When Disney princesses appear in the news — as they do fairly frequently — it’s almost always because of something negative. Whether it’s Keira Knightley saying she’s banned The Little Mermaid and Cinderella from her home, or Kristen Bell saying Snow White’s prince is kind of a pervert, the general consensus in the media is that Disney princesses are horribly outdated and anti-feminist.
Disney is undoubtedly taking these media critiques seriously. Its “Dream Big” ad campaign tries to rebrand the princesses of yesterday as athletes and warriors, while films like Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013) offer “feminist” princesses whom the media praises as “empowered female heroines” (Variety), who don’t act “on the basis of romantic motivation” (Forbes).
Given the media consensus about the princesses — and Disney’s capitulation to it — you’d be forgiven for assuming that this is the majority opinion. But you’d be wrong.
Disney Princess Fans Disagree
Though its members don’t write articles, host podcasts, or provide input at Disney studios, the Disney fan community is huge and far from fringe. Disney is consistently one of Business Insider’s 10 most powerful brands in the world, and Disney princess merchandise alone is a $5.5 billion enterprise. Tens of thousands of Disney fans attended D23 Expo (Disney’s version of Comicon) in 2017, and hundreds of millions of people visit Disney attractions each year.
Regardless of what the media would have you believe, Disney princess fans still favor the traditional princesses. According to a poll which asked 80,000 people to name their favorite Disney princess, Cinderella emerged as the winner. (Almost every “feminist ranking” of Disney princesses on the internet — of which there are many — places her in the bottom three).
According to a poll which asked 80,000 people to name their favorite Disney princess, Cinderella emerged as the winner.
Princess fans are stay-at-home moms and business professionals, retirees, and college students. They come from all walks of life, and all political affiliations — or no affiliation at all. Most don’t attend events or go to conventions. Many belong to fan pages on Facebook, but many don't. Almost all of them are too busy — or not inclined — to voice their opinions in a public forum. They are, however, united by their love for the movies and characters they grew up watching — powerfully called by the nostalgia of childhood and the timeless stories that made them who they are.
C.S. Johnson, a stay-at-home mom, novelist, and life-long Disney fan says, “Fairy tales are some of the most true stories we have in this world.” For her, Disney princesses offered a model of the kind of woman she wanted to become: a “kind, loving, hardworking soul who befriended animals and fell in love with the prince.”
Kristin Langley, a former high-school teacher and stay-at-home mom from Georgia, says sharing the movies with her 3-year-old daughter makes her feel “closer to the princesses” she has always loved.
Fairy tales are some of the most true stories we have in this world.
Are all Disney princess fans horribly stuck in an anti-feminist past? Or has the media totally underestimated these princesses — and their fans?
Princesses Transcend Politics
For many fans, Disney princesses have always been empowered women. “The princesses have been feminist for a while,” says Cassie Muratore, a Disney-lover and stay-at-home mom who considers herself a feminist. Crystal Jonathan, a student, and poet living in Nigeria says Disney Princesses “teach everything a good role model should.” Langley calls them “brave, strong, and kind.” Kate Padilla, a stay-at-home mom, and entrepreneur living in Iowa, says Disney princesses show little girls that “you can be strong, yet also vulnerable and feminine.”
To fans, the media’s insistence on judging Disney princesses on their political value — and Disney’s attempts to make new princesses that conform to political ideologies — is a frustrating distraction from the timeless tales that, for them, transcend politics. “You can like Disney princesses on any side of the political spectrum,” Johnson insists. Langley says, “It’s a fun, carefree thing for little girls (and big girls) to watch. I don’t think it needs to be made into anything more.”
It’s a fun, carefree thing for little girls (and big girls) to watch. I don’t think it needs to be made into anything more.
Padilla says Disney princesses are “targeted” by political groups seeking to push an ideology because they have “such a powerful influence over our culture.” “Shunning romance, kindness, and goodness for independence, stubbornness, and athleticism is not going to translate well,” says Katie Carter, an HR professional located in Silicon Valley who hates the political turn Disney has taken. “I think it's great to have the girls be strong, brave, and able to be independent,” says Langley, but “the crazy stuff I've heard about them needing to have an abortion, etc. is nuts to me.”
Disney Princess fans aren’t the ones writing movie reviews or publishing feminist rankings of Disney princesses. Their opinions are going largely unheard and unheeded, overpowered by a vocal minority in the media. But perhaps that ought to change. “Don’t forget,” says Carter, “I’m the one buying these movies for my child.”