Featured photo credit: Flickr user Kevin Dooley via Creative Commons
Last fall, a former Walt Disney World “castmember” told Cosmopolitan.com about her coveted job as Beauty in the Beast‘s Belle: she experienced constant monitoring of the princesses’ bodies, was forced to wear skimpy clothing in cold weather, and endured sexual harassment from kid-toting dads for a measly $9.65 an hour.
All Disney workers are expected to conform to the Disney Look. But for the princesses, who are hired to embody a particular feminine ideal (and a certain type of wholesome and marketable sexiness), it can make or break whether they work at all that day.
The park’s most visible and popular princesses are white, and always played by white women. There are only a few princesses of color, but their roles are given to white women (at least sometimes) as well:
“It was prestigious to be Belle — she and Cinderella are the two top princesses at Disney…Ariel’s a good one too, but she isn’t in as many locations and neither is Mulan. Pocahontas and Jasmine aren’t out very much at all. One of my friends was white, but she’s very, very tan, and she does Pocahontas.”
Pocahontas and Mulan don’t really fit the glam, tiara and ballgown-wearing royal concept of princess-hood so often associated with what little girls love and love to buy. Disney stores may sell a huge variety of floofy pastel dresses and crowns, but they’re certainly not pushing Mulan’s armor.
Disney’s first black princess, The Princess and the Frog‘s Tiana, wears a ballgown and works towards her dream of owning a restaurant, but she doesn’t seem to appear often at Disneyland, and her image is far less common on merchandise and advertising. (Disney executives blame the word “princess” in the title for the film’s low-grossing sales, saying it played too much to the little girl market.)
While many children may have been heartened to see a princess who looks like them, the white princess is still the standard – not just for embodying Euro-centric beauty ideals, but as the face of Disney’s billion-dollar princess line.
“We have a robust 365-day a year princess business, and among princesses, Cinderella is the one,” Disney executive Josh Silverman told Variety as the studio gears up to promote this March’s live-action Cinderella – which, from the looks of the trailer, is basically a copy of the 1950 film – right down to the all-white cast.
Today, princesses are more popular than ever. Not just with children, but among adults, as evidenced by Buzzfeed quizzes that ask “What Kind of Princess Are You?” or the endless re-imaginings of the princesses as pop culture characters or scantily-clad and weaponized but still stereotypically hot (Empowering!)
From their idealized cartoon bodies to their lack of agency, most Disney princesses are hard to recommend as heroes or great role models. An easy critique for feminists, especially as a teaching tool about female tropes and stereotypes, we’ve seen countless new versions: with realistic waistlines or imagined as real, washed up people, or even, in the highly misguided “Real Life Female Role Models” princesses including a sexy Jane Goodall and ultra-feminine Rosa Parks (“The Equality Princess.” Seriously. And it gets worse.)
Personally, I like my feminism to reach a little farther than that. I’m unlikely to click on any more interpretations of these famous cartoon ladies –the subject’s been exhausted, we’re sick of looking at them, and there are real-life, urgent matters affecting non-cartoon women in the meantime.
But whether we like it or not, princesses are a commonality among many American women. They sing songs we all know, tell stories we’ve heard all our lives, and represent an ideal of beauty and femininity, however misguided. Most children’s media (including Disney’s popular Pixar films) feature solely male characters – if you want to see a children’s movie with a female protagonist, there’s a good chance she’ll be a princess.
So of course we’re busy critiquing Disney princesses. After all, it’s what we know.