I’ve been itching to discuss a very recent advertisement that Disney has promoted called “I Am a Princess”. The video itself seems to be a response to people critiquing their Princesses Franchise as I am!
One of the first things we see in this video is the above girl. And already I can see that the commercial is capitalizing on this year’s latest trends. I’m going to throw out a guess here and say that you thought of Katniss from the Hunger Games when you saw this picture. Maybe you even thought it was a screencap from the movie. It also recalls Disney’s most recent addition to the Princesses Franchise, Merida, from Brave. So within the first few seconds, this promotion is already making us think of products and commercial enterprise rather than about the Everyday Girl (who, according to the ad, also happens to be a Princess).
Now I’m not trying to say that it isn’t a beautiful promotion with some really great sentiments, but I do think we need to be aware of where it’s coming from. And how the commercial’s argument for what a Princess is fails to capture the definition that Disney’s films have given us.
This is the voiceover given throughout the promotion:
“I am a Princess. I am brave sometimes, I am scared sometimes. Sometimes I am brave even when I am scared. I believe in loyalty and trust. I believe loyalty is built on trust. I try to be kind, I try to be generous. I am kind even when others are not so generous. I am a Princess. I think standing up for myself is important. I think standing up for others is more important, but standing with others is most important. I am a Princess. I believe compassion makes me strong. Kindness is power. And family is the tightest bond of all. I have heard I am beautiful, I know I am strong. I am a Princess. Long may I reign.”
It’s interesting, first of all, to note that even with Disney trying to change the definition of Princess, we still get the sense that it is putting forward a certain construction of femininity. Kindness, compassion, beauty, generosity. All standard, traditional “feminine values”. In her discussion of feminism in fairy tales, Karen Rowe argues that traditional fairy tales exhibit “passivity, dependency, and self-sacrifice as a female’s cardinal virtues”. I think we’re still seeing a lot of that in this commercial, even though it is trying so hard to break away from that regressive view of Disney. While it does mention strength, a less “feminine” quality, it seems to be equating this with kindness. As if girls have a different definition of strength than boys.
I will say that the promotion does a good job of ensuring it is representitive. There are individuals from a great variety of ethnic backgrounds (though they are all Americanized— no one is represented in traditional cultural attire) and there are even two representations of girls with disabilities:
I was disappointed with how brief this image of a young girl with Downs Syndrome was, as it took me several times watching the commercial to even notice her presence. So while I am glad she was included, I have to wonder why Disney was so cautious about this representation? It is almost as if she is there for those who want to see her, but those that don’t can easily glaze over that quick second she is on screen.
This girl who uses ASL (so is probably deaf and/or mute) to sign “I am a Princess” has a much more prominent presence. There is no denying her existence in this promotion.
This got me thinking about the lack of representation of girls with disabilities in the Princesses Franchise (not to mention Disney in general being fairly lacking). There is a representation of a mute girl, a mute Princess, in fact: Ariel. She wasn’t born with it, but it serves the same function. Perhaps girls with disabilities can associate with Ariel, feeling unable to be properly understood by those around them. But there’s a problem with this representation: Ariel’s loss of her voice represents a loss of agency. And more than that, Ursula encourages her that without a voice she can still use her body language, her attractive curves and form, to communicate. What a message. Not exactly how I would want my daughter to look upon herself whether she has a disability or not.
I saw a comment on the Youtube page for this video stating that all of the individuals in the promotion are straight and cis-gendered, and so it is not fully representative. While it’s not easy to tell from such a short commercial whether the girls represented are cis-gendered are not, there aren’t any explicit examples of other possibilities either, so that is likely the interpretation we are meant to take. For instance, there could have been a representation of a transgender individual- someone who is physically a boy, but identifies as a girl. Would that person be a Princess too, according to Disney? Or there could be a representation of a same-sex couple acting as parents to one of the “Princesses”. Of course, I didn’t expect Disney to include such things. They’re taking a safe route, and that would not be safe at all. Still, it would be nice.
In the near future, I will do another post looking into the variety of comments made on this promotion in greater detail.
For now, though, I want to finish by discussing the incoherence between the definition of “Princess” given by this commercial and by Disney’s films.
“Family is the tightest bond of all” is something emphasized in this commercial. But is it, according to the Disney Princesses Franchise? Let’s look at our lineup:
Snow White has only the evil Queen as her stepmother, and no other parents.
Cinderella has a wicked stepmother and two wicked stepsisters.
Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) was sent away from her parents and instead raised by fairies, who didn’t tell her of her family until she was much older. When they did tell her, she returned to her “real family” without having any true relationship with them at all.
Ariel has a father and sisters, but doesn’t seem to have a good relationship with any of them. There’s a serious lack of communication until the very end of the film.
Belle has only a father, but she does have a close bond with him throughout the film, even when she is not with him physically.
Pocahontas has only a father, and there is again a lack of communication between them until the end of the film.
Jasmine has only a father, who cares for her deeply but despite that seems to fail to communicate properly with her.
Mulan has a full family and loves them very much. She defies them, however. (Of course, it’s only fair to mention that she defies them in order to protect her father)
Tiana’s father has passed away, leaving her with her mother only.
Rapunzel was raised by an evil witch who she later defies. She reunites with her family later, but like Aurora has no real connection with them aside from blood.
There’s no coherent representation of family in the Disney Princesses franchise. But unfortunately, in general, family doesn’t seem to be much of a tight bond at all. In fact, many of the princesses strive to break free from their “family”.
Which brings me to another issue: stepfamilies. Where is their fair representation? I think it’s about time that we get a good stepmother or father to throw in the mix. Young girls who identify with the princesses, and who might have stepparents and even stepsiblings might then try to associate their stepfamilies with those in the films. These stepparents and siblings could be incredibly nice to the child and still not be accepted because they are perceived by the girl to be inherently bad. Just something to think about. Stepfamilies are getting more and more common and conventional, and yet we’re still stuck with that old view of them as “wicked”.
The final incoherence I’d like to discuss is one already touched on briefly: disabilities. The only Princess with any sort of disability is Ariel, and that was somewhat by choice and was in the end reversible. I’ve already discussed with the issues of that, anyway. Though Disney strives to give the impression that girls of all abilities can be princesses in their promotion, the films clearly tell a different story.
I was talking about this with a close friend recently, who has a cousin with Downs Syndrome. I myself have a cousin who is developmentally delayed. And both of us feel strongly that there should be some more role models for children like our cousins. There are so few representations of people with disabilities, or even just different from the “norm”, in popular culture. Disney has such a great influence and wide audience. Surely, if Disney gave us the image of a Princess with Downs Syndrome or something similar, there would be even less stigma about such things, and these children could feel that they too can truly be a Princess. (as I had this conversation with my friend I immediately started having visions of a Disney film with sister Princess, one with Downs Syndrome, finding their way in the world together. I hope that one day I can say my dreams have become a reality!)