Movie critics, parents, and filmmakers have been trying, for years, to redefine what it means to be a princess. From pretending that little girls mean Princess Leia and Wonder Woman (instead of Snow White and Cinderella) when they say they want to be princesses, to rebranding Disney princesses as athletes and warriors, the prevailing narrative is that the concept of “princess” needs a reboot. It’s a narrative that Disney — the country’s main purveyor of princesses — has embraced wholeheartedly. With ad campaigns like “Dream Big, Princess,” and “feminist” princesses like Merida and Elsa, Disney has been actively trying to undo its own messages. Disney’s latest feature, Ralph Breaks The Internet is a case in point. The film, which came out on Wednesday, is one more step towards completely abandoning the princesses of the past.
When the movie’s heroine, Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), finds herself in a room full of Disney princesses, the princesses begin to grill her on what makes her princess material. Initially, the hype for the scene centered around the fact that nearly every princess is voiced by her original voice actress — a Disney princess reunion both on and off the screen. But, as the movie approached its release date — and more of the princess scene was revealed — critics began to praise the way in which the Disney princesses were dismantling the tropes and “stereotypes” of . . . well . . . Disney princesses.
When Vanellope says that she is a princess, the actual princesses try to figure out what kind of princess she is. “Were you poisoned?” “Cursed?” “Kidnapped or enslaved?” “Do you have daddy issues?” Vanellope’s reaction is to back away slowly. “Are you guys okay? Should I call the police?” Disney princesses, the Disney princesses are saying, are really kind of messed up. And Vanellope, the spunky, hoodie-wearing, race car-driving heroine, is meant to represent a more appropriate role model for little girls.
Vanellope is eventually accepted into the princess club because even an “empowered” girl like her isn’t exempt from sexist assumptions. “Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?” Rapunzel asks her. “Yes! What is up with that?” Vanellope responds. And thus, Vanellope (who isn’t actually a princess) is crowned a Disney princess by all the Disney princesses of the past. And, along the way, she teaches them how to loosen up, put on hoodies, and be like her. This isn’t just a cutesy scene in a children’s cartoon, this is a clear and definitive statement from Disney: this (Vanellope) is what a princess looks like, not that (every single other princess Disney ever created).
But why all this focus on princesses in the first place? If Disney thinks the earlier princesses were such terrible role models, why not throw out the notion of princesses entirely? Therein lies the problem. Because, no matter what Disney, or parents, or film critics do, little girls love princesses. They want to be princesses. But, in the age of modern feminism — where the mere idea of princess is “anti-feminist” — this is problematic. Solution: tell little girls that “princess” means something else now.
John C. Reilly, who voices Ralph in the movie, said he thought the princess scene “was a really cool, brave, forward-thinking thing for Disney as a company to do, to take responsibility for some of these stereotypes that they created . . . and look at them head-on and say, like, ‘okay, maybe that was unfair.’” And that seems to be the general consensus among film critics — that Disney’s complete rejection of nearly eighty years of beloved characters is a win for feminism. But here’s what I want to know: since when do princesses tell us what to do, how to act, and what to wish for?
“Princess” — in a fairy tale context — is a symbol. It’s a stand-in for the ideal of womanhood. If you take a “princess” out of the symbolic and place her into the literal, then she absolutely could look like Venellope — providing that she is still kind, brave, compassionate, and the truest version of herself. But she doesn’t have to look (or act, or speak) like Venellope. She could be like Snow White, or Belle, or that teacher you really admired, or your sister, or your friend from school. And that was the thing about the early Disney princesses: they taught us that.
“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” Cinderella told us. “Make a wish into the well / That’s all you have to do / And if you hear it echoing / Your wish will soon come true,” Snow White explained. Your wish, your dream — whatever that may be. “I want so much more than they’ve got planned,” sung Belle. “I’ve come so far / I can’t go back to where I used to be,” sung Jasmine. “I don’t know when / I don’t know how / But I know something’s starting right now,” sung Ariel. There’s something more for me, there’s something more for you. Whatever that is, whatever you want it to be. Each princess had her own dreams, but she never told us that those specific dreams had to also be ours. They simply told us to make our wishes, follow our dreams, and become our truest selves.
Little girls want to be princesses because the symbolism of “princess” — of being who you truly are and reaching your full potential — speaks to them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with characters like Vanellope. But there is something wrong with the studio that created the princesses little girls love telling those same little girls that they are wrong — that the dreams they dream are the wrong dreams, the wishes they make are the wrong wishes, and the adventures they long for are the wrong adventures. They’re not wrong, Disney, you are. You’ve forgotten who your princesses are and what they represent. But we haven’t. Our daughters haven’t. Don’t take our princesses away. We need them.