Like most females, I grew up watching and reading Disney and my earliest ideals about womanhood came from watching Disney princesses. I never thought much about negative messages that these characters might be giving, all I thought of was how wonderful it would be to someday be in love, be beautiful, be a princess.
Most recently, there has been a lot of controversy about these characters. They are always thin, always beautiful and typically rely on the male figure for their happiness. As an adult who has grown through a historical period of female liberation, I, too, felt that Disney may be sending the wrong message to young girls. Where are the fat princesses? The lesbians? The woman who just want to succeed based on their own worth?
A few weeks ago, I read an article on the University of California's website by Lydia O'Connor titled, "The Princess Effect: Are Girls Too 'Tangled' In Disney's Fantasy?" and basically, the author agreed with me: Disney needs to change and show 'princesses' as normal woman, not just dependent sheep of impossible beauty. Although this particular article could be seen as supportive of my own previous argument, reading it made me understand how ridiculous that opinion might be.
Young children go through a period in their development when they establish a gender identification. Of course, not all young girls identify with the female role models, however, there do have to be defined lines for them to recognize the differences between male and female. Androgynous figures might be more confusing than helpful. True, once they get older and identify more with their own selves, that may be the path they are most comfortable with, but as young children, they need to see the differences in gender in order to understand the similarities.
Additionally, imagination plays a huge role in the development of a child's intelligence. I would think there is more imagination being exercised when pretending to be a mermaid who wants legs than costuming as a popular historical figure. I do think young girls should be exposed to contemporary, positive female role models, but I don't think overexposure and excessive emphasis on these women's lives offer more options for young girls. Not all will grow up to be the next leader of a people or run a corporation. Some will grow up to be stay at home moms, and that shouldn't be seen as less admirable. Finding a fair balance between magical places and realistic settings may offer them more in the long run when they begin understanding who they are in relation to the world.
Disney is trying. Although some of their attempts have met with ridicule, such as the racial stereotyping of Tiana, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, they have made some strides in other directions. Mulan, for example, is a warrior. And when given the choice, Fiona opts to be an overweight, green princess instead of the raven haired beauty.
As an adult, I don't feel that my constant wearing of a mermaid fin when I was six made me less aware of myself as a woman. My refusal to eat apples given to me by my stepmother or my fascination with riding horses, side saddle in a long skirt, didn't result in any lifelong psychological damage. And maybe the Disney princesses taught me something else about life that we deny focusing on because we are too blinded by their exhibition of beauty; life has a lot of challenges, and in order to live the dream, whatever that dream may be, you do have to work at it. And as for finding a prince? Yes, you do have to kiss a few frogs.