What I Learned From Disney Princesses
I realized something recently. Disney princesses are way more progressive than I think we give them credit for. We often note their unhealthy focus on a specific standard of beauty, and their unrealistic expectations of love, but I think we tend to miss the overall message of their stories. Ultimately, almost every Disney princess story is about following your own desires, even if nobody wants you to.
Think of a Disney princess. Any Disney princess. Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan, Belle, Pocahontas, Rapunzel, Merida, Elsa, or Anna*. The plot of their film goes something like this: The princess wants a Thing. However, there’s an Authority Figure who tries to prevent the princess from getting the Thing. The princess declares, “To hell with that” and tries to get the Thing anyway. This results in some sort of negative consequence, usually through conflict with the Authority Figure or a third party. At the end of the film, the princess gets the Thing and lives happily ever after.
There are variations, of course. Usually the Authority Figure is benevolent, such as Ariel’s, Jasmine’s, and Pocahontas’ fathers, Merida’s mother, Mulan’s entire family, or Elsa (who is both a princess and an Authority Figure). Sometimes the Authority Figure is evil, like all the step-mothers. Sometimes the Authority Figure is circumvented early in the film, like in Mulan. Sometimes that doesn’t happen until closer to the end, as in Cinderella. The details vary between films, but the core message is the same.
The moral of most Disney princess stories seems to be, “If you want a Thing, go get the Thing, regardless of what other people say,” or perhaps, “Other people may want what’s best for you, but they don’t always know what’s best for you.” Essentially, Disney is telling us to follow our dreams and not let anyone else get in our way. Even if the people trying to stop us are our family or friends, what’s important is that we do what we want to do, not what other people want us to do. This is even more powerful because for almost all of these films, the Thing in question is love. Even more specifically than “Get the Thing regardless of what others think,” Disney is saying, “You are free to love whoever you want, and nobody is allowed to tell you otherwise.”
For a queer person bombarded almost every day with the message that my relationships are harmful and sinful, and that something is wrong with me for daring to love the way I do, these films are liberating. Sometimes it seems like everyone wants to tell me that there are people I’m not allowed to love, and I feel like Ariel, forbidden to pursue happiness because closeminded people have power over me. Like Mulan, I’m forced to deceive people if I want to even pretend at freedom. I feel trapped in a system that thinks it knows what’s best for me, and refuses to listen to my own feelings.
But I’m reminded that other people can’t dictate my life for me, and that I can make choices for myself, no matter what anyone else thinks. I’m free to love whoever I want, and I feel as excited as Rapunzel, finally able to do the Thing that I’ve wanted to do all along. Maybe I can even reconcile with these people, and, like Merida, convince them to understand and accept my choices.
Disney princesses aren’t perfect. There are plenty of valid criticisms of the franchise, but I think this is one thing they got right. I’m glad that I have these stories to help me, and I hope they help other people too. I think we all deserve our happily ever after.
*Astute readers will notice that I did not include Aurora and Tiana in this list. They are the only two Disney princesses that don’t fit this theme, in my opinion. Extremely astute readers will notice that Elsa and Anna aren’t technically Disney princesses yet, but I included them anyway because reasons.
Featured image from here.