Princesses Without Power

Author: Olivia Schlamp, Southlake Carroll Senior High, '22

Fairy tales or nightmares? We all grow up reading them, watching them, and sometimes even dressing up as them. Whether it was “Barbies,” toys, or costumes, Disney princesses were an essential part of every girl’s adolescence, and this worldwide obsession with princesses still continues to this day. See, I grew up with two older sisters who loved to dress up and pretend to be their favorite princesses and princes. I, on the other hand, always wanted to dress up as the most powerful person (or item) in the story. I didn’t see the appeal of the princesses.

Growing up, I struggled with the idea of wanting to be a princess, as in my young eyes, they didn’t make much logical sense. These young women became royal leaders mostly through marriage and had no proper leadership training. They had no governmental or political knowledge. How in the heck was Cinderella supposed to co-rule a country when she couldn’t even keep track of both of her shoes? How was Snow White supposed to advise her people when she didn’t even have the common sense to not take food from strangers? These are the women destined to lead kingdoms? But even with all these faults, the Disney princesses on our screens are still somehow miles better than the original fairy tales which portrayed dark dulcet tones of extreme sexism under the fake portrayal of life lessons.

The Brothers Grimm (commonly known as the Grimm Brothers) made up of Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm and Wilhelm Carl Grimm, were popular authors during the 19th century who wrote the original versions of some of the world’s most famous fairy tales. The brothers wrote more than 200 fairy tales which were, at the time, considered folk stories. The Grimm brothers have such a literary impact that much of their work is considered the basis for folklore studies. The Grimm Brothers wrote the original “Princess and The Frog,” “Snow White,” ‘Rapunzel,” “Cinderella,” and many more. Disney used the Grimm Brothers’ stories for the basis of their Disney princess empire, allowing the company to skyrocket as an infamous media empire. Yet, the brothers’ original versions are no watered-down PG Disney, as the stories have the intentions to teach young children important life lessons. See, the Grimm Brothers’ original fairy tales are basically horror stories for children filled with intense nightmare-inducing images, but even with Disney’s changes to make the stories more lighthearted, sadly, both of these versions exhibit a level of sexism that keeps women believing they must always wait for a prince.

If we look at the original version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” we can very obviously see the connections between the original and Disney version. In the original, Snow White is declared dead by the prince, and only when one of the prince’s servants trips and loses his balance while carrying her casket does the bite of poisoned apple dislodge from her throat, causing our soon-to-be princess to wake. Immediately after Snow White wakes, the prince asks for her hand in marriage... even though this is the first time they have ever spoken. Snow White accepts his proposal while she is in shock over seeing the prince in person for the first time. The original story of “Snow White” is meant to teach kids that they shouldn’t take food from strangers, yet the Disney version is supposed to inspire young girls by allowing them to see a protagonist who is kind to others and offers trust instead of skepticism. See, Disney wants their princesses to set good examples for young girls, yet when recreating the Snow White story, they made the conscious decision to still keep the fact that she accepts a man’s marriage proposal after only knowing him for about let’s say thirty seconds. I have to ask: how is a girl, who becomes a princess by marrying someone she doesn't even know, setting a good example for young girls? Well to say it simply, it doesn’t.

Disney didn’t just revise Snow White, they also base their “Tangled” film on the Grimm Brothers’ original story of “Rapunzel.” The fact that Disney chose to water down a story such as the original “Rapunzel” to make a film for young girls shows a truly horrific side of the company. The original “Rapunzel” is about a prince who discovers Rapunzel by climbing up her hair into her tower. Everything sounds normal, right? Just wait. Rapunzel foolishly tells the evil sorceress keeping her hostage that a young prince has been visiting by accident, and immediately after, the sorceress chops off Rapunzel’s hair and leaves her in the wilderness. The prince comes back to discover what the sorceress has done, and he instantly jumps out of the tower, overcome with grief after the sorceress states that Rapunzel is his “Mistress.” The reader is supposed to infer that Rapunzel agreed to marry the prince, and was impregnated by him. In the end, the prince and Rapunzel end up living happily ever after once the prince finds her and the twins she gave birth to after years of searching the wilderness. Even though our main protagonists end up happy, I surely am not. The fact that Rapunzel agrees to marry a man she barely knows and instantly has children with him when she has not even been given the opportunity to educate herself about the childbearing process, motherhood, being an adult, or what was even outside her tower shows a lack of a strong female protagonist and, in my opinion, manipulation by the prince. My sister refused to read the original Rapunzel story to me when I was younger because she always thought the prince took advantage of the naive Rapunzel, who was never allowed to receive an education or even consider other outside life decisions. Of course, Disney doesn’t contain all these aspects in their film, but the fact that Rapunzel agrees to spend her life with Flynn after days of meeting him and is not given the opportunity to be single in the outside world away from her tower shows Disney refusing to allow even the smallest amount of female independence and self-exploration. Disney didn’t make a single conscious change to the story to allow their female protagonist a choice of her own.

These are just some of the few examples of Disney converting stories drowning in sexism and misogyny into films with the primary audience of young girls. Even with the revisions, Disney has done for their princess stories, their recreated versions still leak sexism that is apparent even to young children. Young girls are supposed to look up to their favorite princesses and see strong, confident role models, but instead, all they find is a young teenager who agrees to get married in approximately 90 minutes. Disney has and continues to reek of female dependence on men. Even in the newer Disney princess films where Disney aspires to portray feminism more prominently than before, having received harsh critiques in the decades prior, where princesses such as Moana from Moana and Merida from Brave go on their own personal journeys and end up single, the princesses still heavily rely on a male protagonist to go through their personal growth: Moana relies on Maui to bring growth to her island, and Merida relies on the help of her three brothers to be successful. Even in films that are portrayed as having feminist icons as their protagonists such as Mulan, who makes major strides showing women could be just as strong as men even in wartime, has her family telling her to find a husband, and in the sequel, getting quickly married off to Li Shang. Even when Disney states of having more feministic realistic female protagonists, every Disney princess movie has the undertone of female suppression. Disney still isn’t allowing for a female protagonist to embrace independence without a male parachute.

Disney is a company that silently and slowly sneaks sexism into children’s awareness, so much so that children dream of their own princes saving them from danger. Instead of this, Disney should be showing to their young female audience that they can be independent leaders and solve problems through hard work. I know it might seem like I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but these movies are watched around the globe constantly. Young girls see these films so many times that the stories are ingrained in their brains, and sadly so is the sexism embedded in them. So while young girls are having dreams of their princes saving them from their dragons, I am having nightmares about how every girls’ own self-confidence is slowly diminishing to the dark monster of female suppression. Disney is a fairytale wrapped in a nightmare of hidden sexism, and this has occurred by putting a Grimm filter on feminism. Maybe the monsters aren’t witches and dragons but rather the fact that no woman is ever actually allowed to be a hero.

Graphic by Mirna Vedula