Barbara Ehrenreich rails against the princesses in this piece. Here's part of her beef:
Disney likes to think of the Princesses as role models, but what a sorry bunch of wusses they are. Typically, they spend much of their time in captivity or a coma, waking up only when a Prince comes along and kisses them. The most striking exception is Mulan, who dresses as a boy to fight in the army, but -- like the other Princess of color, Pocahontas -- she lacks full Princess status and does not warrant a line of tiaras and gowns. Otherwise the Princesses have no ambitions and no marketable skills, although both Snow White and Cinderella are good at housecleaning.
When I first read Ehrenreich's essay, I was sympathetic to it, and I still think it makes some good points. Indeed, some of the clips that have been my daughters' favorites make me uneasy. In this one from The Little Mermaid, for instance, the evil witch Ursula tutors Ariel in what she needs to do to get "Dear Old Princey" to fall in love with her: 1) Give up her identity and become a human; 2) Remain mute ("The men up there don't like a lot of blather/They think a girl who gossips is a bore...It's she who holds her tongue who gets a man").
And in this one, from Mulan, the older women in Mulan's life instruct her in the gender expectations that she must follow if she wants to "bring honor to us all." It's straight out of Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology:
Granted, the movie as a whole, I imagine, calls these gender expectations into question, but in isolation the clip does little to encourage girls to resist their mothers when they tell them that "men want girls with good taste/calm, obedient, who work fast-paced/with good breeding and a tiny waist."
On the other hand, this clip from Beauty and the Beast gives us a heroine who's ambitious and curious, a reader who resists the arrogant meathead whom less intelligent women swoon after:
Likewise, in this clip from Pocahontas we see a strong female protagonist who resists the meaning that her father tries to impose on her life, along with the husband he's selected for her. She's the pilot of her own canoe, willing to brave the rapids and the waterfalls and venture down the more treacherous path.
So I don't know. I'm still a little uneasy about feeding my daughters a steady diet of these images, but at the same time I don't think they're quite as bad as Ehrenreich makes them out to be. (And, also, their diet includes lots of non-Princess female characters.) In a certain sense, knowing the Disney Princesses is essential cultural literacy for little girls. That's what they talk about at school. My hope, though, is that my daughters can gradually be able to think about these stories in critical ways: seeing what there is to admire in them, thinking about how they respond to the expectations of their families and cultures, but also imagining beyond the limits of the Disney vision of womanhood.
Luckily, too, their family is full of women who imagine and live beyond such limits, and I think those examples are more powerful than the ones on the screen.