A few months ago I went to a The Little Mermaid sing along for grown-ups. Don’t laugh. Well, okay, you can laugh. But I won’t care. I went, and I had a great time, and I’m not embarrassed in the slightest. In fact, I think that events like this say something really important about feminism.
(Here I am dressed for the show!)
The room was full of women (and a few men) my age — people who’d been kids during Disney’s Renaissance in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Some were wearing costumes, it’s true, but not many. It wasn’t that kind of event. It wasn’t overly campy (though one of the hosts was dressed as King Triton, complete with fake abs drawn on his shirtless belly), or ironic, or negative. In fact, it was joyful. It was a room packed to capacity with adults who love The Little Mermaid.
But where had they all come from? Aren’t we supposed to think this movie — and its read-headed heroine, Ariel — is horribly anti-feminist? I mean doesn’t Ariel give up her voice, for a man?!
(She doesn’t. You can watch me explain why Ariel’s a great heroine at the 45 minute mark in the video below.)
Most of the people in the room probably considered themselves feminists — we were in a hipster neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. But here they all were, singing along to the lyrics, rooting for the princess, cheering the prince, and booing the evil sea witch. As I sat there, singing along to “Part of that World” with the rest of them, I found it incredibly moving to be in this room full of people yearning for something they can no longer access. Their childhoods, yes, but something else, too, I think. The freedom to love this princess — and this kind of narrative — publicly and with all their hearts.
(Here we are, all singing along with Ariel.)
Feminist critics want us to believe that any Disney princess movie before, say, Mulan is simply a product of the patriarchy and must be dismissed. Damsels in distress, princes saving the day, a fixation on physical appearance: this is the feminist narrative about these movies. And we believe them.
Conscientious mothers shield their daughters from pre-Mulan Disney princess movies. Women who confess their love for the princesses do it with a shrug and an apology (I know they’re really anti-feminist but . . .). And the later princesses — like Merida from Brave and Elsa from Frozen — are lauded as more appropriate for budding feminists.
But little girls continue to love Disney princesses. Even the girls whose mothers have banned princesses from the house. They watch them on the sly at some other, less-enlightened, friend’s house and get hooked. And we’re meant to think that this means these poor little girls are still being indoctrinated by a culture that believes in women’s oppression. But what if that’s not true at all? What if little girls — and women who watched these movies as little girls — are right, and feminist critics are wrong?
See, I think Disney princesses are the role models modern girls need. They’re independent — brave, passionate, and goal-oriented. But they’re also feminine — graceful, nurturing, and kind. You may not be an adult who loves Disney princesses, but you should be an adult who cares about them. Because, if we’re going to take back the narrative about femininity, we’re going to need some good examples of women little girls can seek to emulate.
Like so much of modern feminist philosophy, the feminist perspective on Disney princesses is based on a lie. The lie that, because the princesses are feminine and looking for love, they’re not strong women. But, whether or not they’d tell you this themselves, that room full of adults watching The Little Mermaid (and all the other rooms like it all over the country) would beg to differ.
The fact that Disney princess movies still mean so much to so many people after all these years means that these are powerful narratives that resonate with people. Positive examples of non-passive femininity that little girls love — and continue to love into adulthood — are what we need in the fight against radical feminist ideology.
You don’t have to come with me to the next Disney princess sing along, but if you’ve got daughters (or nieces or little sisters) take note: Disney princesses may just be our secret weapon.