How can feminism and its aim for equality move forward while still placing princesses on a pedestal?
An unexpected hero emerged when millions of concerned citizens lined the streets for the Women’s March two weeks ago. It wasn’t an outspoken celebrity like Madonna, Miley Cyrus or Jane Fonda, or a noteworthy activist like Gloria Steinem or six-year-old Sophie Cruz. It was a fictional princess best known in some circles for donning a gold bikini.
Among signs that mocked President Donald Trump and reclaimed the word “pussy” were posters extolling Princess Leia. Images of the Star Wars character were a frequent sight across North America, often paired with slogans like “A Woman’s Place is in The Resistance,” “The Women Strike Back” and “Don’t Leia a Hand on my Healthcare.” After the fact, the Washington Post dubbed Princess Leia an “unofficial symbol for the Women’s March” and Vanity Fair called her the “surprising face of the rebellion.”
It seems counterintuitive that a progressive, increasingly radical feminist movement seeking things like equal pay and access to birth control would embrace a princess as its de facto mascot. Surely there are non-fictional women with real job titles to idolize.
Despite the resurgence of feminism, our culture’s collective princess fetish remains strong. Before she became a symbol of the march, petitions to crown Leia an official Disney princess circled the internet in the weeks following Carrie Fisher’s death. Our insatiable appetite for all things Kate Middleton knows no bounds, and Canadians were recently delighted to discover a potential princess story (Meghan Markle) in our very midst. The public fervour over Markle was so strong that tabloids attempted to bribe her former partners and friends for scoops.
Disney itself certainly hasn’t slowed down the unstoppable princess machine. Frozen’s Elsa is one of the most popular animated characters in recent memory, and fans can barely contain their excitement for Polynesian princess Moana.
Even Emma Watson – who speaks to the United Nations about women’s rights, leads the organization’s #HeForShe campaign and promotes candid conversations about female sexuality and pleasure – plays classic Disney princess Belle in the upcoming live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.
Princesses, and Disney princesses in particular, faced a backlash starting in the late 90s and early 00s over criticisms that they present an idealized view of women, unrealistic beauty standards, an unhealthy willingness to do anything to “get the prince” and stereotypical gender roles. Parents became wary of introducing their daughters to the likes of Snow White, Ariel and Sleeping Beauty. Meanwhile, the tragic death of Princess Diana, along with the Royal Family’s perceived mistreatment of her, cast a harsh and unflattering light on what it meant to live out a real-life royal fairytale. People loved her not because of her bejewelled crown, but because of all the ways she embodied an anti-princess.
In June 2016, a study by Brigham Young University (BYU) confirmed that early exposure to Disney princesses makes preschoolers more susceptible to gender stereotypes. Those stereotypes can have long-term damaging effects. “We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can’t do some things,” reported BYU family life professor Sarah M. Coyne. “They’re not as confident that they can do well in math and science. They don’t like getting dirty, so they’re less likely to try and experiment with things.”
Yet obsessive princess culture is on the rise again – even among self-proclaimed feminists. There seems to be a desperation to reclaim the title “princess” in the same way that more derogatory terms like “slut” and “bitch” were reclaimed in the past. Many feminists, especially millennial women who grew up on a steady diet of Disney, are convinced that princesses can be a symbol of female empowerment rather than subjugation.
Parents couldn’t embrace Elsa quick enough when she saved her kingdom via the love of her sister rather than a male suitor. This despite the fact she is still white, rich, privileged and conventionally beautiful. Markle used her newfound international fame to speak out against racism and pen a feminist essay for Elle UK. Emma Watson justified her role as Belle by insisting the princess have a career and fully fleshed out backstory. “She had invented a kind of washing machine, so that, instead of doing laundry, she could sit and use that time to read instead,” Watson explained to Entertainment Weekly.
Princesses have certainly improved over the years. They’re more outspoken, independent and diverse. However, they’re still princesses – and a heroine rooted in inherited privilege, wealth and elite status that, by definition, isn’t accessible to all women.
To a degree, the resurgence of princesses as not only acceptable, but aspirational among feminist circles is indicative of where the women’s movement stands. Things have become more comfortable for certain women. For them, it’s enough that modern-day princesses speak their minds, eschew romance and embody a curve or two. The road to equality is shorter; the change they still seek is less radical. However, we can’t judge feminism’s success by the status of its most privileged supporters. A rights movement should be judged by the treatment of its most disenfranchised members.
Feminism still struggles to include and adequately support working class, poor and minority women. No matter how fondly we remember Cinderella or how badass Princess Leia was when she killed Jabba the Hutt, it’s difficult to imagine a movement that aims for equality moving forward while idolizing age-old symbols of inequality.
After all, Princess Leia had to use the chains that bound her to kill Jabba the Hutt, but she didn’t carry them around with her afterwards.