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I recently read an article entitied Are our girls suffering from 'Princess Syndrome'? which makes the point that many Disney Princess movies send a message that:

Children as young as two are taking away unrealistic ideals from fairytale books and Disney cartoons that can affect their self esteem later on... traditional stories like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella promote the idea that if a girl is pretty enough and has fancy clothes and shoes, she find love and popularity.

So my question is, should Disney princess movies be avoided? Do they do more harm than good?

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    Note, this question while different enough to not be a duplicate, does have some interesting answers relevant here. – Joe Oct 15 '14 at 21:41
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    Do "Frozen", "Brave" and "Tangled" count as "Disney Princess Movies"? After all, they're from Disney and they contain princesses, right? – Shadur Oct 16 '14 at 7:53
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    Frozen has great messages for young women. Sadly, it also has a short segment that stigmatises people with mental health problems and makes the common but mistaken assertion linking people with mental illness to violence against others. Also, who lets two year olds watch movies? The American association of pediatricians recommends no screen before two and restricted to one or two hours of quality screen time after two. aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/… – DanBeale Oct 16 '14 at 14:50
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    @DanBeale Which segment was that? People with anger management issues are known for violence (against themselves if not others). – Cees Timmerman Oct 17 '14 at 10:06
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    @CeesTimmerman, at a guess: "(He's crazy. I'll distract them while you run.) Hi, Sven's family, it's nice to meet you! (Because I love you, Anna, I insist you run.) I understand that you're love experts? (Why aren't you running?)" – tobyink Oct 17 '14 at 11:54
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I agree that there may be an issue here - ie, some Disney movies perpetuate gender stereotypes, gender roles, and other things that aren't good things to perpetuate. However, I feel like this is similar to the censorship debate, in that simply not letting your kid watch them is not the right answer. Your kid will be exposed to similar issues whether or not he/she watches Disney movies; and his/her friends will undoubtedly watch them. I've known plenty of people who were avid anti-Disney folks whose kids couldn't get enough. Rather than censoring, use the movies (and shows) for good.

What Disney movies provide is a forum to discuss these topics. Avoiding problems I find to be a poor way to deal with them; it's not like gender stereotypes would go away if you just stopped watching Snow White. Instead, watch the movies and talk about it afterwards. Watch Frozen, where a girl does the saving - and really nobody saves anyone - despite the guy doing the normal white knight bit, amusingly turning the Disney white knight meme on its head.

Talking about these movies, especially as your children grow into sufficient maturity to understand these issues (likely earlier than you expect), is the best way to deal with them. Avoiding a topic rather than discussing it hurts your child(ren)'s intellectual growth, and they certainly will be exposed to the ideas anyway; it's not substantially different from drugs or sex, after all, in that you are better off discussing them at appropriate maturity levels rather than avoiding them entirely. On the other hand, exposing them to a variety of different viewpoints makes conversation possible about those different concepts and allows you to address the parts that concern you.

I see action movies the same way, honestly; they're usually some guy going around and saving people through strong man type tactics, or James Bond breaking all the rules to save the girl, or similar. These aren't any better, and should encourage the same kind of discussion. Their main benefit is they're not something you'd show to a young kid.

David adds in comments a good point, that you in discussing the movies, you can also consider the original sources for many of them. Frozen for example is based on a very different story (The Snow Queen) with a very different message in many ways - and is a sister saving a brother, ultimately. Both have interesting and good messages, and both have weaknesses; discussing them in tandem could be an excellent starting point.

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    Exactly: there are bad examples in pretty much everything you kids will be exposed to. Disney princess movies only come into question because they are so popular, and they are popular because (unlike a lot of what our kids see) they are full of good morals and examples and ideas, and with their superb artwork/music/storytelling, are fantastic for stimulating a child's imagination. This is far more important than any concerns arising from exposing children to somewhat outdated or unrealistic ideas/examples, especially if you discuss those with your child. – MGOwen Oct 16 '14 at 7:47
  • More to the point, avoiding the Disney princess movies is basically impossible if you engage with mainstream popular culture in any way, even indirectly. They're simply too deeply ingrained. The child is going to see them, one way or another; even if you don't show them, someone else will, probably without even knowing that you didn't want that to happen. Rather than being caught off-guard and coming to this unprepared, it's better to show them the movies under safe and controlled circumstances, where you can immediately discuss the issues that come up. – The Spooniest Oct 16 '14 at 12:51
  • I think it's worth adding to this answer that the best way to support or prompt discussion is to subject your children to a wide variety of different types of movies. Stereotypes are most effective in a vacuum, but when forced into an open forum of varying ideas it's much easier for children to compare and contrast them and see the value and danger in each. So allow your kids to watch these movies, but also look for counterpoints. – Nicholas Oct 16 '14 at 13:01
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    You might also (when your child is old enough) read the stories on which the movies are based (Grimm / Perrault, Andersen, etc.) -- the differences are IMO very interesting and could make for good discussion. For example, in the folk tale version of Cinderella both of the stepsisters cut off part of a foot to try and fit into Cinderella's shoe (the "glass slipper"), but are discovered so the self-mutilation ends up being pointless. – David Oct 16 '14 at 16:25
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    The The Snow Queen Kai and Gerda aren't siblings; they're next door neighbours. – tobyink Oct 17 '14 at 10:11
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In my experience, people see what they want to see in movies. For example, there was a brouhaha about Frozen promoting a gay agenda.

If you actually examine the plots, the messages of princess movies are overwhelmingly that wealth and good looks are not enough. Snow White and the witch were both very beautiful, but one was vain and one was modest and kind. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle's defining virtue is the ability to look past someone's outward appearance. Tiana is known for working hard in contrast to her wealthy, spoiled, and man-crazy friend. Anna's defining feature is her sacrificial love for her sister. Jasmine found her prince when she shunned the privileges of her station. Pocahontas is known for her wisdom and love of nature. Shall I go on?

Yes, the princesses are beautiful, and yes, little girls like the feeling of pretending to be a beautiful princess. Young boys like pretending to be Superman, but no one goes around accusing them of having permanently damaged psyches because they grow up and discover they can't really fly.

Give little girls some credit. Princess movies might contribute marginally to an idea that's already there, but the attitudes of her family and peers are much more significant.

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    "Yes, the princesses are beautiful, and yes, little girls like the feeling of pretending to be a beautiful princess. Young boys like pretending to be Superman, but no one goes around accusing them of having permanently damaged psyches because they grow up and discover they can't really fly." Actually, think this is exactly what is suggested and there is research to back it up. You make this statement without questioning WHY little girls like the feeling of pretending to be a beautiful princess, and whether that may be a bad thing that negatively affects them later in life. – Nicholas Oct 16 '14 at 13:02
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    I'm not trying to be confrontational. I think there is a lot of value to the earlier part of your answer. But I also thing this latter part needs discussed a bit, and not just the part about girls; little boys on ego/power trips can be just as harmful in the long term. – Nicholas Oct 16 '14 at 13:03
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    This this this this this. The "everything is sexist and stereotypical" train is getting waaaaaaaaaay out of hand, to the point where people are so stuck in their Social Justice Warrior mindset that they can't see that they're actually wrong in their interpretation of such materials. Often wildly so. This is one of those times. +1 to you good sir. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 17 '14 at 14:20
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    @Nicholas: Everyone dreams of being attractive. It's part of our very nature. There is nothing wrong with it. I don't understand why everyone is so upset by this nowadays. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 17 '14 at 14:21
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    @Nicholas: "Statistics are very clear on this, women are both under-represented in most high-paying, high profile fields and are paid less than their peers in all fields." Maybe in your country. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 17 '14 at 17:07
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While you should definitely vet the content of movies you let your child watch, Disney movies are perhaps the least problematic in this regard.

Let's look at a few Disney movies with these Princess characters. I'm going to limit it to the previous century to avoid an incredibly unweildy list problem.

Snow White

Here right off the bat we do have a problem. Snow White is at its very core a story about beauty, and a princess who is envied for her beauty, and who wishes for her prince to come one day to rescue her. So it could be problematic, but let's look at it a little closer.

While it's true that Snow White's most lauded attribute is her beauty, it's clear that she has many other positive features - humbleness and kindness.

Let's also consider that while she is the focus of the story, she's not the lead actor of the peice - the dwarves by far do much more than she does, and will likely be what entertains your child most.

Still, you may want to wait this one out until your child is better-acquainted with princesses, given Snow White's lack of direct involvement in her own destiny.

Cinderella

This one might be problematic too. The premise is of a daughter who has natural beauty that the wicked stepmother and her stepsisters are jealous of, and that only by getting a special chance to go to the ball and impress the prince with her beauty can she escape this lifestyle. While she does show some personal talents and resolve, this is probably the movie where most of the princess-complex fear comes from.

Still, it's not nearly as bad as you might think. Her 'beauty' comes more from the way she conducts herself - far more humble and kindhearted than her wicked sisters.

Alice In Wonderland

She counts, she definitely counts, and is definitely a major departure from the previous two characters. Not only is there not even a hint of her acting like a typical princess, she's an independent, self-driven character. The whole story is very...abstract in any case, so you really don't have to worry about any princess complex developing from this at all.

Peter Pan

I'm mentioning this one because of Wendy. She plays a very prominent role in the story, and could even be considered a protagonist in her own right.

Lady and the Tramp

Do dogs count? Bit of a wash here, more about preconceptions of beauty than anything else.

Sleeping Beauty

You might be surprised that this movie paints a rather progressive picture of Aurora (the princess) who certainly has dreams of meeting a handsome prince, but is also a lively, progressive and imaginative character, and not just motivation for the prince's crusade (In fact, at the beginning the young prince who's arranged to marry the newborn baby is amusingly disgusted by the idea, just like a young boy would be). You might run into some trouble with the fairy 'gifts' to her though.

The Aristocats

Do CATS count? Maybe...the female leads aren't exactly pro-active, but the young child and mother cat are just that, and really aren't anything to be concerned over.

Robin Hood

Do Foxes-Okay let's just say they count. Maid Merrian instantly falls in love with Robin Hood and is the object of his affection, and doesn't do quite enough to warrant herself as a progressive heroine type, and there isn't much to make up for it either. It's a very simple movie.

The Little Mermaid

Aaaah, okay then, here's a movie that is RIFE with problematic messages. A young princess whose beauty and gorgeous voice is renouned who gives up her entire life to be with some guy she just saw on the beach one day. Giving up her VOICE no less. And endangering her whole family. Granted, she has very independent tastes of her own and a fascination to know more than what she's been given in life, but I can definitely see a lot of red flags going up in terms of 'will this send the wrong message to my child'.

Beauty and the Beast

Okay, this movie has two sides to it that need to be addressed.

On one hand, you have Belle in the countryside, who is book-focused and intellectual against the provincial lifestyle of the townsfolk, right up to outright rejecting the boorish nature of the town's favorite man Gaston (who no one is like in any way). There's a lot to be said about the positive message sent here...

And then she gets captured by a Beast...she still loves reading, and she still has an independent nature, but there's something very...captured-princess about her siutation that might rub you the wrong way.

Still, if you don't mind the message that you can find beauty under something that looks ugly, it's definitely not a bad choice.

Aladdin

Jasmine's attire immediately brings up some concerns here. But let's try to look past that. She's definitely treated at the start of a movie as an object to be won, which she is vehemently against, to the point of running away and objecting to every sutor sent to her. It definitely teaches that there's much more to a girl than just 'being the beauty to be won', though it may emphasize an idealistic 'true love' a bit more than you'd care for. If not though, Jasmine's not a bad role model.

The Lion King

I'm going to say lions don't count.

Pocahontas

It's been awhile since I really saw this movie, but Pocahontas has a LOT more going for her than just pure beauty. She's free-spirited, wise in her own way, and very strong, even stopping a war. Not a bad choice, though you might want to vet this one more personally for other reasons.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Esmerelda's fairly independent. I don't remember this movie all that well, but she doesn't give of a huge princess vibe from what I can remember...

Hercules

Could be problematic. Meg's chief characteristic is that she's a princess that Herclues 'saves' and that she falls in love with him, something that gets used against him in the end, and that he gives up Godhood for.

Mulan

...Okay I could go on forever about this one, but if you need any evidence that there are movies with Disney 'princesses' who do more than just sit around and wait for a prince to rescue them, just take this movie and watch it with your daughter.

Tarzan

I'll call this one a wash, since the leading lady is an anthropologist who winds up staying in the jungle with Tarzan.


All in All

If you're really concerned about your daughter latching on to the idea of being a princess, there may be one or two movies that would re-enforce that, but not nearly to the degree you might think.

You should also note that regardless of what movies you expose your daughter to, she IS going to be exposed to this, one way or another, without your own input. It's ingrained into our culture. Her friends or family friends or even just TV commercials will introduce her to the idea, and it's better that you expose it to her in as positive a way as you can then to just let her find out about it on her own.

What you might want to at least try to avoid, however, is the Disney Princess toy line. Toys that wash away these positive self-asserting aspects of the character and make them into little more than just princesses wearing cute dresses and tittering about castles all day.

...Or if you feel like your daughter can handle it, just get a few toys for her and introduce her to a few positive female role models on your own. A single movie or a few needlessly pandering toys aren't going to ruin your child's self-image. Not if you're there to answer her questions about what being a princess really means.

  • Meg didn't want Herc to save her, but both liked each other's independent natures. And Ariel was more about curiosity, kindness, and admittedly looks than Eric, who didn't like the statue made for him and was smitten with the girl who rescued him, unknowingly having her live with him because he only clearly remembered the voice of his savior. – Cees Timmerman Oct 17 '14 at 9:32
  • Peter Pan is problematic for various other reasons. There's the whole Peter/Wendy/Tigerlily/Tinker Bell sexual tension thing. And the politically incorrect portrayal of native Americans. – tobyink Oct 17 '14 at 10:16
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    “Jasmine's attire immediately brings up some concerns here.” Can't say I agree with that. Showing skin doesn't make a character a floozy. Wasn't "I Dream of Jeannie" similarly condemned? I don't recall hearing that any kids' development was warped by that show. – VGR Oct 17 '14 at 22:05
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    Beauty and the Beast has some very serious problems with the way the Beast treats Belle and the way she responds to it. There are some very strong analogues to real-world abusive relationships, and the message that it sends is "if I love him enough and am patient with him, I can change him." And that is exactly the opposite of what young, impressionable girls (or any woman anywhere) needs to learn about how abusive relationships work. It's hard to imagine a more harmful message on that particular topic! – Mason Wheeler Oct 17 '14 at 22:28
  • Here's some much better advice for little girls to learn: If you ever find yourself in a relationship with a horrible Beast of a man who is manipulative, withholds affection when you don't do what he wants, and uses coercion, threats and violence to get his way, (which the Beast did--just because he never hit her doesn't mean he wasn't using the threat of violence as a coercive technique,) RUN! Leave everything behind except the kids, if you have to. Get a restraining order, and if there's ever any reason to believe that won't work, go get Gaston's help rousing the militia against him! – Mason Wheeler Oct 17 '14 at 22:45
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Girls may identify with the female princess characters and may adopt some of the ideals associated with them. I find some of the problem is when adults indulge them in the fantasy of them being a princess (and expecting to be given gifts and etc). I think it will be inevitable that children will watch them, but important to also let them see movies that aren't as princess-polarized, and not pushing a self-centered princess fantasy onto them.

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Older films may be problematic, newer ones are better.

There has been an interesting shift in the portrayal of love and male-female relations in Disney movies over the years. Earlier films portrayed star-crossed lovers, a beautiful helpless princess rescued by a dashing prince, their love somehow predestined.

You might show these films, but you will need to explain their cultural context.

More recent Disney films have been rather more nuanced and have emphasised the sacrificial nature of love. For example Frozen, where it is the love between the sisters that has power. Things don't go so well with the Prince, but it's the imperfect man who is willing to sacrifice his own happiness who ultimately ends up with the heroine.

Maleficent likewise: it's the love of the fairy for the child that has power. In both these films, the women are interesting and empowered.

So I would say the early Disney films should be bookended with a little discussion about the way we used to think about marriage and women.

The newer Disney films I would say are almost entirely positive.

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I think people overthink some things that are just so stupid. I grew up with Disney movies, and my parents read a lot to me, I have a deep love for both movies and books. I think it depends on how you were raised, I never had any expectations for a guy to rescue me, or thought that I would be more popular if I sang in the school corridor along with furry little friends. Come on guys give yourself a little more credit... Kids enjoy movies and there is nothing wrong with that.

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    While I agree with everything you said, this doesn't really answer the question. – Bobo Oct 15 '14 at 20:08
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    There are a lot of subconscious pressures on us as we grow. Any one of those pressures (like said movies) is probably not strong enough to completely alter a child's personality on its own, but it makes sense to limit negative influences and encourage positive influences for a net overall improvement in the incoming information stream. This is supported by both modern psychology, and by everyday experience. – Nicholas Oct 16 '14 at 13:07
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Joe and Zibbobz have already given great answers, but here are a few of my own opinions on some of the Disney films. For reference I have a five year old daughter, and a four year old son, so am naturally concerned about the messages in the films they watch. Also because I watch along with them, and I don't want to have to sit through a couple of hours of complete crud, whether they're actually any good is a big concern for me too.

There may be some spoilers.

The more modern ones first...

The Princess and the Frog seems to have marked the beginnings of a second Disney renaissance. Tiana is a good female lead character with a strong work ethic. Doctor Facilier is a bit scary for the little ones. One of the good guys dies, and actually stays dead rather than being brought back to life at the end magically.

Tangled is a great film. Like many Disney films, the hero and heroine fall in love unrealistically quickly, which is an annoyance from a role-model-providing perspective, but ho-hum, it's balanced out by the fact that Rapunzel is actually a bit of a bad-ass action hero. (Watch the scene with the dam bursting if you don't believe me.) Good music, lots of laughs, gorgeous animation.

Brave I've only watched a couple of times, but I found it refreshingly non-American. Unlike most Disney princess films, the entire story revolves around Merida (the princess in question) trying to avoid getting married off as a teenager. She shoots arrows, she wrestles bears, what more can you ask for?

Frozen is one of the greatest films ever. Possibly the greatest. Ever. I will not have a single bad thing said about it. If you have not seen Frozen, stop what you're doing, and go and see it now. Seriously, now. This post will still be here for you to continue reading once you get back.

OK, seen it? Did you like the bit with the... yeah? Yeah, awesome, wasn't it?! And the bit where he... yeah? That was clever, right? Didn't see that one coming - but there are actually clues early on.

If you went and watched it like I told you to, you know exactly what I was talking about in the last paragraph. Exactly.

(Oh, and if you like Frozen, you should probably check out Tinker Bell: Secret of the Wings which is basically just Frozen with fairies.)

Sofia the First is mostly alright. There are quite a few stereotypes in it, but the plot is mostly about Sofia smashing through them. She's not often in need of rescuing, but when she is it's usually another princess who rescues her. Sofia the First is not a theatrical Disney film, but a television series, though there have been a couple of feature-length episodes (and a third due next month).

Anyway, pretty much any of the post-2009 ones are fine. Let's look at selected earlier ones.

Mulan is great. OK, so to begin with she needs to dress up as a boy to get taken seriously, but she shows that girls can do anything boys can do. (And dammit if I don't get a tear in my eye anytime I even think about her retrieving the arrow from the top of the post!) The Eddie Murphy character is a little irritating, but the kids seem to think he's funny. Shan Yu is pretty scary for young kids. It's a shame they added the romantic subplot; the film would have stood up without it.

Mulan isn't really a princess though, even if she's included in the Disney Princess line-up.

Beauty and the Beast is fairly good. Belle is not just a pretty face, but smart too. She's not afraid to get stuck into the action - at the beginning she braves the forest to go and rescue her father, and later on she figures out how to break out of a locked basement. The animation is gorgeous, and the songs are pretty good too.

Atlantic: The Lost Empire is a slightly off-kilter Disney film. More Sci-Fi than fairy tale. I'm not quite sure if I like it or not. It does have a princess though - Princess Kida. She's barely in the first half of the film, but she's pretty cool. She gets turned into a weird glowing blue spirit thing, but she turns back to normal at the end.

In The Lion King, does Nala count as a princess? Probably. She's a strong character, but mostly that just results in her inspiring Simba, the real hero of the story to take action. Can a lion be classed as a role model for girls? My son wants to be a plane when he grows up, so why not?

Aladdin: Princess Jasmine has quite an independent personality, but the film doesn't really go anywhere with that. She's mostly just the love interest for the hero.

Pocahontas is probably a good role model for girls, but I yawned too much through that film to ever notice. I don't think she's actually a princess either.

Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and The Little Mermaid are all awful, awful films. (Though the Little Mermaid is at least nicely animated, with fairly good music.)

  • Interesting. I actually take more issue with Princess and the Frog than any of the others. It's the only one with the central message "no matter how hard you work, you gotta find a man, honey". And by central message, I mean, literally the middle song is "don't work hard, get married". – deworde Apr 30 '15 at 9:31

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