Disney Princesses. You know the names: Snow, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle and Jasmine. The current generation of girls can add Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana and Rapunzel to that list. The trope is simple. A beautiful princess or lady finds herself in an untenable situation (such as being forced to marry a rich king she doesn’t love or wash floors like a lowly peasant) and despite the fact that she is relatively intelligent and possibly even resourceful, she needs a handsome man to come along and save her. If the princess is lucky, instead of a cardboard hunk of nameless prince charmless, she might even get saved by a sarcastic and charming thief voiced by Zachary Levi or a witty and motivated “street rat” voiced by DJ from Full House’s boyfriend.
Due to the fact that I was born female, this is the stuff I was supposed to like. As a child, I was supposed to want bubblegum pink Disney princess merchandise and play dress-up in fluffy crinolines while dreaming of growing up to marry Prince Charming one day. My goal in life and love was supposed to be to have his babies and spend my nights cooking him dinner and rubbing his feet after he spends his hard days being dashing and heroic. (Is it just me, or was Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston less a villain and more a very unsubtle mockery of the Disney Princess trope?)
While I did enjoy these movies growing up, the main theme of “girl being saved” because she was beautiful and nice always sat wrong with me. At least it got better as the century progressed. Ariel, Mulan and Pocahontas were headstrong and had personalities to go along with their pretty faces and anatomically impossible waistlines. Although Ariel had to change her entire body and become a mute so Prince Eric would fall in love with her, so maybe that’s a poor example.
Growing up, I was more interested in the anthropomorphic Disney films. Give me some classic Mickey Mouse vs. Donald Duck mischief or send me off to the jungle with Mowgli and the savannah with Simba. To me, the “happily ever after” princess stories seemed a hell of a lot less realistic than the idea of talking lions and jazz singing bears. If you were paying close attention, films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Robin Hood had great social messages that remain relevant today. Quasimodo’s story is a cautionary tale that would fit well in the “It Gets Better” movement and Robin Hood and Prince John are practically caricatures of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Alas, romance rarely managed to stay out of a Disney movie completely. Mickey will always have Minnie, Bambi eventually left his hetero life-mate Thumper for Faline and even “ugly” Quasimodo eventually got a cute little tomboy girlfriend in the sequel. In-fact, the only Disney film I can think of that didn’t have any romantic messages in it was Pinocchio. Pinocchio had strong moral lessons about family, greed, hedonism, selfishness and honesty. In this film, the characters that acted like asses literally got turned into donkies. Brilliant! I think the appeal of Pinocchio lies not only with the fact that it cut out romance as a plot device, but that it also was willing to show the darker side of humanity. Rather than being a hero that vanquished the villain and got the girl, Pinocchio merely escaped and went on to live his own quiet life and modest dream: to be a real boy.
As a woman, I’m not saying that I wanted to be a real boy when I grew up, but I damn sure didn’t want to be Mrs. Prince Charming, either.