The Princess Paradox: Problematic Disney princesses (or maybe not)


Disney princesses offer fairytales and fascination, but could their messages be truly harmful?

Keira Knightly and Kristen Bell are two celebrity mothers who’ve recently spoken out about Disney princesses and their so-called happy endings. Both raised concerns about the problematic undertones of certain fairytales, from Snow White to The Little Mermaid.

It’s definitely good and responsible parenting to monitor your children’s media, rather than assume all stories with a G or PG-rating will be agreeable for them to watch, and I applaud them for this.

But, as a life-long Disney fan myself, I can’t help but feel our go-to jokes and digs at princesses have become so lazy we just accept them blindly. There are four princesses (and one queen) in particular that are being questioned at the moment.

We’ll start with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty — do they send the wrong message about consent? Kristen Bell revealed recently that she asked her children “Don’t you think that it’s weird that the prince kisses Snow White without her permission? Because you can not kiss someone if they’re sleeping!”

I’ll add on here that Snow White wasn’t just taking a nap — she was dead. At least, she was very much dead to all concerned. Her only previous interaction with the prince had been some flimsy flirting, no names exchanged, and no relationship established. The prince of this tale rode up to the woman he felt maybe some attraction for, used his influence to get “permission” from her friends the dwarves, and kissed her corpse.

That he happened to be her true love and thus woke her was just luck. Then again, considering that the castle they ride off to together is in the clouds, this may have all been Snow White’s dying dream. So does it make his kiss okay? Consensual? If that story were to take place today, in any form, it wouldn’t go down so easy.

Now as for Princess Aurora, she and Prince Philip had a long conversation in the woods. Yes, only one conversation, but they did communicate and establish both a relationship with one another and plans for moving forward. (This is also a fairytale, so things are going to move pretty quickly.) Aurora was cursed in front of everyone, making the cure for the curse public knowledge and common sense. And while this is a fairytale and all, we’ll also bring in the fact that there is implied consent to perform CPR and other life-saving procedures in the event someone is in danger and unconscious.

Ariel is another Disney princess whose story has been questioned. Knightley said of the film The Little Mermaid, “The songs are great, but do not give your voice up for a man. Hello!”

Ariel is obsessed with human culture long before meeting Erik. Even though her father prizes her voice, she seems to take that talent of hers for granted. Ariel longs to walk on land, and honestly, I can see her trading her voice or other talents for a pair of legs, even if a prince wasn’t involved.

I would also posit the question to any fans of The Little Mermaid, would Ariel have sucked it up and stayed in the sea had Erik been a merman? Sure, he’s attractive, but I always felt she loved him for his legs and the possibilities a relationship with him meant — essentially, living on land versus swimming in the sea forever.

As for Frozen, Knightley admitted her approval for this tale, but let’s be real. Elsa is an all-powerful woman whose greatest weakness is her emotional fragility — do we need that celebrated or shown any more in film? As for her sister, Anna, she’s a socially stunted girl who ends up with a man who is both constantly negging her and running a failing business.

As for the man who Anna had chemistry with? The prince who was excited to be with her, respected her and her sister’s authority, and appreciated her quirkiness? He was a liar. So little girls, when boys are mean to you, they like you. Any guys who respect you? That doesn’t exist.

Also in Frozen, the Trolls, supposedly good guys, influenced the royal family and took away the princesses’ agency time and again. They even try to force Anna and Kristoff to get married in a troll wedding ceremony. These two just met and were barely on the cusp of dating, and the trolls want them to get married? All of this after Kristoff himself judged Anna for wanting to marry Hans too soon.

At least it was the villain forcing the prince to get married in The Little Mermaid. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with this fan theory that the trolls are the true villains in Frozen.

I asked my friends about a few other princesses and what they’re often associated with. It isn’t all negative. The results? Cinderella = humility, hope, and friendship; Belle = generosity, forgiveness, and self-acceptance; Jasmine = assertiveness and confidence. Plus there is a whole new world (haha sorry) once you dive into the LGBTQ experience, and read up on fresh takes of popular Disney characters.

I can tell you, I never thought so deeply about these morals or took away any of the above messages as a child watching movies. I just enjoyed watching Disney princesses on screen, and i understood things worked out for them not because a prince made it so, but because these princesses never gave up hope or compromised who they were.

When it comes to the princesses mentioned above, they are frequently (and usually lazily) flipped into negative role models by cynical adults. You can flip these princesses into positive role models, too.

Parents should feel free to let their children enjoy the same magic they themselves enjoyed as a child. If you interact with your children while watching the movies and reading the books, you can catch problematic messages early on. You may even be surprised at some new takeaways you hadn’t noticed before…