As a father to two young daughters, I used to worry about what lies just beyond my present moment of diaper changes and temper tantrums. I’ve heard tales of destruction wrought by the pink, pernicious Princess Culture and its fiery stream of Disney princess toys, books, and accessories.
In The Princess Problem Dr. Rebecca Hains, director of the Center for Childhood and Youth Studies, argues, “The Disney Princess brand suggests that a girl’s most valuable asset is her beauty, . . . [and] implies that girls . . . should expect a man to come to their rescue in an act of love at first sight.” Sarah Coyne’s research at BYU revealed that princess culture encouraged girls to engage in damaging feminine stereotypes. And Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter details how princess culture encourages young girls’ early sexualization and increases their risk of depression and narcissism.
What’s most entrusted to me is my children’s souls. Above all, I want them to know and love Jesus Christ, who reveals God’s unconditional and sacrificial love by dying on the cross.The materialism and self-obsession of Disney princess ethos seemed a formidable enemy. Holding my daughters in my arms, I imagined myself their defender from such a foul beast.
So why did I recently check out Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast Blu-ray from the library for my two year old, and why am I now looking forward to watching the other Princess films with her? How did my defenses crumble so fast? It certainly wasn’t Disney’s attempt at feminist rebranding.
Right now the banner to the official Disney Princess website screams, “Dream Big, Princess,” with an image of a young girl scuba diving next to an image of the Little Mermaid, as if to say, “If you can’t have Ariel’s waistline, consider a career in marine biology!” And the Disney line advertisement on the Blu-ray itself features young girls declaring empty sentiments like “I am a princess because I’m loyal!” to warn their young viewers that Prince Charming won’t tolerate illicit flirtations.
No, my slow acquiescence had nothing to do with Disney’s clumsy feminism, which only demonstrates their ignorance to the power of the stories their movies tell. Nor do I find the criticisms against Princess Culture inaccurate. For the most part, I have to agree: the unmediated over-indulgence in Princess Culture stinks. Like Disney itself, however, its critics fail to see the powerful spiritual truths of the original stories under the superficial veneer. Underneath the mass marketing and cultural trappings of Princess Culture, I find stories that will help shape my daughters’ understanding of the gospel.
To begin, despite what the marketing trappings and Princess Culture critics would have us believe, the Disney Princesses are not concerned with their beauty. What defines them most are virtues that any father would wish for his daughter. In Beauty and the Beast, for example, Belle’s beauty is recognized by the townspeople, but she is more concerned with reading books and being a loyal daughter. Sure, she reads books about Prince Charming, but reading has given her the wisdom to know what a virtuous prince should be, unlike the three nameless blondes who swoon over the ego-maniacal Gaston. Similarly, Cinderella’s patience and dignity define her more than her beauty. Yes, she is said to be the most beautiful one at the ball, but her presence was made possible only because of her virtues.
Cinderella and Belle are not self-obsessed. Quite the contrary, their chief virtue is Christ-like, selfless love. That is what makes them princesses to be admired and emulated, not their beauty. Granted, the criticisms against the princess movies are easy. Beauty and the Beast, for example, could be seen as nothing but a paean to Stockholm Syndrome: Belle rejects the selfish Gaston for her kidnapper, the moody and temperamental beast. But such an interpretation misses something significant.
The film begins by telling us of a prince who spurns an old widow; she in turn reveals herself to be an enchantress and curses the prince for his selfishness. If he remains unloved and unlovable on his 21st birthday, he will remain an ugly beast forever. In the eleventh hour of this curse, the beast shows he has learned nothing. He imprisons a hapless traveler, Belle’s father, who wanders into his castle. But there’s a moment of grace when Belle offers to take the place of her father. “You would do that?” the beast asks incredulously. Belle shows him that there is another way to live; he need not be beholden to his selfish desires. Before Belle, the Beast had no other example to live by. He would forever be stuck in his beastly curse, in his ugly sin.
Such selflessness is counterintuitive and illogical, yet one can hardly witness it and not be compelled to imitation. And so the beast begins to change. When Belle attempts to flee the castle, the beast sacrifices himself to the wolves which would have otherwise devoured her. And later, he frees Belle from her prison sentence so that she might care for her sickly father. In giving up his own desirous possession of her, the beast shows he has truly learned to love.
Yet the curse will not be broken until the beast is loved in return. After Gaston storms the castle, the beast has an opportunity and every right to kill him. But he doesn’t. He foregoes this right, demanding that Gaston simply leave. In turn, however, Gaston, delivers the beast a fatal blow. The beast, like Christ, chooses a life marked by peace over one marred by violence.
Belle witnesses this triumphant act of selflessness and declares her love for the dying beast. The prince is then magically restored, and the curse broken. At the end of the film, Belle become a princess. But it is clear by now that such royalty and elevation is not a ticket to a pampered life. It is the result of a life lived in Christian love. It is resurrection.
The Cinderella story demonstrates this understanding of royalty, as well. The film begins with Cinderella waking up from a dream to the harsh reality of her life of forced servitude. She doesn’t tell her animal companions what her dream was, but looking at the castle through her window she sings, “A dream is a wish your heart makes.” She doesn’t succumb to the rage or hatred she is entitled to feel. She holds fast to the hope found within her dreams and manifested in the royal display out her window. She serves her enemies with dignity, for she knows that while her heart grieves presently, it won’t grieve forever.
Her hope and patience are contrasted with her “awkward” stepsisters. They live a comfortable, posh life at the expense of their stepsister, yet they are jealous and miserable souls. But how will Cinderella be saved from her oppression? Of course, as with Beauty and the Beast, the critique of the film seems ready made: The prince falls in love with her at first sight and frees her from her plight, teaching girls that their beauty will be their salvation. But Cinderella was never about women overcoming oppression. It’s about something more profound.
The night of the ball, the stepsisters destroy Cinderella’s first dress. She endures this humiliation with dignity, refusing to answer this violence with violence. In hopeless tears and tattered gown, the fairy godmother appears and gives Cinderella a gown more beautiful than she could have imagined, a gown of royal nature. The pinnacle of Cinderella’s beauty, contra the mass-marketing ploys, is not of her own making; it is a divine gift.
What, then, are we to make of her leaving the ball and the subsequent search for the lost slipper’s foot? As metonym for royalty, the slipper signifies sacrificial living. When the King sends his deputy to find the princess, we have a powerful illustration of how God views his church. Who lives like Christ? Will the church’s foot fit the slipper of sacrificial love and dignity? Do we carry with us the sign of resurrected life, of new creation? Not even the cruel stepmother could thwart Cinderella’s destiny. She trips the deputy, who drops and shatters the slipper. But Cinderella triumphantly reveals the second slipper in her possession. Nothing could overcome her marriage to the prince.
Perhaps Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are the two Disney Princess films that most clearly communicate powerful gospel themes, but the themes are still present in other films. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is selfish and disobedient but her story shows that salvation comes from the Father. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora is stuck in her curse and can be saved only by the one bearing the Sword of Truth and Shield of Virtue.
Even the modern princess films that stray from archetypal substructures can’t escape gospel themes. Frozen, for example, mocks love at first sight. Princess Anna befuddles Elsa with her request to marry Prince Hans after just meeting him. The confrontation so upsets Elsa that she loses control of her wintery powers and goes into hiding. Following modern sentiments, Frozen has Anna fall in love with the down-to-earth, blue-collar Sven after they “get to know each other.” The love-at-first sight is revealed to be a sham manipulated by Prince Hans to finagle his way to power. Even so, the heart of the film beats Christian love: “Only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart,” after all, and Anna’s sacrificial love saves her sister and thaws the Kingdom. Tangled, too, does away with the prince’s love at first sight, but Rapunzel proves to have more than beautiful hair on her side: she willingly accepts an unjust imprisonment if only she could save her dying beloved.
Whether Disney or its critics realize it, Christian virtues and gospel themes abound in these films. Using them to initiate thoughtful conversations with my daughters, I see no reason to fear the day they ask to watch Disney Princess films on repeat. I won’t need to hand them a pantsuit when they ask for a glittering dress.
Contrary to the critics from the left, my goal as a father is not to raise girls to be career-minded, independent women. And contrary to the gender role defenders on the right, my goal is not to raise girls to be submissive wives. What’s most entrusted to me is my children’s souls. Above all, I want them to know and love Jesus Christ, who reveals God’s unconditional and sacrificial love by dying on the cross. I want them to take up their crosses and follow Him. If I can wrangle the Princess Culture dragon to help them do that, I’m all in.