The Vagenda

Little Boys and Disney Princesses

feministbaby
I treat my sons differently to how I would treat daughters, if I had any. We all say that you should raise them the same, but the fact is that when society bombards them with so much sexist poison (I don’t care about that mixed metaphor. Leave me alone, I have two small children), then the antidotes you need are different for boys and for girls.

So far, so feminist. I’m all smug about dressing my sons in pink, giving them dolls and kitchens to play with and encouraging dressing-up in my clothes. I’m extra smug when I tell other parents how cooking is their favourite thing (it is. I’m not even lying). And I’m triple smug when people comment on my sons’ gentle dispositions and good manners. ‘See!’ I tell myself, and anyone else who isn’t bored of my right-on monologues, ‘gender normative behaviour in children isn’t “natural” at all! It’s the result of brainwashing! Yes, brainwashing! If my little boys can grow up without conforming to stereotypes, then so can all kids – you just have to mind what you expose them to!’

And thus I have solved the parenting problem, and everyone gets fed up of me being all self-righteous.

Until now. I am faced with a feminist parent’s dilemma. And its name is Disney.

Like anyone alive in the developed world today – and much of the rest of the world, tbh – I grew up with Disney. It being the 1980s, when videos were 12 quid (a lot of money back in them olden times, kids) we owned precisely three Disney films. Treasured possessions. I had Robin Hood and The Sword in the Stone, and even now my sister has an unnerving attachment to The Little Mermaid, although I swear that’s just because of the red hair. Sis is somewhat coppery herself.

Aha! Ignoring the hatchet job Disney did on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, if I may, we can see what mum and dad did here. My right-thinking parents looked at what was on offer and avoided the simpering princesses. Legends and swashbuckling, that’s what it’s all about! OK, OK, the films lacked decent female characters (apart from Clucky in Robin Hood. Love her. And Madam Mim was fun too, even though she was a baddie), but at least they weren’t all about frocks and kisses and being dainty. (As for The Little Mermaid, my sister went on and on about it until my folks bought it for her. They tried to fob her off with a non-Disney version, but she was having none of it. I know you shouldn’t give in to your children, but you try arguing with my sister and let me know how you get on).

A decade or two later, I learned a couple of things about global corporations, their dodgy ethics and – in Disney’s case – their stranglehold on childhood. In 2000, Disney grouped together its most glamorous female protagonists under the banner “Disney Princess”, and hasn’t looked back. (There’s tons more on this in Peggy Orensein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which is well worth checking out.) Now I’m all “Ooh, global corporations suck, let’s make our own playdough instead,” but I’m a pretty lazy gal and I only get round to this type of thing during the holidays (I’m a teacher). PLUS, like, I was allowed to watch Disney as a child, why should I deny my boys the pleasure that a Disney film brings? And they do bring pleasure. If you say you’ve never enjoyed a single Disney film then the problem really is with you, mate, not the animations.

So we’re in a place now where the kids are given Disney films, and we watch them a lot. At first it was Toy Story, The Lion King and Dumbo, but then I realised that in my sons’ case, people were fastidiously avoiding the princess films. Now. Is this sexist because they are boys so people assume they should have no interest in girly stuff? Or is this totally the way forward because those films are a sexist pile of shite anyway? Should I be requesting and buying the princess stuff in the interest of balance, so that they watch not only Woody and Simba, but also Aurora and Belle – you know, stuff where women are the main characters? Or should I find some middle ground with Mulan and maybe Pocahontas? (Haven’t seen either of those two. Any good?) If I had girls, I’d be banning princess crap from the house and sticking a bit of Pinocchio or something on, but with boys I’m stumped. To princess or not to princess?

This constant state of vigilance and paranoia I lay at Disney’s door. Why should they have created such a conundrum, and also such a delectable range of childhood media treats, the cruel bastards? Is it better to expose my children to a possibly negative stereotype of women, or banish the female-centred narratives of the nation’s favourite children’s film-makers entirely? And what on earth does one do about this on a visit to actual Disneyland? 

It’s a big dilemma, and as aforementioned, I have two young kids to run around after. So, at this moment in time, I think I’ll just watch Lilo and Stitch and have done with it (while hoping that the internet will throw up some beautifully pre-packaged answer, thus saving my feminist mother credentials with the gallantry of Prince Charming.)

That’s my favourite, anyway.

-RP

22 thoughts on “Little Boys and Disney Princesses

  1. This is really interesting. My sons watch any and all Disney films. They like Tangled and The Little Mermaid, they like the dragon in Sleeping Beauty and the beast in Beauty and the Beast and the bears in Brave. I’m a bit funny about Snow White as it’s so old fashioned, so I tend to put them off watching that one.

    Actually the more recent films have quite kick-ass heroines. I’m not sure my boys see them as girly films. Maybe try your boys on one of the newer ones. Brave is good – Merida really fights against her traditional role as a woman.

  2. Pocohontas and Mulan are both EXCELLENT!

    Mulan scores highly on gender equality – a woman cross-dresses to join the army. Is kick-ass and gets honoured by the whole of China. She does get her man, but not in weak, simpering way. She has all the power. I love her.

    Pocohontas has some great tracks, and on feminist lines does reasonably well (she’s a tomboy). But the whole thing takes place against the backdrop of the genocide of Native Americans so, y’know, that’s not ideal.

  3. Pocohontas, however, is possibly the only Disney princess that not only doesn’t end up with her man, but actually changed the ending of the real life story by not ending up with her man (she came to England and died of the common cold, I believe).

  4. I don’t think you’re going to undo all your good work with Princess films. I’ve seen and loved all the princess films, but I’ve been able to filter all the gender nonsense, and grow up feminist anyway. I am not sitting about singing ‘One day my prince will come’, (ok, I do, but only because it’s a pretty song), so I think as long as you’re still teaching your boys to be sensible, thoughtful people, you’ll have no problem.
    However, you don’t have to get them because they’re ‘for girls’. If your boys will enjoy them, get them. If they won’t, don’t. No thoughts on which gender they’re aimed at.

  5. Brave and Tangled are the latest princess films, and they feature some pretty cool female characters. Also Brave is the first mother/daughter story, so that’s a plus. I’m also fond of Mulan, Pocohontas, Beauty & the Beast (Belle), Aladdin (Jasmine), and The Princess & the Frog.

    None of them are perfect, especially in their racial portrayals. (I admit to my white privilege here, but I’ve read some good critiques by POC, who opened my eyes). But I also think they can open up discussions about gender/race.

  6. I’d argue that Belle from Beauty and the Beast (while in many ways typically Disney Princess) is actually quite a decent protagonist for young kids. She’s a bit of an oddball when she’s from because she *gasp* likes to read and isn’t boy mad. And she is well capable of putting a grumpy Beast in his place. It does end up with the typical get-married-and-live-happily-ever-after, but it’s definitely worth a look.

  7. Ooh, I’ve got quite a shopping list now! Thanks folks.

    My sister has just pointed out that we also owned Fantasia. See!! This is what small children will do to you! You forget bits of your life!

  8. I know I’m repeating what others have said but I just can’t recommend Mulan enough, also Toy Story 2 has a great female character in Jessie, who also happens to have one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful sequences in any animated film with “when she loved me”.

    Also I wouldn’t worry about your sons, I grew up with a very traditional Disney-centric diet of kids movies and look at me now doing my dissertation in feminist legal studies and everything!

  9. If you think a film has a positive message then it has that message for both boys and girls, right? So if you would definitely ban princess stuff if you had girls, then you should also do it for the boys? (Incidentally, I think that’s the route I’d like to take if I had kids. Princess stuff banned for both).

    There are good disney films though. I notice Mulan and Toy Story 2/3 have already been mentioned. My friends reckon Brave and Tangled have positive messages about female characters, although I haven’t seen them so I can’t comment myself. There are also great animations outside of Disney. Princess Mononoko is about a kickass princess, and has the double whammy of also not having clear good/bad sides. So you can also try and promote the message that sometimes things aren’t clear cut when you step outside of conventional perspectives, should you feel that that kind of message would be good for your boys.

    By the way, I think this is a really cool thing for you to be considering. Giving young boys positive messages about girls (that they can be main characters, and that they have varied personalities, and they can do things other thank look pretty) is just as important as the self-esteem boost for girls.

    You might also be interested in this post about books:
    http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/fairy-tale-gender-swap-would-you-read-classics-this-way-184480

  10. Haha, thanks I really enjoyed that. I’ve just written my dissertation on feminism in Disney films myself, you’re welcome to have a look if you fancy it (only 5000 words – not a monster one!) I’ve talked quite a bit about the princesses and Pocahontas. An interesting study and brought up some great issues.

  11. Brave. Definitely Brave. Brave is just lovely, and the princess it features is actually awesome and kick-ass, while also being human and stupid – she’s a real, believable woman. Much better than Mulan where we are meant to be surprised that a girl can be good at fighting etc. – and then only if she pretends to be a man – in Brave it’s not an issue for the viewer that the heroine is female, and we get annoyed at her mother who tries to treat her differently for being a girl. This is as close to feminism as Disney is ever going to get, and to be honest in my opinion it gets pretty close. It’s also a great fun story which you’ll probably enjoy just as much as your kids, if not more. (I’m 18 and it left sobbing on the phone to my mum about how much I love her.)Also, the heroine has such fabulous hair.

  12. Ghibli. And no-one’s mentioned the Hunchback of Notre Dame (Based on the Victor Hugo classic, although altered into a more child friendly tale). Quasimodo and Esmeralda are both social outcasts, due to Quasimodo’s deformities and Esmeralda’s ethnicity, and as such the film also raises other important issues. Esmeralda may not be a princess, but she is one of the more multi-dimensional, courageous, and human characters in Disney. Your boys may need to someone to explain the underlying issues of racism, intolerance, and general human weakness afterwords though.

  13. Brave is great… although the hair may remind you of Rebekah Brooks. Prob not your sons though, they’ll enjoy the bears and everyone will enjoy the family love and ladystrength xx

  14. Two girls here (who hate dolls, etc.). Disney films yes; Disney Princesses(tm), no. Two separate things and it would be a shame not to consider some entertaining films because the main characters have been co-opted into some themed set. I’d rather show them the films then if they ask when they’re older about the Princess thing it’s a good introduction to how some people are packaged up and used to sell us things. Obv. at an age-appropriate level! I also second (third, fourth?) the Studio Ghibli recommendation, Spirited Away is a favourite of mine (and it shows silly parents and a resourceful, brave child, for a change ;-)), also Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle (love that) and Princess Mononoke. Daughter 2 got Arietty this year and that is really rather good too.

    Enjoy your film viewing, whatever you choose. :-)

  15. I loved Disney as a child, and I still love it as an adult. But just in the same way as I love rom coms – it’s silly fluff, I don’t want to be a Princess, and having a hip-to-bust ratio like our leading ladies would just be inconvenient. I watched all of the Disney classics as a kid, and I can proudly say that it hasn’t had any effect on my feminist outlook as an adult. Similarly, my feminist boyfriend watched all the classics in his youth too, and he is a well-rounded and considerate partner.

    I read the article above on Beauty and the Beast, and just as I doubt that the folks at Disney ever intended to subversively represent abusive-apologetic relationships, I certainly never got that from the film – now, or as a child. All I got from it was a woman who wasn’t prepared to put up with a humdrum existence, who didn’t just want to marry a handsome man and have his children, who really really really enjoyed a good book, and who could look past the external appearance of someone and find the niceness inside (okay, so he does get pretty angry, but he’s been living as a beast for ages – wouldn’t you be a bit peeved?). Obviously it’s a minefield, and for you to judge, but I bloody love that film.

  16. I loved Disney as a child, and I still love it as an adult. But just in the same way as I love rom coms – it’s silly fluff, I don’t want to be a Princess, and having a hip-to-bust ratio like our leading ladies would just be inconvenient. I watched all of the Disney classics as a kid, and I can proudly say that it hasn’t had any effect on my feminist outlook as an adult. Similarly, my feminist boyfriend watched all the classics in his youth too, and he is a well-rounded and considerate partner.

    I read the article above on Beauty and the Beast, and just as I doubt that the folks at Disney ever intended to subversively represent abusive-apologetic relationships, I certainly never got that from the film – now, or as a child. All I got from it was a woman who wasn’t prepared to put up with a humdrum existence, who didn’t just want to marry a handsome man and have his children, who really really really enjoyed a good book, and who could look past the external appearance of someone and find the niceness inside (okay, so he does get pretty angry, but he’s been living as a beast for ages – wouldn’t you be a bit peeved?). Obviously it’s a minefield, and for you to judge, but I bloody love that film.

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