Once upon a time, a brave navigator sets sail to find a fabled island, in a bid to save everyone back home – this is the story behind Disney’s new release Moana. But the navigator at the centre of the movie isn’t a boy – she’s a princess, and like her predecessors in Frozen, she’s turning the stereotype on its head. Moana is a far cry from Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora who spends most of the film asleep, or Cinderella, who seems to accept her fate without question – she’s feisty, brave and adventurous. And actually, Disney was producing strong female characters long before Anna and Elsa hit our screens – back in 1998 we saw Mulan go to war to save her father from conscription and in 1995 we watched Pocahontas rescue Captain John Smith.
I asked my own children recently about their favourite Disney princesses, and they voted for Mulan, Merida and Jasmine. When I asked why, they said that Mulan was adventurous and interesting, whereas Sleeping Beauty didn’t seem like much fun. My seven-year-old also said she likes Merida because she has red curly hair like she does, and looks like a “normal person”.
Just when I was starting to think they were giving me politically correct answers, my eldest said she likes Jasmine because “she wears a lovely blue glittery outfit.” But she also felt that Jasmine “doesn’t sit back and take orders”, and Mulan “shows that women are independent”. I asked her about Frozen, and she said it gave the message that families stick together – I like that. Meanwhile, my four-year-old son summed up his feelings by saying that Sleeping Beauty’s hair is pretty – my suspicions about political correctness were immediately allayed.
But how important is it to see strong, feisty heroines – do we need to have our Disney princesses saving the day, or is it OK to sit around waiting for handsome princes every now and then?
“I do think it’s important that children see female characters doing all sorts of things, including the things we are used to seeing male characters do, like having adventures and saving the day,” says Dr Deirdre Cowman, psychologist and children’s author (magnificentlyu.com). “Equally I think seeing male characters in caring roles and expressing their emotions is a positive. It means that children get the message that they are not limited by their gender. Girls can be adventurous and strong, and boys can be vulnerable and caring.”
Carolyn Danckaert is the co-founder of well-known website A Mighty Girl, a resource for learning about girl-empowering books and films for children and teens. She says girls want to see self-rescuing female characters. “The heroines that resonate with today’s girls aren’t the passive princesses waiting to be rescued by a prince; they want to see girls and women on screen and in books who are capable of saving themselves. And these are the types of role models we need for our girls – smart, empowered, independent women who are in control of their own destinies.”
Along with messages about gender limitations, the more traditional fairy tales tend to put a lot of emphasis on appearance says Dr Cowman. “A study from 2003 looked at the content of Grimm fairy tales and found that the ones emphasizing the importance of physical appearance – particularly female beauty – were the most well-known, and the others had become less well-known over time. Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty are all young, thin, beautiful and ‘the fairest of them all’, whereas The Ugly Stepsisters and Wicked Old Stepmothers are evil and horrible.”
So should parents avoid these stories, even though we grew up with them ourselves?
“I understand that these stories are part of all of our childhoods and that parents want to share them with their own children, but it’s a good idea to be critical of the messages in the story and to balance them out with stories where girls and women are valued for qualities other than their looks,” says Dr Cowman, whose children’s book The Magnificent Toby Plum celebrates diversity and acceptance.
She has some very practical tips for parents. “We can’t completely protect children from gender stereotypes but we can teach them to be critical. Monitor the media that your child is exposed to and help them to question the images and stereotypes they see. For example, you can ask your child if the people that they see in their favourite cartoons or computer games look and act like the people that they see in real life or talk about why the heroes are usually male.”
Is there an argument to be made that if all the princesses are now adventurous and brave that Disney is going too far to the opposite extreme and leaving no room for traditional waiting-to-be-rescued type princesses? Personally, I don’t think so. Being adventurous and brave isn’t the opposite of hanging around waiting to be rescued – it’s just normal. It represents little girls and little boys everywhere. Whether that’s being adventurous in a playground or brave in a spelling bee, all children have a capacity to try to new things, and seeing it on screen helps bring the message home – kids can be anything they want to be, and have their own self-defined happy ever after.
Films with positive messages for girls:
Kiki’s Delivery Service A 13-year-old girl meets the world head on as an apprentice witch
Brave Skilled archer Merida discovers the meaning of true bravery
The Secret of Roan Inish A ten-year-old girl sets out to solve a mystery on the island of Roan Inish
My Neighbor Totoro Two girls move to the countryside and meet a mysterious forest spirit called Totoro
Inside Out Riley’s world is turned upside down when she moves to a new city, and her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness, Disgust – need to figure out how to work together again
The Wild Thornberrys Movie 12-year-old Eliza has the power to speak to animals and must find a way to defeat evil poachers
Little Women The classic book is brought to life on screen as four girls find their way in the world during the American civil war
The Secret World of Arrietty In this sequel to The Borrowers, tiny Arrietty is discovered by human boy Shawn, and their friendship turns into an extraordinary adventure
This feature was originally published in Feelgood magazine with the Irish Examiner