Have you guys seen “Tangled?” Before it came out, I thought it sounded silly – a spunky teenage Rapunzel having “the best day ever” with a handsome scoundrel thrown in as a desperate grab for the male viewership. However, “Tangled” turned out to be a fresh, clever, and funny update on the Disney princess mythology. Rapunzel is intelligent, brave, honest, and calls her own shots, and even though the movie’s ending makes the feminist side of me puff up in fury just a tiny bit, she’s a welcome addition to the princess pantheon.
It even made me start to wonder if it was really such a bad thing for little girls to want to grow up to be princesses.
Now put down the torches and pitchforks for a minute. Yes, there are many pitfalls involved in being a Disney princess, like how being thin and beautiful is everything and how you’re always needing to be rescued and/or validated by a man. But society has become aware of this and princesses are slowly (very slowly) but surely modifying their behavior to fit in with the 21st century and become more rounded women. Look at how far we’ve come between Snow White and Tiana – Tiana doesn’t even want the prince for the first chunk of the movie. But when you give them each a chance, even the old-fashioned prince-obsessed princesses have some very positive traits that every modern girl can aspire to.
1) They’re creative. What do all princesses have in common? Singing. Yeah, they’re usually singing about the men in their lives, but in some cases (Ariel and Rapunzel in particular) the princess’s voice is her greatest asset. Little girls tend to run around singing anyway, but that goofy kid trait could be nurtured into a true creative outlet. And princesses aren’t confined to just singing, at least not anymore: Belle reads, Tiana bakes, and Rapunzel does just about everything:
In an era where activities that nurture creativity are the first to get cut whenever money gets tight, these talented princesses can act as true role models. Even the more old-fashioned princesses probably have a good deal of latent creativity: Cinderella could make a mean quilt after all those years mending clothes, and Sleeping Beauty probably picked up a few sustainable-gardening skills during her years in the forest. And let’s not forget Mulan’s martial arts…
2) They’re good with animals. Snow White, Pocahontas, Cinderella, Aurora, Rapunzel, Giselle from “Enchanted”…the other thing pretty much all princesses have in common is having a weird rapport with animals. Princesses talk (or sing) nicely to them, and animals turn up to help with chores, save you from the bad guys, or bring you stuff. Even Mulan, the tomboy among princesses, has her cricket sidekick. The Disney princesses’ fondness for animals can translate – yes, it’s kind of a stretch, bear with me – into teaching little girls to respect all life. Obviously trying to learn mind control to get a horde of squirrels to do your laundry probably isn’t going to turn out well, but how about a career as a veterinarian? Volunteer opportunities abound, too – little girls can get some valuable experiences working at pet shelters while they pretend to be Cinderella with a cottageful of critters.
3) They’re nice. Today the definition of “strong woman” blurs easily into “bitch,” and even worse, the latter definition is the one that tends to be glorified. Magazines and popular media teach you how to be a bitch because from their point of view, that’s the only way a woman can get what she wants. Treating people nicely is equated with being a doormat. The golden rule – treat others how you’d want to be treated – has gotten a little lost, along with the idea that people might actually like and respect you more if you’re nice to them. As for the princesses, they’ve made careers out of being nice. Belle and Cinderella stand out most here: one broke a curse by teaching the Beast about love and kindness, and the other found the strength to forgive her abusive stepfamily (once she was in a safe position to do so). These days it’s more of a challenge to be nice and rise above conflicts, rather than give into cattiness and criticism – which means acting like a princess, contrary to the stereotype, is no walk in the park.
4) They see the best in everyone.
This is another one that opposes the modern “bitch” ideal and yet also causes problems for girls. Seeing the best in someone can lead to clinging to the wrong guy for way too long, hoping to “change” him, because that’s what princesses do, right? They turn the Beast back into Prince Charming. They also put themselves in situations that could easily lead to them being taken advantage of in the real world. If you flee into the woods (Snow White), odds are not great that you’ll be rescued by a band of forest critters and some good-hearted dwarves. It’s also unlikely that if you lose your treasured voice (Ariel) or run away to an unfamiliar city (Jasmine), you’ll be taken care of by good citizens. Even Rapunzel, whose combination of street smarts and faith in humanity wins over a pub-ful of thugs, nearly gets in trouble when she finally lets her guard down.
But worse things can happen when we give up on someone. When someone never hears that they’re worthy or loved or needed – or worse, when they’re outright told that they’re not – the effects are devastating. Why would someone make an effort if they know it won’t be appreciated? One of my friends told me recently about the family who lives next door to her, where the father constantly swears and screams at his son and tells him he’s worthless and a failure. All I could coherently get out at the time was “seriously?!” but seriously, what good can possibly come out of all that negative reinforcement? What will constant criticism accomplish other than total defeat?
And this is where we need princesses more than anything. We need people – not just women – who are patient, optimistic, brave, open-minded, and kind, who have faith that people can be better and situations can change, and who won’t give up when things are difficult. In this regard, the Disney princesses are some of the best role models I can think of, so long as we can balance 21st-century common sense with old-fashioned morality.