Don’t Excuse Disney Princesses As “Products of Their Time,” They’re Relevant Even Now

The Little Mermaid turns 30 this year and, in celebration, the film is coming out of the Disney vault. Retrospectives abound, as do questions about whether or not this story, and its princess, hold up in the world of modern feminism. Everyone desperately wants it to — even modern feminists — because everyone (well, almost everyone) loves the movie. But, in the thirty years since its release, modern feminists have raised concerns about Ariel’s willingness to “give up her voice for a man” and the film’s supposed emphasis on physical attraction. So, what are good feminists to do? Simple: they dub the film “a product of its time,” and call it a day.

In an interview with Hello Giggles, Jodi Benson — who voiced Ariel — said, “I think we have to take into consideration that we [made the film] in 1989 . . . To expect an ’89 film to leap to 2019 as far as feminism goes, I think it’s asking a lot. I’m not defending it.” She continues, “That’s what makes classics classic. Snow White is classic. Can our children relate to that? Maybe not. But it’s a classic animated film.”

This argument isn’t new. Among feminists who still love Disney princesses, this is a really easy way to have their cake and eat it too. Snow White does nothing but get tricked and fall asleep? That’s okay, that’s all women back then were allowed to do! Cinderella needs a rich guy to save her from her wicked stepfamily? That’s okay, women back then pretty much had to marry rich guys! If you want to be a feminist and a lover of Disney princesses, all you’ve got to do is throw your favorite heroines under the “back then” bus, and all is forgiven. 

But, while the princesses do all exist within the the ethos of the time period in which they were created, saying that they don’t measure up in today’s world sells them short. And it allows the feminist myths and misunderstandings about these movies to continue because — instead of refuting the idea that Disney princesses have nothing to offer modern girls and women — it continues to promote that notion while giving Disney princess lovers permission to love them anyway.

But that makes no sense. If these characters are so outdated and oppressed, why do we still love them? Surely the most logical argument is that they’re not outdated and oppressed, not that we love them while hating everything they stand for. Surely someone who believes firmly in the tenets of modern feminism wouldn’t be drawn to a character who is the complete antithesis of everything she holds dear! And yet, many feminists love Disney princesses.

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A much better argument about why feminists can love Disney princesses and still be feminists is that Disney princesses aren’t anti-feminist. Or, more specifically, that the feminist complaint that they are anti-feminist is misguided or misinformed. There’s much more about this idea in my book, obviously, but let’s just continue to use Ariel as our example. 

The main feminist complaint about her is that she gives up her voice and “morphs herself into a human at the age of 16 to go be with some dude she saw on a boat?” (mommyish.com). According to the “product of her time” argument, this would have been something that was fine in the late ’80s but is totally unacceptable now. But, honestly, was that even acceptable in the ’80s? A much better argument is that she really doesn’t do that at all.

Ariel doesn’t give up her voice for a man, she gives it up to be human. Eric doesn’t fall in love with her until she has her voice back because her voice is her most important quality. Ursula asks for Ariel’s voice because she knows that it will be much harder for Ariel to win Eric’s love without it. (I mean, she could have asked for her looks, but she didn’t.) The point is: rather than just accepting the feminist critiques as true and then pardoning the princesses for being “products of their time,” I think it’s time we reexamined some of the critiques.

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If we don’t push back against the feminist insistence that Disney princesses are anti-feminist, then we have no hope of stopping the flow of truly horrible “feminist” princesses Disney’s been churning out. The answer here is not to make excuses for the poor, oppressed princesses of yesteryear, it’s to defend their honor! We can’t buy into the narrative if we want to save the princesses. We’ve got to see them as they truly are: strong, and brave, and beautiful. Then, now, and always.

9 thoughts on “Don’t Excuse Disney Princesses As “Products of Their Time,” They’re Relevant Even Now

  1. Fully agreed with you there. The princesses were definitely not “of their time” in any way, and were definitely closer to timeless. Certainly the first four princesses were timeless. Maybe also Rapunzel as well. I’m hesitant to call Belle timeless, though: The movie was explicitly made with the 1970s-1990s feminist movement in mind (Linda Woolverton, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Don Hahn more than made that clear in multiple interviews), so she actually could qualify as a period piece.

    Heck, if anything, Ariel would be a good representation of what the American dream and legal immigration actually entails, the perfect allegory, as she leaves her homeland (well, technically, home waters, but still…) to go for an even better destination, back when America was founded, up to the actual people who legally migrate to become American citizens (as far as illegal immigration, we’ve got the Hyenas from The Lion King to represent that bit). Cinderella also represents endurance and optimism as does Snow White, and even Aurora invokes duty above all else. At least the classic DPs were not created and modeled specifically after a current trend. And even Ariel, while technically made after the classics, still had traits of Walt Disney’s vision of the DPs. Also helps that the version of the movie we got was actually very similar to the version Walt Disney made, and even better, it was by sheer coincidence, not realizing they made the same changes Disney did until they stumbled upon his draft by chance. I think the only difference in the film we got from Disney’s draft was the whole ship-fu thing Eric did to Ursula, which was insisted on by Jeffrey Katzenberg due to wanting to base it on Die Hard.

    Bit of a shame that Jodi Benson would mention that (have immense respect for her not just for her role as Ariel, but also for her being a devoted Christian and apparently being against the gay agenda), but on the other hand, her hands are most likely tied up at this point, especially given the radical leftward shift by Disney up to this point, so she probably can’t say much more than that if she’s to keep her job.

  2. *applauds loudly*

    This had me convinced:
    “Ariel doesn’t give up her voice for a man, she gives it up to be human. Eric doesn’t fall in love with her until she has her voice back because her voice is her most important quality. Ursula asks for Ariel’s voice because she knows that it will be much harder for Ariel to win Eric’s love without it. (I mean, she could have asked for her looks, but she didn’t.)”
    (And I wasn’t even in need of convincing!)

    Obviously, I will always side with the Disney Princesses. I’m sick of feminists bashing them while defending the new ones. Though seeing the Frozen II teaser this week made me realize–as I rolled my eyes–that this will probably never end. 🙁

  3. “Classic” def: Having lasting significance or worth ; enduring. Walt made classics, Eisner and Iger’s Disney makes entertainment based on the current political trends and fads.

    1. Don’t forget Katzenberg’s Disney. He was the guy who demanded that Belle be made into a modern day feminist, and also tried to get Toy Story to be more of a Family Guy clone before Family Guy even existed as a series in terms of mean-spiritedness (in fact, ironically, Eisner actually thought Jim Cox’s rendition of Beauty and the Beast was very good, and was actually fairly close to the original tale, and if anything it was Katzenberg who nixed it for the feminist screed we ended up getting.).

      The Little Mermaid’s probably the only real exception regarding timelessness, and I suspect that had more to do with them coincidentally making the same changes Disney himself had made more or less.

      And yeah, they definitely focused more on political trends and fads in the present. At least The Little Mermaid did significantly improve on the mores of the tale compared to the story it adapted (I’m one of those people who thought the original story was just bad, and had bad morals), even had a neat takedown on feminism in the form of Ursula.

      1. Katzenberg was brought in by Eisner who put him in charge of the motion picture division including animation. So Eisner was responsible in the same way Iger is responsible for bringing in Kathleen Kennedy for Lucasfilm and giving her carte blanch.

      2. Well, you’ve got a point there, especially when he didn’t try to overrule Katzenberg there. I found Katzenberg contemptible, to be honest. Even though I dislike Eisner, I could tolerate him over Katzenberg or Iger, because at least Eisner attempted to follow through with what Walt Disney would have wanted to have done (Gay Days nonwithstanding), even keeping Magical World of Disney and other stuff, while Iger and Katzenberg had they had their way would completely gut Disney of all of Walt’s traits for the worst. That being said, I overall agree with you.

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