Princess Problems: A Chicago dad stares down “Princess Culture”

Viva contemplates her future Princesspality with her Mommy and Northwestern University “Princess Power” actress Meghan McCandless.
 
 

By White Dad Problems

 

This week's blog post is by WDP co-host Matt Rocco, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood  of Chicago with Professor Foster (his “Brown Mom” wife) and their daughter Viva, who doesn't know if she's elated or gassy, but it's somewhere in that zone.

My 2-year-old daughter's “soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around” or so she tells me semi-regularly since she was exposed to this crushing winter's smash hit “Frozen.”  I didn't realize she would face such existential crises as her soul's spiral at so young an age, nor did I think she'd know so much about scalable geometric patterns.

I guess that means I've been sucked into “Princess Culture.”

Plenty of ink and electrons have been spilled about little girls and Princess Culture in the past several years since the mercenaries and Machiavels at Disney decided to roll up all their lost and longing female royalty into one writhing, doe-eyed hyrdra of merchandising. I never paid the phenomenon much mind until my own daughter started rolling out of her nursery in full Cinderella gowns before she was even potty-trained, and until she started naming princesses I didn't even know that she spotted on boxes of fruit snacks and Band-Aids and everything else. (Rapunzel? There's a Rapunzel now? She looks too much like Sleeping Beauty, and there are too many blondes. Is it too late to kick this stupid Rapunzel out of the canon?)

This weekend my wife and I took Viva to “Princess Power,” a revue of Disney Princess (and Prince!) songs at Northwestern University. The audience consisted of parents and their little girls (almost exclusively girls), with the average age looking to be around 4. Most of the girls were in princess dresses, and they sang along with almost every song. (Except for the ones from Pocahontas – evidently no one watches Pocahontas anymore, and I don't know if it's because of the icky cultural minefield in that cartoon or the fact that she doesn't wear a European ball gown. The songs are good, though.) The show was great, well directed and performed, Viva was delighted, and all the girls got to run up on stage at the end to sing a big reprise of “Let it Go,” which was weapons-grade adorable.

I left kicking around two major thoughts:

  1. Disney movies have some mad catchy songs
  2. I'd better decide how I feel about this princess stuff and what we're going to do about it, because it just fluttered into my life and let warbling bluebirds tie its ribbons around my household.

So, I've broken it down into the bad* and the good that I've already discovered stemming from Viva's interest in the Queen Bees from the House of Mouse.

*Dear Readers, I'm saving discussion of gender issues for an upcoming essay, so I'm going to short change it here, but it's a huge can of worms, as you probably already know.

1. Rich, White, and Free/Wish I Could Be/Part of Your World – The Class and Race Stuff is Pretty Awful

I won't break any new ground complaining about race stuff and Disney animated features. A glance at your average Princess group shot and you'll think they're about to break into “Oh, My God, You Guys” from Legally Blonde, and Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocahontas seem to never show up on picture day, if you catch my drift.

Though they may be picking through cinders at the top of the stories, these girls are all filthy rich at the end. I won't get so hackily Marxist as to point out the fact that most of them are rich from marrying into money robbed from their husband's animated subjects, but I will point out that the happy endings always involve mountains of filthy lucre.

There's a pretty horrible new cartoon on the Disney Chanel called “Sofia the First,” in which a peasant girl's mother marries up and moves her daughter into the palace of “Enchancia” (*cough* *lame*), where Sofia wears an amulet that lets her cross market... er, talk, to other Disney Princesses. Then she rides around on winged horses while teaching her new rich peers folksy life lessons about not being selfish. I'd buy these lessons a lot more if Sofia didn't have quite so many servants and flying horses. The cartoon is supposed to teach folksy life lessons, but instead seems like a weekly sermon on the 19th century French concept of “noblesse oblige” - important for all the budding heiresses and oligarchs tuned in to Disney Junior.

When Tiana, the African-American “Princess” (She marries some kind of royalty at the end of the movie, but she's a working class American girl) sings “I'm Almost There,” she's pretty much the only princess who, instead of singing an 8:15 number longing for a Deus Ex Machina to pluck her from her stagnant existence into the life of privilege and romance she feels she always deserved, is singing about accomplishing something on her own – she's saving towards opening her own restaurant. This is a song I can get behind for my kid – Tiana is going to do this herself with hard work. That's a classic American fantasy, not a European fairy tale that glorifies fictional monarchies occupied by grateful peasants.

In “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney takes some shots at Princess Culture themselves, but I don't think they realized just how bad the other films look compared to the ethos of this one. And Tiana is black, which is a nice switch, even if it was a cynical choice when it was made.

2. Once Upon a Dress – Crushing Smart Girls Under Crinoline

If you've ever spent even 10 minutes with me you've probably figured out that I'm pretty vain and dandified, so I don't mind a bit if my daughter is to some degree concerned with fashion and beauty – I certainly am, and I have no problem with people trying to look good or being interested in style – but fashion is just that – fashion, an ephemeral thing, omnipresent and ultimately meaningless. What I do not want for my daughter is for her to prioritize fad over substance. Dress Up is great – I'm in theater, I'm all for Dress Up, but it should be one facet of my daughter's life, not the center of it. Until I see Aurora or Cinderella studying STEM subjects instead of fixing hemlines with woodland creatures, I'm skeptical of their impact on my kid.

So where does one draw the line? When do you pull the scepter out of your daughter's hand and say, “Go in the other room and play with some Legos – and not the pink ones”?

3. A Dream is a Purchase Your Parent Makes – This is All a Merchandising Trick!

My least favorite part of this whole princess thing is that is ultimately exists to push buttons in little girls' brains – some that were already there, some which society has to install – to get me to buy her more stuff. Forget the gender tyranny and the messages about romance and the Eurocentric race weirdness – these princesses are costing me money! It is Consumerism as Religion. Every time Princess Sophia uses her damned amulet to talk to Mulan for 10 minutes, that's another doll I have to buy, and the end result is Daddy at work longer, not playing with his daughter, to buy more dolls for her to play with after I've worked myself into an early grave. To paraphrase Belle, “There must be more than this consumer life?” Right? Right?

And now on to the good stuff, because there is good stuff.

1. These are Pretty Great Movies with Pretty Great Scores

These Disney full-length features are, by and large, gorgeously animated, well-told tales featuring songs and scores that are as enduring and endearing as much of the material usually lauded as the “American Songbook.” Good Art is its own reward, and in a world of international markets and summer blockbusters where the movies are getting worse and worse, Disney (and, more so, Disney Pixar) is just about the only thing anybody putting out anything good these days. Sure, I'd set most of the straight-to-video sequels on fire in front of my daughter before I'd let her watch them – but the real movies are classics, and I'd rather she experience good craft and then have a discussion about the sociopolitical ramifications of the work than she watch something crummy but progressive like “Free to Be... You and Me.” (Not that Rosie Greer isn't a golden-throated troubadour.)

2. These are Mostly Bad Ass Chicks

Setting aside some of the earlier films in which the princesses merely long for companionship and salvation and have no agency in their fate, most of the Disney Princess are pretty brave. They go on perilous adventures and face fearsome villains and villainesses, usually saving their families, cuddly sidekicks, homes, and societies in the process. Princesses are mostly assertive, outspoken, ambitious, adventurous, physical, and clever, and several of them can talk to animals. Aren't those traits we want for our daughters? (I know I'd love to be able to talk to animals.)

3. It's Trending in the Right Direction

It starts out rough. Snow White (1937) wishes for a prince, eats and apple, falls asleep, and wakes up to a Prince. The movie is painterly and breathtaking, but as a role model, she sucks, as does Cinderella (1950), who mostly is fetching at a dance, then marries rich. (And why is she so blonde now? Her hair is way darker in the movie.) Aurora (1959) also falls asleep and wakes up to a husband, and I'd rather my daughter be the animated Malificent. Ariel (1989) hates her Dad and makes a deal with the devil to be with the first sailor she meets, so I think Ariel kind of sucks, too.

It gets marginally better when we get to Belle (1991). Belle has weird Stockholm Syndrome for a buffalo headed guy who kidnaps Mr. Cunningham (and her), but at least she's well read. Jasmine (1992) actually marries down, socioeconomically speaking, (although her boyfriend has a magic lamp for collateral). She also wears pants, which is something. Pocahontas (1995) stops a war and can cliff dive.

The Demi Moore-voiced “Gypsy” chick from “Hunchback” isn't a Princess for some reason. I'm pretty sure that reason involved her pole dancing number (no kidding, watch it again). But maybe she should be?

Then things pick up. Mulan (1998) defeats pretty much an entire army to save her father, and if I could stomach the minstrel routine by the jive-talking dragon sidekick, I'd let my daughter watch this one frequently.

Tiana (2009) succeeds on her own merits and pretty much saves the Prince. Rapunzel (2010) does something. I don't know what. I didn't see this one. Merida (2012) is also from a movie I didn't see, but she shoots arrows at people, so let's call her an OK feminist. I don't think she even has a love interest.

And then there's Anna and Elsa from Frozen (2013).  Anna starts off in googly-eyed love, but learns the hard way she should have been more level headed, and ultimately saves herself instead of being saved by anyone else. It's fantastic. Elsa is a sociopathic mutant emo chick, and “Let it Go” isn't so much a feminist empowerment number as the antithesis of the movie's message, but Act III Anna is cool.

So, I guess I'm going to let my daughter watch these, but maybe hold off on the early ones until we can have a little conversation first, or until the messages of Frozen, The Princess and the Frog, and Mulan have sunken in.

And maybe the Rapunzel one and the Red Head with the Arrows one. I haven't seen those.

As for the cynical merchandising and the consumer culture that's probably going to destroy the earth, that part is tougher. I guess the key is to not buy your kid too much stuff, and to try to teach them to adopt a more Buddha-like nature of spurning desire? When does the animated film of Siddhartha come out, anyway?

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