Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What is all this talk about princesses for?

A long time ago, when I still saw every animated Disney movie that came out (I was 18, 19?) my boyfriend took me to see the Lion King at the theater our friend worked at. Another friend of his was there, someone who would probably be diagnosed on the Autism sepctrum now, but back then was just one of the creepy, older, social awkward guys in our gaming group. We got to talking and I mentioned how cool it was that this was finally an original script for an animated Disney movie; although the themes have been done many times in many ways, this was their original intellectual property.
"What do you mean?" he asked, "Most of their movies were written by Disney. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty..."
I, not very gently, explained that no, those were folk tales that have been written and rewritten for centuries. That the Little Mermaid was written by Hans Christian Anderson, and until Disney's version, very much his story. That Cinderella can be directly traced to a Japanese folk tale. He didn't believe me, so I started to tell him the Grimm version of Cinderella. When I got to the part about the birds pecking out the step sisters eyes, he blanched and ran off.

I've been thinking a lot about Princesses lately. No one has tried to ask Moira which is her favorite princess yet, but it's started happening to her friends.
I loved Disney when I was little, but while I know the marketing wasn't as intense, I think I was less likely to really get into the current princess craziness then some of my friends.
Reason 1: I knew there were other versions of the stories. Mostly scarier, more dramatic versions. Occassionaly more fantastic, fabulous versions. The French Cinderella gets to go to the ball 3 evenings in a row! With a better dress each time! We didn't have the movies available to watch all the time, but we always had the books. A few times I did a sort of chose your own adventure, looking at my favorite sections of the same story in different books.
Reason 2: My parents were in the SCA when I was a child. They were Prince and Princess of AnTir (Oregon, Washington and BC) when I was Moira's age, and Baron and Baroness of Madrone (the greater Seattle area) for years afterwards. When I was four, we made friends with a very nice couple who were becoming the next Princess and Princess (the job changes hands every 6 months) and I thought that Pam was the most glamorous person in the world, so much so that it took me years to remember her name, because she was just The Princess to me. At any rate, I knew that the job involved actual work. Diplomacy and paper work and listening to people's crazy ideas. Or you know, trying to not get killed by your parents or be forced into slavery. Somehow, neither of those options seemed that appealing.
But I love faeries and castles and dragons. I hope Moira does want to play medieval themed games. I'm okay with her being a princess in her play. I just hope to be able to lead her gently away from the Disney only variety. I had favorite princesses at different times in my life. Maelin, Amy & Winnifred. The two imaginary ones were very rough and tumble, tree climbing, bog dwelling sorts, which was exactly what I liked about them. Contrary to popular belief, you can climb trees in a dress. I did it for much of my childhood. It's just a little harder, and you have to not care if your dress gets torn. I would like to point out that that last part is true about pants too.

I think what bothers me more then anything about the Disney princess brand is that it wipes out their origin stories. What happened to them before they got married is the interesting part; happily ever after is always dull. But that's that they are concentrating on. When I played princess as a kid, I always focused on the before part of life. Usually making up my own stories about things that happened in between or before the written versions. But much of 'imaginative' play for little girls nowadays is focused on non active pursuits. Boys are encouraged to be race car drivers, pirates, firemen, military men. They get to save people and fight. Girls are encouraged to shop and be pretty. Both of those things are fine, but what are we teaching them when that's all we expect? What are we teaching boys when they can't do those things too?

Recommended reading (Interesting note, every time I search for something with 'princess' in the title on Amazon, it gives me a link to the Disney Princess store at the top of the page):
Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch - I've recommended this before, and I will keep doing so until everyone on the planet has a copy.
Princess Pigsty by Cornelia Funke - We read this for the first time today. Not only does the princess get to do the interesting and messy things, but her father learns to be very encouraging of her.
The Ordinary Princess by M M Kaye - Amy's parents are much less supportive of her, but she is completely capable of taking care of herself, with minor help from her fairy godmother. I loved this book so much as a preteen. My copy is completely falling apart, but I can't bear to get rid of it. I suppose I could just buy another.
Any of the 'color' fairy books edited by Andrew Lang - The link is to the lilac one. These are great collections of old fairy tales. You know your kid best, so you should read them before introducing them. The tales are sometimes violent and usually scary, but even though I was an easily scared child, I loved the visceral thrill of reading these. If you read enough of them, you will see many versions of the same basic stories.
Classic Treasury of Grimms Fairy Tales edited by Danielle McCole - Slightly altered to be less grim and terrifying, but still with a lot of the meanness of the world. My favorite version of Snow White as a child is in this book.


  1. How nice that you had a unique opportunity to see actual "behind-the-scenes" princess activities in real life! Growing up, none of my friends (and certainly no one in my family) knew a real prince or princess, so we just had the fantasy to go on. I liked playing Cinderella but surprisingly focused on the pre-princess life of dealing with wicked stepmother and sisters. The only other "Disney" princess we acted out was Ariel but that was because it was fun to slither on the floor pretending to be a mermaid while singing! My parents never bought us the merchandise, so we used our imaginations (and we did have access to most of the original stories thanks to weekly library trips).

  2. The filtering process that these stories go through is sometimes more interesting than the stories themselves.

    While we rail against the Disney versions today (thank you for not being upset about not buying more of that for you when you were young), the stories we consider as the original source are often those first published in Victorian England, where their particular world view was imposed on the story.

    I suspect someday the Disney versions will be considered the authoritative storyline.


  3. I've been thinking about those princesses too. We don't own many DVD's so most of them, thankfully, have to go back to the video store at the end of the week rental. I was a bit sceptical about the Tinkerbell movie at first but it is well worth a watch. Tink's talent is obviously tinkering, but she doesn't want to. She wants to do all the pretty things like teach birds to fly etc. It's pretty good for a movie about and engineering fairy and a nice twist on what fairies get up to.

    I loved that when I was little a different Disney movie was re-released at each holiday. It was a real treat for my grandmother to take me to each one. There is something special about having each movie as a one time treat.

    If you are looking for some other great anti-Disney fairy tales, try those by Terry Jones. I still hold his books dear to this day. Oh, and I agree, the Paper Bag Princess Rocks.