In Defense of Disney Princesses

John Mark Reynolds | Torrey Honors Institute | Monday, October 10, 2011

In Defense of Disney Princesses

Editor's note: In this piece, Reynolds takes the counterpoint to his Scriptorium Daily colleague Allen Yeh's June 2011 article "Why Disney Princesses are Bad."

There is nothing so innocent that our culture cannot use it to hurt us.

As a parent of two daughters, I know their inclination to dress up and play at being a princess can be used to harm them.

This truth can make a parent cranky and cause him to fear harm where harm is not likely to come. This is even true of the Disney films and the Disney princess. The films are far from perfect and marketing lurks behind every product. Still, the harm is more in parents allowing too much consumption than the innocent fantasies of childhood.

My daughters all struggle with the bad images that our culture sends women, but chief amongst these is not the Disney princess. Too much glitter and self-esteem isn’t good for anyone, but modern young women don’t seem to have enough of either!

Even Christmas can be reduced to an orgy of materialism, but I refuse to let that stop me giving gifts. Not all little girls like princesses, but some do. In moderation, let them have their fun.

I enjoyed my daughters’ princess and camo phases.

Nobody should get their career choices from Disney cartoons – monarchy is a hard racket to break into, and surely there are other options there. If Disney endings are cheerful, so is the end of history when we all will rule and reign with Jesus.

Of course a princess movie is romantic and often ends in a wedding, but that is a genre expectation. Growing up watching Disney need no more make a well-read girl think marriage is the only route to happiness than growing up on Westerns forced me to be a cowboy. Heroic stories of celibates in Church are a good balance. Damaris on Mars Hill is another option.

It is true that in this life every childhood wish will not come true. I am glad for this since I doubt I could handle a starship even now, let alone at 14. Still, dreams should be encouraged, although moderated by conscience and duty, a lesson I first heard from Jiminy Cricket.

Blaming the poor Disney princess, especially in her modern form, is wrongheaded. One cultural icon cannot do all the work of forming a good image. If Ophelia needs to be revived, it is more likely due to a culture of male Hamlets than from too much of the Little Mermaid.

After all, Christians do not expect the Bible to provide every sort of role model. No physicist finds a career model in Scripture. Why should Disney do better? If a parent allows children to consume only one type of art, then the art is not the problem.

Disney princesses too often present stereotyped views of beauty, but it is hard to see Disney as the main purveyor of this rot. The kid in high school that objectifies the girl next door likely learned it from Internet porn and not Disney princesses. After all, Disney princess Meg, of Hercules fame, would slug him for even a leer.

Disney has shown some sensitivity to the problems in princess marketing to girls, which is more than can be said of the commercials Dad watches during a football game.

What positives did my daughters learn from the Disney princesses?

Belle taught that a girl could be smart and beautiful. Reading taught her to see beauty in a beast.

Snow White cautioned them to avoid judging by appearances. The nice old lady may only be old and the shiny apple death.

Jasmine suggests that one must embrace their duty. You cannot hide from your role in life by running. At the same time, your best match may not be a prince, but a diamond in the rough … just don’t put up with his lies.

Cinderella refused bitterness and showed great resourcefulness. Most of us would have been unfit for high honour if faced by her horrid state. I have known girls in tough spots they could not escape given hope by Cinderella that things can get better.

Mrs. Incredible reminded them that mothers can be more than merely Mom … and that Mom can still be hot. Mothers are not just appendages of their super kids.

Mulan showed that the princess could be a military hero. She refused to let them make a man out of her, but won a great victory for China. Disney reminded my daughters that there are always possibilities outside normal gender roles, but that one need not be unsexed to find them. Mulan and Joan of Arc prepare them for extraordinary possibilities.

Lilo learned family could struggle, be shattered, but still be a place where nobody is left behind or forgotten. She reminds the viewer that humble folk can also have great adventures.

Nala was stronger than Simba and pushed him to grow up. She would not take him as he was, because he was unfit for her.

Of course it is easy to criticize Disney. Can anyone watch the crows in Dumbo without a shudder?

The films contain many harmful stereotypes. (God help the stepmothers of America raising a child on Disney!) The older films contain the racial assumptions about beauty that are offensive and the newer films can veer into meaningless PC blather. Jane had better not follow her heart in dealing with Sabor. Still, Disney films are just one kind of art healthy kids consume and one of the least harmful.

Even Judy Blume is good only in small doses.

When I bought my daughter a tiara, I was saying, truthfully, she was and always would be my princess. She was and is beautiful: A daughter of Eve and part of the image of God. Her body type was in God’s plan. The tiara fit.

When I taught her to read wearing that tiara, I balanced that message. She learned that it was more important to be beautiful on the inside than the outside, but that she was both! She was loved body and soul by her parents and was beautiful to Dad. I cannot see the whole image of God in humankind without seeing womankind, and my daughters have helped me see God.

My grown-up girls will always grow more beautiful to me as Christ grows in me.

God bless the Disney princess for helping me tell them so.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.

Publication date: October 10, 2011

In Defense of Disney Princesses