The Wall Street Journal has a story today on one of my favorite topics: Disney princesses. It centers around a scene in Ralph Breaks the Internet where a group of Disney princess are in pajamas and glasses and essentially mock all their marketing.
MORE SHOCKING, the scene breaks the cardinal Disney princess rule: They can’t coexist in the same universe. (According to the Journal, this is why on merchandise showing multiple princesses, they’re always looking into different points in the distance, not at one another.)
I was so excited about this story I went to great lengths to subvert the Journal’s paywall. Don’t bother. There were a few interesting tidbits, but mostly I think the article still missed a lot of the point on feminism and Disney. In particular, it rips out all the nuance. Who needs nuance when it comes to feminism?
As I’ve explained—at length—I think the “feminism v. Disney princess” duality is as exploited by modern media as the fantasy of princesses are by Disney. (I’ve also called out more creepy elements of the Disney cannon that don’t get as much air time.)
One of the things I loved about that scene in the new Ralph movie, which draws massive cheers when it shows up in previews, wasn’t so much the mocking of the princesses, but the idea of the sisterhood between them. That is what I think Disney has missed the mark on the most. When my children play princesses, it is all about the sisterhood. Princes are kicked out of the story, and the Disney princesses band together to fight evil. When we met the princesses at Disneyland, it was a little creepy—all the waving and giggling without speaking—but what I loved was how they traveled as a pack. (We rode the carousel with, like, ALL OF THEM once. Somehow they didn’t get the memo about the whole not existing in space-and-time thing.)
Eli has long had a vision for Snow White 2 that involves Snow White “thanks but no thanks”-ing the prince, finding her original mother and traveling space and time to save all the other princesses so they don’t have to rely on a prince. That’s both honoring and subverting the form as well.
Here’s an image of one such successful attempt that played out in our imagination room. The princesses all swapped outfits to confuse Ursula and some other villains:
Once again subversion and honoring going hand in hand: Because the princesses are so identified by their clothing in Disney over-marketing, you could see this actually working. The princesses using the reductionism of Disney branding to their advantage.
My point has always been: Dolls and dresses don’t mean anything in the abstract, it’s how your kids play with them that does. A point these reductive “oh no!” stories about princesses miss. Dresses in themselves aren’t the patriarchy.
The WSJ left out another crucial word in its hundreds on Disney’s princess evolution: Moana.
Well before the Ralph Breaks the Internet scene, Disney animators tested the waters with mocking the princess mystique in explicitly not making Moana—star of the most feminist movie in the Disney cannon in my view—a princess. In fact, when called a princess, she rejects the label, and then Maui says she’s the daughter of royalty with an animal sidekick, mocking the formula.
Moana never shows up in articles write about princesses, because she isn’t a princess. But that was the point. Once again, man (Ralph) takes the credit for what a woman (Moana) said first.