disney-princess
Photo: Silent Mermaid, via deviantart

By Nnekay FitzClarke

Fairy tales have been shaping the lives and expectations of children all over the planet for generations. Ask any person from 5 to 105 to rattle off the common themes and you’ll get the same responses: the castle, the knight in fancy armor, a beast who may or may not breath fire, a good chunk of magic, a prince riding around on his horse, and, last but not least, the princess who always seems to finds herself in a situation she needs saving from.

Obviously, the trope of the ever-in-peril princess is problematic. It teaches young girls that their value is in their appearance (“the fairest of them all”), that they ought to be passive bystanders (looking at you, Sleeping Beauty), and put all trust in a man (chilln’ in dis tower #bored). There are countless articles, classes, and books written about the dangers of the princess in peril, but Hollywood has thankfully started to take notice.

Take, for instance, the newest Disney venture Frozen, which has been making the rounds as the “anti-princess” princess movie. Two princesses for the price of one, kicking butt and taking names, espousing the notion that sisterly love is the most important of all. Disney’s penance for decades of helpless princesses has been gobbled up by kids and adults alike and is definitely a step in the right direction for fairy tales, yet… something rang mighty familiar when Princess Anna met her eventual love interest, Kristoff. Just to quickly summarize: Anna is out on a hunt to find her sister and happens to go into a small trading post. While there, she runs into Kristoff, an average ice-cutting dude. Their meeting eventually leads to the reveal: “Surprise! I’m a princess!” And then they go off to save the day.

Kristoff joins a long line of average dudes who happened to have stumbled on a princess. This plot device has been around for a very long time, starting with the premier hidden princess movie, Roman Holiday, in which Gregory Peck fumbles behind Audrey Hepburn as she cavorts around Italy doing exciting things like getting a haircut. There are problematic versions of this trope like Disney’s highly scrubbed version of Pocahontas. The true story of course was a little less “meet cute” and more brutal diplomacy. James Cameron thought Pocahontas was such a great movie that he was inspired to add a splash of FernGully and call it Avatar. The list continues with slight variations here and there, including but not limited to: Splash (mermaids love Tom Hanks), Aladdin (princesses and gutter punks 4eva), Dances with Wolves (don’t mess with the medicine man’s white daughter), and Notting Hill (the American princess: a tacky celebrity). You can easily find this theme in song lyrics as well: “Rich Girl” by Hall and Oates, “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel, and “Common People” by Pulp, just to name a few.

The Stumbling on a Princess Trope has worked its way into the fabric of our common narrative, and has given young boys an unhealthy set of unattainable standards for their future partners. If all of these average men in movies and songs can land a rich, powerful, beautiful woman with little to no effort, they can expect the same, right? It’s fair to say that most men realize that these stories are fantasy, but the idea of an unrealistically majestic woman is still internalized on some level.

What if we stopped putting so much focus on finding that special prince/princess to save our averages lives, and promoted stories of average folks using their own wit and expertise to overcome extraordinary circumstances instead? What if we prepared our youth for a lifetime of adventure by allowing them to get lost in fantasies that revolve around people like them, who learn their greatness and worth by what they do, not who they are or who they bump into? Frozen is a sign of progress, but we’ve got a long way to go.

  • JJ

    Lucky for me, one of the earliest films I ever remember seeing was “Arthur”. In it, the main male protagonist, against the wishes and pressure of his family, does not want to marry the beautiful and rich blonde ‘princess’ but falls instead for the shoplifting Liza Minelli. When I saw this at age 5 or so, for weeks – maybe months – after watching it I couldn’t understand why he would possibly not want to marry the more attractive girl, but the richer one as well! Only after serious reflection did the idea of “loving someone for who they are’ dawn on me, and I’ve been somewhat liberated ever since. So, in short, I can speak to the value of the capacity of movies to role model less superficial values!

  • cpbebe

    hmmm…. if this is true, why do the trolls in the film(who are supposedly the supreme intuits of all things ethical and love) describe the second in line to the throne princess as “a bit of a fixer-upper”? Oh, wait, it was because she was foolish and flawed enough to promise herself to the first unworthy prince who came along! Kristoff was worthier than she was before she went on her quest/adventure to rescue her sister, because no one else was brave enough to do so. Kristoff’s steadfastness allowed for her ultimate redemption, thereby validating both the romantic and sisterly love. If you want the dark ages storytelling, stick to classic story ballets where the heroine first goes mad then dies for love like Ophelia and their so called princes are brazen and brainless. Frozen’s update on The Ice Queen is nothing like the original fairy tale, by the way, which is a story of true platonic friendship conquering the perils of childhood and evil sorcery.

Author

KQED Pop

KQED Pop is a daily blog edited by Emmanuel Hapsis that critically examines the social and cultural impact of music, movies, television, advertisements, fashion, the internet and all the other collective experiences that make us laugh, cringe and cry. We focus on local, national and international experiences with a Bay Area lens. We don’t do reviews.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor