Before I had kids, I insisted that our family wouldn’t do all of that awful Disney stuff. I cringed at the thought of my home being sprinkled with pink and plastic, and was determined that my girls wouldn’t know that world. We succeeded. For about 10 months. Then Dorothy learned to talk.
My word-hungry toddler learned to say “princess” (pronounced “frin-cess”) almost as soon as she said “momma” and “daddy.” It’s like there’s something genetically encoded in her to love fairy tales, ballroom gowns, castles, and rescue stories.
You learn to love what your children love. The sparkle in their eyes as they take delight in something changes the way you see your world. So our family took it as bad news this week when, alongside the release of Tangled, Disney announced that the princess franchise was finished.
It may just be marketing. The Princess and the Frog didn’t perform well, and the announcement adds a tone of urgency to the new release. “Catch the princesses in the theater while you can!” It also may simply be a sign of the times. One excerpt from the above story puts in it this light:
Among girls, princesses and the romanticized ideal they represent—revolving around finding the man of your dreams—have a limited shelf life. With the advent of "tween" TV, the tiara-wearing ideal of femininity has been supplanted by new adolescent role models such as the Disney Channel's Selena Gomez and Nickelodeon's Miranda Cosgrove.
"By the time they're 5 or 6, they're not interested in being princesses," said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children's lives. "They're interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values."
Our New Feminine Role Models
So instead of aspiring to be Belle, Aurora, and Cinderella, Disney is betting that our 5- and 6-year-old daughters will be much more interested in being Miley Cyrus or Miranda Cosgrove. It’s a chilling thought, given the short shelf life and inevitable journey of a “tween” star. Frank Bruni, writing about the scandal that erupted around the GQ photo spread of Glee starlets, said, “These images were less shocking than predictable, part of an established gallery that includes not only Miss Cyrus but also Britney Spears.” Elsewhere, Bruni says, “The starlets change, the story doesn’t. If a young female performer with a relatively straight-laced image wants to take full charge of her brightest future, she apparently has to do some time on the pole.”
What Are We Losing?
It’s a bizarre exchange. While there are exceptions (and I would quickly say The Little Mermaid is one) most of the Disney princess tales celebrate virtue. Snow White is a beautiful, humble servant of all (even a scary collection of bachelor dwarves) and is contrasted with the vain and self-centered queen. Her downfall happens when she eats “forbidden fruit,” and is trapped in death until a prince comes to rescue her. Sleeping Beauty is a profound metaphor for the gospel. The princess is cursed, with death hanging over her head from the day she’s born. When death finally stings her, a prince must battle against the powers of hell to rescue her. Armed with the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue, he fights his way to the princess and awakens her with true love’s kiss. Sound familiar? A bride enslaved to death, a warrior-king who battles the powers of hell?
At another level, fairy tales teach the concept of meta-narrative. There is no instant gratification in Cinderella, who labors like a slave until she’s discovered. In fact, most of the fairy tales involve some level of suffering. Snow White’s “Someday my prince will come” can be seen as a song of eschatological hope. Belle, like Queen Esther, throws her life in peril in exchange for her father as she finds herself imprisoned in the Beast’s mansion. Fairy tales teach us to believe that suffering is part of a bigger story.
And of course, most of the princesses (The Little Mermaid, again, being an exception) are symbols of purity and innocence.
Why Don’t They Make Sense?
I don’t know enough about the tales tweens tell to know whether any such parallels exist. Maybe Hannah Montana and iCarly are full of their own morality tales and metaphors. Miley’s trip around a stripper pole at the Teen Choice Awards makes me doubt it, but I also doubt that Disney is motivated by a philosophical desire to eliminate virtue and meta-narrative from cultural memory. For Disney, it’s all about market share and money. If fairy tales sold, they’d sell them. (They certainly aren’t going to give away the licensing for their princess empire.)
Certainly, our hyper-sexualized culture is a part of the problem. Our porn-saturated generation is used to a much more visceral and aggressive portrayal of femininity. Cinderella’s modesty seems out-of-touch in a world where Victoria’s Secret ads are plastered on the side of buildings and running during prime time.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if the cognitive disconnect between today’s families and the world of fairy tales isn’t rooted in something even more complex. Maybe the idea of long-suffering doesn’t connect to an instant-gratification culture. Maybe the idea of being part of a larger story (like the redeemed kingdom of Sleeping Beauty) doesn’t connect to a world of narcissism, where the story is all about us (like Hannah Montana). Maybe too, we hate the idea of being rescued. We’d rather believe that we could save ourselves.
A Little Perspective
Perhaps this is a molehill, not a mountain. It’s not the first time that Disney abandoned the princess franchise. They didn’t release any princess movies between Cinderella in 1959 and The Little Mermaid in 1989. (That era brought us timeless classics such as The North Avenue Irregulars, Freaky Friday, and the Hayley Mills epics, Pollyanna and The Parent Trap. Hmmm . . . perhaps timeless isn’t the right word.)
In itself, the decision doesn’t represent any sort of crisis. It’s simply a sign of the times, or rather, a sign of the economics of the times. There’s a whole lot more money in tweens than princesses, and Disney is responding to the writing on the wall. As parents, we need to be alert to the pressure that’s being applied to our children. This is their cultural milieu. Even if they never see any tween entertainment, their friends will, and it will shape their relationships. The stories we tell shape us . . . for better or for worse.
One thing I’m certain of: the fairy tale isn’t finished. Even if Disney isn’t telling the story, it will continue to be told. A beautiful bride will be held captive, and at the cost of his life, the prince will rescue her. Until Jesus returns, (and probably thereafter) we’ll want to hear the story again and again.
Because it’s true.
Mike Cosper is pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Crossway, 2014), Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel (Crossway, 2013), and co-author (with Daniel Montgomery) of Faithmapping: A Gospel Atlas for Your Spiritual Journey (Crossway, 2012). You can follow him on Twitter.