“Dream big, Princess.” This is the current tagline of the Disney Princess Franchise — a marketing venture started by Disney in 2000, which is now the official arbiter of all things Disney princess. The “dream big” tagline is clever. It capitalizes on something little girls already do — draw inspiration from Disney princesses — and uses it as a marketing tool for Disney’s movies. But it’s insidious too, because the ads the franchise uses to promote this venture make a very clear statement about the kinds of dreams that are “big” — and therefore acceptable — and, implicitly, the kinds of dreams that are “small.” “Dream big” is a command, not an invitation. It’s an obvious attempt to rebrand Disney princesses from the traditional “damsels in distress” of yesteryear, into the “empowered” women of today. But, in doing so, it negates the power of the princesses and devalues the dreams of countless little girls.
According to the Disney Princess Franchise, a “big” dream is a physical one. The keystone ad for the campaign is a montage of Disney princesses coupled with real little girls whom they’ve supposedly inspired. But nearly every girl in the ad is doing something athletic. There are girls who shoot arrows, girls who do karate, girls who swim, and girls who dance. These are the “big” dreams, the campaign implies, that Disney princesses can inspire in little girls. “For every girl who dreams big, there’s a princess to show her it’s possible.” But, do any of the princesses really inspire girls to pursue athletics? And, if they do, is that the only thing they inspire — or even the most meaningful?
In the ad, it’s Cinderella — twirling in her homemade dress — who inspires a little girl to dance. It’s Ariel — swimming through the waves — who inspires a girl to jump in the pool. Merida shooting an arrow inspires an archery champion. Pocahontas leaping off a cliff inspires a diver. Rapunzel swinging from her hair convinces a nervous little girl to try a rope swing. Snow White, dancing with the dwarves, is the inspiration for two little girls to do a tap routine. Ah! we’re supposed to think, Disney princesses really are relevant in the modern age!
But, does anyone actually think that these feats of athleticism are really the reason little girls gravitate toward Disney princesses? The answer of course is: no. But Disney — pressured by the complaints of modern movie critics and feminist parents — wants us to think that they are. See! they’re telling us with this ad campaign, these princesses have more to offer than “an overemphasis on attractiveness, a fetishization of housecleaning, and a reductive understanding of female motivations” (Slate). But, in rebranding the princesses this way, Disney is completely negating the real messages these princesses send little girls, and the actual dreams they inspire.
The idea that little girls who are drawn to Cinderella are captivated by her dancing skills is ridiculous. Cinderella speaks to little girls because she shows them how to stay strong in the face of adversity, stand up for themselves, and become who they truly are. Ariel isn’t inspiring because of her ability to swim. She’s a mermaid! (That would be like saying Belle’s main achievement is that she can walk down the street.) Ariel shows little girls that sometimes their dreams are valid and worth pursuing, even if the people who love them most don’t support them. The point of Tangled is not that Rapunzel’s hair is really long and she can swing on it. It’s that you have to face your fears, follow your dreams, and leave the nest. Even Merida (whom I hate) and Pocahontas (whom I seriously dislike) are more than their archery and cliff-jumping skills. Merida doesn’t shoot that arrow just for the fun of it, she shoots it to prove that she’s an independent being. And Pocahontas is searching for meaning in a life that’s been dictated for her. Are the athletic abilities of these princesses really “bigger” than their internal struggles and ultimate triumphs?
Here, I think, is the problem: Disney has forgotten what Disney princesses mean to little girls. It’s not completely their fault. Movie critics and modern cultural commentators have called the traditional princesses anti-feminist so loudly and so often that modern parents believe them. Now, parents think that Cinderella, Snow White, and the rest are just these personality-less drips who cook and clean and sing little songs until a man comes and saves the day. And Disney, if they want to stay relevant, has to do something to prove them wrong. But this — this ad campaign and the messages it sends — just can’t be it.
Because the princesses do inspire little girls, but they inspire them to feats so much more meaningful than sports. They inspire them to be brave, to be honest, to be optimistic, kind, patient, and true. And with those inner attributes to guide them no dream is too big. They could be athletes (or astronauts, or politicians), but they could be homemakers too. Nothing is closed to them then. Nothing is off limits, or too “small.” The Disney princesses do inspire big dreams, they just don’t tell you which dream ought to be yours. And that’s the way it should be. Don’t you think?