I recently watched a Doug Walker (Nostalgia-Critic) video about the Disney princesses. He said that he couldn’t put his finger on why princesses make one feel so uneasy until he saw Bridge to Terabithia, a dreadful film that ends with the brother being the king while his sister is a princess (all in their deranged fantasy, of course). This made Walker realize that it’s not the role of a princess that causes unease, but the title itself: that boys are cast as kings but the girl is always a princess. Why not a queen?
Indeed, queens in Disney movies are most often portrayed as malevolent. Walker attributes this to an image of innocence and youth, power and responsibility but not too much power or responsibility. I think there’s a better explanation for why children don’t seem to jump so readily at the mention of a queen, and it has a lot more to do with British history, and a lot less to do with an image of subservience.
Evil Queens in History
It is my belief that the image of the evil queen stems from a stereotype of queens that originated mainly because of psychopaths such as Elizabeth I. Women like Elizabeth Bathory may also have contributed (though she was a countess and not a queen). The word “queen” has since conjured up images of psychopaths torturing handmaidens, and so sympathetic royal females are made princesses so as not to associate them with such sadists. Yes, there have been many more kings who were even greater sociopaths, yet in British history, Queen Victoria, the most recent queen to achieve significant fame outside of the British empire itself (not to mention the Tudor queens, who were probably the main reason for the stereotype) was responsible for much cruelty and suffering (mostly inflicted on the people of India). Kings have been given a break due to tales of noble and just kings, and so, raised on such stories, it is easy to see how different genders would choose differing titles.
It would be interesting to see whether girls would shy away from titles like “duchess” or “empress”, as they may not have received such a bad rap. I still think that “shieldmaiden” would be a better title, but I don’t think it’s difficult to understand why someone would avoid a title like “queen” that’s been shown to include so many villains in movies. Similarly, boys do not usually leap towards titles like “count” or “baron” when they wish to play the hero and not the villain, and that’s because they are associated with unpleasant characters. I think their choice to be called “king” often has less to do with power and “authoritah” and more to do with emulating stories of honour and chivalry (although it’s probably about being in charge a lot of the time).
Count Dracula has made the term “count” synonymous with “vampire” and so when a boy is playing a good noble, he is unlikely to be a count. Barons are famous in fiction for being greedy and evil, as is seen constantly in the Tashi series (some really good books). Why then do they not choose to be princes more often than they do? It is because these movies commonly show a prince and a princess snogging, and at that age, children commonly find that sort of thing gross, and because (due to Liz I and Vic) girls seldom choose to play the queen, boys choose the role of king. Boys can also frequently be seen playing knights, which are technically lower in status and politically less powerful than a princess.
The Real Problems
Now, several of the Disney princesses are really quite horrible when you examine them. Aurora and Cinderella are, from my point of view, useless. I find Aurora in particular to be a useless subservient (though she’s far better here than in the original, let me tell you). I, as a hardcore Tolkien fan, am less offended by Snow White’s character and more offended by the fact that the dwarves (oh, sorry. “Dwarfs”) need to be taught responsibility when, had they been dwarves in Middle-Earth, they’d have at least had interesting names. Alright, maybe I’m being a bit judgmental and critical of anything that isn’t Tolkien, but I found the dwarfs’ behaviour a bit too childish for someone who looks even slightly like one of Durin’s Folk. Walker was able to point out instances in Disney where a princess shows strength of character and other such things. Most of these examples were unnoticed by me until Critic pointed them out, and the only one I have any great contempt for now (speaking of the character and not of any bad stories they might be in) is Sleeping Beauty, who does absolutely nothing throughout the story.
The Interesting Ones
Some of them are interesting characters who actually do something for the story, although I’m still confused at how Belle, a farmer, qualifies as a princess (though maybe her being a peasant is what makes the movie great). But at least Belle can be said to be a princess after marrying The Beast! How then did Mulan (another good movie) get on that list? When last I looked, she was with Shang, a general at the most. Shouldn’t she be on the “Disney Warlords” catalog? But I’m really getting on a tangent now, aren’t I?
The point is, most of these characters aren’t bad. It’s got more to do with the fact that their likenesses are sold in pink boxes and with sparkling gimmicks. Were they sold in generic, grey or brown packaging, nobody would think twice about any of it. The problem rests mostly with the merchandise and with the few characters that really are fricking insufferable. From what I’ve seen, the males in Disney aren’t exactly Hamlet either, but not everything has to be a masterpiece of words and mad royals. Definitely dispense with Sleeping Beauty and maybe Cinderella, but each one must be judged as an individual and not within a group to which they were only added after the fact.
On a mostly unrelated note, I’ve heard several people complain about the fact that the rulers of Equestria in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are referred to as “Princess” rather than something like “Queen,” but I’d like to point out that there have been governments where the highest ruler has been referred to as “Prince,” “Grand Prince,” or some similar title. This is augmented by the system wherein Equestria is governed by three (later four) princesses, showing that this title is most likely a quirk of their government.
It is obvious that Éowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan, is a much better character than most—if not all—Disney characters of any gender, which is to be expected when you compare Tolkien to Disney, but when you look at it there are a lot of roles worse than the Disney princess. Imagine if they were pretending to be harlots or something equally unwholesome! Yes, I’d like it better if the girls all wanted to play the shieldmaiden and slay hordes of orcs by the edge of their blade, but at least they aren’t watching Game of Thrones and wanting to be part of the king’s harem or something!