you enjoyed the post–thanks for your kind words.

    @Diana, I have not yet seen the Princess and the frog, I look forward to catching that one soon.

    Thanks for your comments–I certainly think you are right to point out that there are not enough strong, confident, female leads but I also think that is changing. I think the challenge there is difficult for Christians though–not just parents of girls but of boys too–how do we balance encouraging confidence and independence in them while continually encouraging them to look to Christ and live dependent on Him.

    That said, the most irritating thing about these types of films (the ones I wrote about) is how they seem to say to girls–you are incomplete without a more capable man. I think we want to say to our daughters–you are special because God made you special. You have value because he made you and you have only one real need–Jesus.

  • Andrew

    Honestly i dont really see the parallels between disney fantasy and reality that you bring up. As a child disney movies are not viewed that way. As a young boy i did not watch Aladdin and say ” yes stealing is acceptable and lying too if you can get the girl.” No i walked away thinking that was fun to watch. Nothing more.

    In the story of Esther is godliness the first way scripture describes her? No, other than explaining her lineage(jewish) it says “The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at”(2:7)

    I understand a heightened sense of sensitivity toward female geared media…but intense criticism can draw out “flaws” in most things.

    As one of the posters pointed out earlier. Parents and a gospel centered upbringing are much more important to a child’s life…not disney movies.

    As far as teaching girls to have an unhealthy reliance on men… that could be said about any story out their today. why stop at disney princesses. As far as the non-believing world is concerned love(man and woman) is the end all be all. Its is kind of ridiculous to watch a disney film and say that it doesnt convey christian values…they arent trying to convey christian values and Disney probably never will. But we can say(as we can of most movies) that we sympathize with these characters because there is a common desire in our lives as well that can be met by a greater prince who can deliver us from much more terrible circumstances than we just saw in a movie. A real life prince named Jesus. What a great gospel moment with your children! We can either villianize or redeem the things of this world…disney princess stories are ripe for redemption…

  • Alan Noble

    Okay, Here’s a quick argument for why it’s worth having this discussion about Disney films in particular and a few random thoughts:

    1. It is certainly true that all stories have characters and ideas that we should not emulate, and therefore we should not be surprised or particularly appalled at the fact that these Disney stories present for female role models.

    2. I’m not entirely pleased with the idea of evaluating the movie based on how powerful or power less the female and male characters are. This kind of evaluation seems to assume the economy of violence and power of the world rather than the selfless service we find in the Gospels. In other words, I’m not so sure we should be concerned if none of these films have strong, independent, powerful female (or male, for that matter) characters. I would much rather see hero figures who are admired for emptying themselves, lay down their lives, serving others, etc.

    3. What is fairly unique about the Disney films is the larger marketing campaign that unites all of these “Princess” stories. I’m not concerned that if my daughter, Nora, watches snow white that she will begin to think that her job is to clean dishes for a bunch of dwarfs while waiting for her Prince charming to rescue her. Let me be clear here, however: people do learn and adopt ideologies and perspectives from stories, so it is perfectly possible that she might gain a very narrow and destructive view of her identity from watching Disney films. But as Andrew pointed out, this could be said about a lot of movies. What can be said about a lot of movies is that with Disney’s films there is a huge, powerful marketing campaign to promote the concept of being a princess and all the stereotypes that that entails. They have managed to rip the princesses out of their story context and idolize them as role models, images of perfection, images of the inner beauty and goodness of all girls. This is where I see these Disney films being particularly pernicious. There is a delicate balance called for as a parent to instill in a daughter her innate beauty and value with out teaching her that she is good just the way she is, entitled to honors and privileges wealth and pleasure, and that her ultimate achievement would be to attain the status of a beautiful, elite, object for a prince. (obviously, there is a mirror challenge for raising a boy).

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Andrew, the entire reason that Esther’s beauty was mentioned is because her beauty is the fulcrum for the story. The king wants a replacement for Vashti, someone who’s completely hot that he can show off as a trophy. Esther’s entire introduction is to the point that she will be an object—an object through which God will eventually work, but an object nonetheless. She is a sex object to the king, a political tool to Mordecai, and an obstacle to Haman. Her only two redeeming qualities until the If I Perish speech are her beauty and her availability. Despite the outcome, the book of Esther is not a very cheery story and Esther’s resignation to do what she can for her people is the only bright spot in a story full of unadmirable characters.

    So, I don’t think we really want to be using Esther’s story as an example of why its fine to emphasize a girl’s looks as her primary selling point. Not that I mind a pretty girl, right?

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Good reminder Alan about the use of and preference for power language. It’s telling that one of the chief things many look for is empowerment. Power is a good storytelling hinge but to often we make it a goal—when ideally, a better goal would be egalitarian depowerment. Desire for power and the exercise of power being some of the most damaging exertions of the sinful will.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Andrew did you read the Redbook article or any of the other articles I linked? The parallels are pretty obvious. At least I am not the only one making them.

    But to be fair I didn’t make any of the conclusions that you seem to think I am making. I am not blaming Disney movies for anything. I was just taking a closer look at the messages of 3 Disney movies and what they might say to young girls. As to whether young girls are being heavily influenced by these or not, I cannot say. What I can say is that these films to have some level of influence on young girls and its important to know what messages they send. Not in order to boycott them, but in order to understand them and help our daughters have a fuller, more biblical, more nuanced picture of what it means to be a woman.

    Additionally you said, “As a Child Disney movies are not viewed that way.” What way? How do you know they aren’t viewed “that way.” How can you prove that a child approaches a movie as mere entertainment? How do you measure the influence of a film on a child?

    I didn’t mess with any of those questions in my article but you seem poised to answer them, so if you can with something more than guess work, please help me out.

    I am not for boycotting these films, never have been in favor of boycotts in general. What I am a big fan of is understanding the “entertainment” we indulge in.

    Also I would say that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that Disney films are mere entertainment nothing more then go on to say that they have valuable lessons worth redeeming in the Christian context.

    Additionally, I never said that there is no value to physical beauty–I just don’t want my daughter to think that that is primarily where she should find her identity because as Alan has laid out there is much in Disney’s princess marketing campaign that is encouraging girls to identify womanhood primarily with being pretty, looking a certain way etc. We as Christian men, ought to at least take the time to say to our daughters, “there is actually a lot more to being a woman than that.”

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Alan, Seth

    I hope you don’t think I am arguing for evaluating movies based primarily on how powerful the women are. I merely wanted to point out some deficiencies of these particular films and how I think they give a rather unfortunate and lacking picture of womanhood.

    Alan, I appreciate your comment on looking for characters who are giving and self-sacrificial–HIGH FIVE!

    For the record, this article was easy to write because I wrote an a paper for a Rhetorical Criticism class in college analyzing Disney Films and their messages to girls. I wrote on what I am more comfortable talking about, but I would love to see an article on Disney and other’s whose marketing campaigns seem to communicate unhelpful messages to girls.

    @Andrew et al

    I certainly agree that you could find similar messages in many other films, but I chose to look at these. And it has yet to be shown that I am wrong with regard to the messages of the films at hand. Several folks have merely said–”no these movies don’t really influence children the way you say that they do.” In my article I am not measuring how influential these films are or even blaming them for anything–I left those things alone. I am merely addressing their message which again, it has yet to be shown that I am wrong in my assessment of their messages.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    For all those pointing out that we can redeem the princess by pointing out that Jesus can be their prince, it should be pointed out that all marriage imagery between Christ and his intended posits the church (as a whole) as his bride and never the individual. To propose an individual girl as Christ’s bride is to mar the picture presented in Scripture. You are not the bride of Christ. I am not the bride of Christ. We are the bride of Christ.

  • Andrew

    @Drew As a child i dont remember sitting there watching the little mermaid and noticing the size of her chest and thinking ” I will only consider women with large breasts”…Children do not view these films in that way. As adults our cynical minds can warp things that children merely view as entertainment(or at least i did). Also there should be mentions of positive qualities that the princess displays(kindness, humility, compassion, joy, passion for knowledge) and how those are viewed by children.

    I think you can have it both ways…Children will view this as entertainment…Parents can view this as an opportunity to explain the greater truths of the movie…

    @Seth I am not bringing up Esther as a means to justify the importance of beauty…i bring it up because it was brought as a fault against the princess stories but when we see it appear in a bible story it is of importance to the story…Snow White’s beauty was the reason her step mother and sisters abused her which caused the events of the story. Also when was the last time you watched a film filled with unattractive women, the answer is very very rarely…Also my post said nothing to the affect of Jesus and an individual as the bride of Christ(i actually used plurals there)…i merely mentioned these stories as a good jumping off point to talk about the gospel with your children…nothing more.

    My point is that as a christian i find it to be a profound waste of time trying to censor the intake of stories and media that have very little if not zero affect on my child’s worldview. There are bigger battles to be fought for our children and i will not die on the hill of Disney princess stories… If you find disney stories to be wrought with poor morals and questionable female roles…bury your head in the sand because that is just one of many in this world.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Andrew, this is really weird because I honestly do not see what you are arguing for being really all that different from what I am promoting. That said, let me make a few points:

    1. Your said, “As a child i dont remember sitting there watching the little mermaid and noticing the size of her chest and thinking ” I will only consider women with large breasts”…Children do not view these films in that way.”

    This is a pretty gross generalization of my argument. And for the record I wouldn’t expect the Little Mermaid to have that much effect on you or anyone else. What I do want to take note of is the myriad of movies similar to the LIttle Mermaid, what the messages of such movies are to young girls and at least ASK whether we should be aware of this so that we can help our daughters have a more robust vision of what it means to be a woman.

    3. Your said, “I think you can have it both ways…Children will view this as entertainment…Parents can view this as an opportunity to explain the greater truths of the movie…”

    This is pretty much what I am hoping that parents will do with such movies as they watch them with their children–so this is where I scratch my head and wonder what it is you are disagreeing with me on.

    3. You said, “My point is that as a christian i find it to be a profound waste of time trying to censor the intake of stories and media that have very little if not zero affect on my child’s worldview.”

    So are you saying that we should have conversations with our children only about the positive messages of films and never the negative ones?

    Also–how do you know that these stories have zero effect on your child’s worldview? That is a pretty strong claim to make. Also I would add that I am not so much concerned about worldview as I am with identity. I want to help my daughter find her identity in Christ.

    4. Finally you said, “If you find disney stories to be wrought with poor morals and questionable female roles…bury your head in the sand because that is just one of many in this world.”

    Finally I will simply say that if you read my comment above and my article, I no where say that people should not watch these movies. I merely want parents to encourage their children toward a more nuanced picture of womanhood (which surely you would agree is valuable). Finally if you have spent any time on CAPC (and I know you have) you would know that I am not a proponent of any Christian putting their head in the sand, in fact I would say its really hard to have profitable conversations with one’s children from that position.

  • Israel

    To be fair, many of the women in the Bible are presented the same way– “needing” males.

    Sexism has existed culturally in human society for millions of years. I don’t think you can really point a finger of blame at Disney over it… art imitating life etc etc.

    Especially if you’ve read many historic fairy tales. It’s a long running theme.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Israel, if you read the article Israel you would see that I didn’t really blame Disney for anything–I was just examining the messages of their films–which seems a fair and reasonable thing for any consumer of pop culture to do.

    You are certainly right that it is a theme in fairy tales and in the Bible–I would also say that the Bible we get a far fuller picture of womanhood (especially in the gospels but also Prov. 31 comes to mind).

  • http://bethaniqua.blogspot.com Bethany

    I agree that no one movie is going to dramatically change someone’s understanding of themselves or their gender, but if any one movie might, it would certainly be the kind that kids watch over and over and over. I also agree with the commenters here that it’s possible to love Beauty and the Beast and identify with Belle as a reader, but not find oneself in an abusive relationship later in life.
    On the other hand, our toxic culture of gender expectations comes from all directions, and dismissing their impact is a mistake. For example, look at this feministing.com analysis of a Good Morning America segment:
    http://feministing.com/2011/06/21/little-girls-and-big-systemic-cultural-problems/

    It’s going to take a lot from our churches and our homes to combat these messages that young women get from all directions.

  • Andrew

    I think this is another helpful article on the subject as well as yours drew

    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2010/12/03/are-fairy-tales-finished/

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Bethany,

    Thanks for stopping by. I think you are certainly right about Beauty and the Beast. I am sure how influential these movies are invidually–I really just wanted to examine their messages. But from a marketing perspective Disney has and continues to market much of this princess stuff and its not sending particularly helpful messages to young girls. So as to how influential each movies is I can’t accurately say, but I do know that as you point out “our toxic culture of gender expectations comes from all directions, and dismissing their impact is a mistake.”

    Thanks for sharing.

    @Andrew – I am going to read that now–thanks for sharing the link.


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