It’s been awhile since I posted! I took my kids to Disneyland for the first time, which it turns out is a cesspool of germs. I ended up down with the flu one week, then stuck on the couch watching Lady and the Tramp with a sick 3 year old the next.
Anywho, taking kids to Disneyland when there are several Disney movies they haven’t seen was interesting. Those princesses my husband and I purposefully did not introduce them to? They knew ALL of them.
Our kids go out into the world without us, and get exposed to what other children are exposed to. This doesn’t mean you should necessarily let them watch what everyone else is watching. It does mean that you need to be aware that they are going to get exposed to popular culture, and prepared to discuss what they are allowed to watch and why.
So, without further ado, here are some talking points for Disney princess movies. If you want to go more in depth, I highly recommend listening to the podcast Once Upon a Patriarchy.
Movies My Kids Are Allowed to Watch
The best one. Period. Moana is a strong woman, supporting and supported by strong women. She’s in the minority of Disney protagonists without a romantic subplot. While having a romantic relationship is certainly not a deal breaker, I think it’s important to include movies without them so our daughters understand that life doesn’t revolve around these relationships. Moana fully defines her own story.
Moana is also the first “princess” (she reminds us she’s not, she’s the daughter of a chief) who looks like she eats food. Hopefully Disney continues to show us women with realistic body types.
For older kids, you can discuss how Moana is an allegory for sexual assault and toxic masculinity. Te Ka is the manifestation of Te Fiti’s rage at Maui violating her, destroying her ability to create life. Moana sings about how the assault does not define Te Fiti. Simultaneously, Maui learns that his phallic hook is not the crux of his identity. Honestly, this may be the perfect feminist family movie.
Rapunzel co-opts a symbol of domesticity (the frying pan) and uses it as a weapon to pursue her lifelong dream- escaping the tower to fully live her life. She does this with a man who becomes her love interest, after they get to know each other. Flynn/Eugene is Rapunzel’s equal; they work together and ultimately rescue each other.
Mulan (and Mulan 2)
Mulan rejects her constraints as a woman in a patriarchal society to join the army and save all of China. General Shang falls in love with her because she is awesome. They have a normal relationship where they get to know each other before getting married in Mulan II. But first they talk through their issues and save some princesses from being treated as diplomatic bargaining chips forced to marry men they’ve never met.
Pocahontas shuts down John Smith’s colonialist bullshit. She flips the usual damsel in distress narrative on its head by rescuing him. She refuses to abandon her greater purpose for a romantic relationship. She teaches the value of nature. She paints with all the colors of the wind.
Another badass princess with some classic Disney racism mixed in. Everyone in this movie is presumably middle eastern, but one of the things that signals Jafar is the bad guy is his noticeably darker skin tone. Additionally, Jasmine is relegated to the main character’s love interest pretty quickly. But she’s still a strong person, rejecting an arranged marriage and helping save the day in the end.
Merida is a force of nature who defies gender norms and insists she is in charge of her own fate. The whole movie is about navigating the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. Eventually Merida’s mother accepts her for who she is, even though Merida turned her into a bear.
Movies My Kids Can Watch Only With Guidance
The Princess and the Frog
So there is a lot of racially problematic stuff with this movie. Representation is important, but Disney’s first black princess is a frog for most of the movie. It revolves around the overworked black woman trope. At the same time, at least Tiana has a dream and is willing to bust her ass to get it. The film also glosses over the complicated dynamics of the black family in service to the white family. But in doing so, it offers an opportunity to talk about white privilege- Tiana teaches prince Naveen, (another person of color) the value of working hard for what you want. Lotte never has to learn this, because she’s a rich white lady. At the end of the movie is still banking on marrying a prince.
Also problematic is the overall lesson Tiana learns- that her dream of owning a restaurant means nothing if she doesn’t have love in her life. But what if a romantic partner is not something she wants? When we watch this movie I’m sure to talk about how that’s OK too.
This is a complicated film. I recommend listening to the episodes of Once Upon a Patriarchy on it for more. I let my kids watch this movie earlier than I would have if my family weren’t Cajun. But I get unreasonably excited when there’s a Cajun character who is not the absolute worst. Ray, the cajun firefly, is the best, and I like to point him out to my girls. Seeing one’s culture represented is important, and it’s absolutely fine to factor that in to if and when you let your kids watch something.
“I’m a damsel. I’m in distress, and I can handle it. Have a nice day.” Ah, Meg. The majority of Disney princesses are still mostly pleasant. Meg is not. And she’s fine with that. And if you’re not, she gives zero fucks. She shows girls it’s ok not to be bubbly all the time… or ever. She’s not naive, stating “Well, you know how men are. They think ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and ‘get lost’ means ‘take me, I’m yours’.” This puts this movie in the guidance category, because I think it requires follow up conversation. The idea that men are like this, while not without basis, requires a discussion of bodily autonomy.
But be ready to talk about these, because my kids, and probably yours, know a lot about these movies despite never having seen them. If you’re my husband, you can shout your lecture about Ariel into the next car during the Little Mermaid ride at California Adventure.
Beauty and the Beast
Belle is brilliant, yet it makes her an outcast. The town views her looks as her only redeeming quality. She then sacrifices herself for her father, and eventually comes around to loving her abuser. The message is that you can change a man who isolates and threatens you if you’re loving and caring enough. Once he earns love, the Beast turns into a handsome prince, because love is only for people who look a certain way.
The Little Mermaid
Ariel is a spunky mermaid who dreams of living on land. Ok, not a bad start. But she doesn’t pursue these dreams until she sees Prince Eric for like, 10 seconds, and decides she’s madly in love with him. Ariel, who is only 16 by the way, literally gives up her voice for a chance to be with him. Eric and crew find this mute woman, and instead of trying to get her some sort of help just… decide to keep her? What? Ariel almost effectively charms Eric without really communicating with him at all, because being adorable is apparently sufficient basis for love. After some sea witch medling, Ariel, still 16, and Eric get married.
Cinderella, abused by her stepmother, finds out she has a fairy godmother who can grant wishes. Instead getting the hell outta dodge, she gets a pretty outfit and a ride to a party. There she dances with a prince who apparently has a major foot fetish because he can later identify her by shoe size alone! I guess Cinderella is into it, because she immediately marries him.
The whole premise of this movie is the Queen, a powerful political figure, is so obsessed with being told how gorgeous she is that she is willing to murder her own step daughter for being marginally better-looking. Snow White, a princess presumably raised in the lap of luxury, escapes to happily keep house for 7 miners. So, apparently she’s great at domestic work just because she’s a woman? Despite being warned the evil queen is after her, she decides it’s totally fine to take and apple from a stranger, and dies. A prince thinks she’s so beautiful he must kiss her. He is not at all bothered by the dead thing. She is brought back to life by a man showing romantic/sexual interest in her.
Sleeping Beauty has the fewest lines of any Disney princess, and the least agency. It hits all the main problematic Disney tropes: love at first sight, damsel in distress, rescue by true love’s kiss. To be fair to Disney, they do make it slightly less problematic than the original fairy tale. At least Aurora and Prince Philip have a pre-existing relationship that might indicate a kiss was mutually agreeable rather than the prince being a random stranger, like he is in the source material. It’s still a bit creepy though, and worth addressing if your kids watch it.
The Bottom Line
If your kids are in school, not letting them watch something is not going to prevent exposure. What you allow your child to watch depends on your family and values, but be prepared for these characters to come up in conversation regardless. At that point you may want to reassess whether you want to watch a particular movie with your child so you can discuss it in depth. Or be ready to discuss why you don’t want them to see a particular movie. Either way, best to be prepared by knowing your princesses and how you feel about them.