Maybe There’s Hope For the Princess Scene

Last weekend, ABC Family ran a “Princess Weekend”. As expected, there were a number of Disney princess movies, both animated and live-action, present, but there were some interesting interpretations (for a Disney-owned channel) of “princess”. Sunday’s line-up really caught my attention:

  • Bring It On: All or Nothing
  • Another Cinderella Story
  • A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song
  • Cinderella
  • The Little Mermaid

I choked on my chai as I scrolled through the list. Not even kidding. At first, because of my current adaptation project, I focused on the humor of the middle three movies. Folklorists generally agree that Disney’s Cinderella is the first time in the story’s 1300-year history that the heroine was a limp dish rag. (Actually, I think they use the words “docile” and “submissive”.) The Cinderella Story series features girls who have about as much interest in rolling over and being walked all over as cats have in not shredding furniture. Even Another Cinderella Story protagonist Mary skips out the instant her chores are completed to work on her dancing in preparation for the audition she hopes will let her move away from her current situation and to support her best friend’s budding fashion career.

It was six brilliant hours of, “We know. We know. We totally totally screwed up the character seventy years ago. But look! We’re learning!” (I admit it. I didn’t sit through all six hours. I had work to do.)

The whole Cinderella situation is funny enough, but then you add on those two end movies. People look at me funny for this, but I actually respect the Bring It On series for what it tries to accomplish. Each movie centers on a girl whose cheerleading squad gets into some sort of problem that only a cheerleading squad could get into, and then she (often by bringing her team together and employing a little teamwork and leadership) saves the day. To the series’ credit, no two girls have had the exact same problem (although the fifth movie gets dangerously close with its mashup of elements from two of the earlier movies).

But in all five movies, each girl defines herself by her cheerleading. She admits she doesn’t know who she is if she isn’t a cheerleader, so she proudly wears her pompoms on her sleeve…so to speak. The only exception is Carson, the fourth movie’s heroine. (She’s at a cheerleader camp. She would fail. But it would be entertaining to watch her try.) She has to hide her squad affiliation from her new crush because the two squads have a literal West Side Story feud going on. But even she does little to hide what she is at her core when she first meets her crush at an amusement park.

Compare that with The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel, who defines herself by her singing, but drops her voice in a heartbeat to snare a guy she’s seen once and knows nothing about. How very Disney of her… (Or would be if that weren’t actually part of the original story, but you can see how the original story appealed to Disney’s sensibilities during a time when the feminism movement hadn’t yet convinced the House of Mouse to consider knocking it off.) I openly hate the story, the movie, and the mermaid herself, so I had a field day with this Sunday afternoon.

Princess culture has become such a polarized concept, but I think there’s room (a growing space, actually) to let girls have their cake and eat it, too. Because at the end of the day, what we really need girls to be is self-reliant, ambitious, and compassionate.

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