Role Models And Disney Princesses

There’s a big high-five circulating on the social networks about award winning artist David Tremble’s “World Of Women” collection.

Mr. Tremble’s taken high profile sheroes and made them user friendly for little girls by transforming them into Disney princesses.

The artist has received applause from women and men for saying:  “Fiction is the lens through which young children first perceive role models, so we have a responsibility to provide them with a diverse and eclectic selection of female archetypes. Now, I’m not even saying that girls shouldn’t have princesses in their lives, the archetype in and of itself is not innately wrong, but there should be more options to choose from. So that was my intent, to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to paint an entire gender of heroes with one superficial brush.”

I agree.  The princess motif in and of itself isn’t wrong (and I know plenty of men who want to be the beautiful princess), but it’s wanting.

Girls already have an extraordinary range of fiction, i.e., fable, myth, story, fairy tale, through which to read themselves.  The ones that Disney has historically preferred follow a familiar and narrow cultural consumer construct: a beautiful princess-woman suffers some calamity, her true royal personhood obscured by evil (usually an evil woman, so the good woman and bad woman are pitted against each other), and her prince comes and saves her.

These are powerful narratives — for love overcoming all obstacles is a fundamental human truth, one deserving to be planted in the young imagination.  “Love overcomes” is usually at the princess story’s heart, the cultural stereotypes, anachronisms, and oversimplifications of good versus evil are the unfortunate baggage that rides along.

Presumably, it’s smart and compelling to take the love conquers theme, exemplified in the princess trope, and do something relevant and meaningful for women. But do we really need to have Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rosa Parks, Anne Frank, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Goodall, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, Gloria Steinem, and Malala Yousafzai cast as glamour girls (or “princesses”) to make them important in the youthful imagination?  Is superimposing the princess motif the only way for the young to understand the historical significance of these iconic women?

Isn’t the reason these women took their place in his-story was because they refused to be princesses?  Didn’t they essentially rescue themselves?  Didn’t they have to go against the powers that be — often alone — to become the hero of their own story?

Is his-story pulling her-story back by subsuming these women into more comfortable and familiar narrative forms?

Because while love overcomes in the princess narrative, in the real world, these women are icons of unflinching warrior-like bravery, justice, and intellectual superiority, historically, the realms of power and patriarchy.  So the icons of cultural power are thus folded into a powerful visual narrative asserting that love overcomes.  My guess is that for most girls, love already looms large, and perhaps justice, intelligence, and character strength are being surreptitiously subsumed into love’s pretty gowns.

I don’t know.

There’s another issue that seems to me even deeper and more problematic: why aren’t we fixing the conspicuously absent and uninvolved princes.

Why is a well-intentioned man stepping in and helping society redefine the way little girls see themselves, by throwing sparkles all over Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s SCOTUS gown, and portraying a Holocaust victim as a magical figure of feminine power?

I don’t have children.  I can’t speak to the efficacy of recasting these women as prettied up Disney princesses.  Mr. Tremble’s re-imagined cultural artifacts look to me more like Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian wanna be’s, appropriately cleaned-up for Disney consumers.

Here’s an idea:  I would like to see Mr. Tremble address that male role model problem, the one where the good prince does absolutely zero throughout the narrative but gain control of the kingdom and acquire the ultimate spoil, the beautiful princess.  I would like to see a visual narrative in which the prince refuses to pick up a sword and acts a catalyst for social change with his head and not violence.   A prince who falls for a less than beautiful princess, because he’s smart enough to recognize beauty as a social construct.  A prince who may not be charming, but is steadfast, supportive, and unwavering in his love.  Or something similar.  Reality is malleable, there is no formula.  Just fix the prince a few times.

What I think is fairly certain is that women really don’t need any more fixing.  Please.  No more.  Men fix us.  The media fixes us.  Photoshop fixes us.  Conservatives fix us.  Liberals fix us.  The feminists fix us.  Religions fixes us..  We fix ourselves.  It’s tiring, no matter how well-intentioned a good guy Mr. Tremble would like to be, and no doubt is.  But instead of educating men on the importance of male role modeling — that is, men looking at male behavior and reinventing themselves — we’ve got the well intentioned (read: prince) coming in and helping all his princesses.  Meanwhile, the prince is still charming, and instead of helping men, he’s fixing female iconography.

That’s a big chunk of the problem.

Or how it looks to me.


(Here’s a link to Mr. Tremble’s original Huffington Post article:

4 Replies to “Role Models And Disney Princesses”

  1. Satire or not, I’m left unpersuaded that Trumble’s series effectively confronts the Disney promotion of the idea “Everybody can be a princess. You can be normal and do great things at the same time. I’m a normal girl, but I am a princess.” On the contrary it strikes me as picking out successful personages and using them as gender models (which they might or might not wish to be, regardless of whether they laugh it off graciously) to make a popular point. It’s especially troubling that Malala was chosen as a subject for this, in my opinion, as it’s especially hard for such a young person to deal with the confused impression it will make on young peers who do not all have the tools to separate reality from gender and film- and toy- marketing. As it is, as you observe, people our own age will have a hard time making out the point.

  2. “The road to hell” appears again.

    I really do appreciate a good satirical swipe, but as I wrote in my follow-up, continuing this dialogue on women’s bodies and their iconographic representation, be it cartoons or advertising, is part and parcel of the problem.

    Trumble’s said that some have inquired about “buying the dolls,” which further complicates things. Are they making these dolls? To what end? To turn satire into role modeling? If they sell these dolls, what will be done with the profits?

    His social work in Africa may well be one of of those gestures that the development folks positively hate — the do gooding white Westerner coming in and helping the poor black folks in Africa. This particular attempt at satire may similarly fall into that category: prince charming as social reformer.

    Which brings me to my later point in both pieces. Instead of “helping” correct the Disney princess image (i.e., the same old, same old version of fixing women by helping them, because he’s a good guy), why didn’t he do something really iconoclastic and deal with those princes, that nobody gives a squat about. To return to the Africa analogy, it kinda smells of poverty porn, which generates tons of attention and sympathy, but doesn’t help build better lives.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Lee. It means a great deal to me, and I appreciate it.

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