Written by Steve Norton of Newmarket, Ontario
Okay, I admit it. It’s a little weird.
As a (nearly) 40-year-old male pastor, the last thing that you’d think I’d be writing about would be Disney princesses. Still, with the release of their latest remake of Beauty and the Beast, I can’t help but think about how much has changed in a very short period of time for this contemporary image of women – and what the Bible says about labels.
Much of our modern understanding of what it means to be a princess stems from Disney’s powerful influence. When Disney first created the Princess line of products in the early 2000s, it proved to not only be a great way to help familiarize this generation with their older characters, it also proved to be a lucrative franchise of dresses, magic wands and makeovers. (In fact, just last year, the Disney Princess line-up helped propel Hasbro to record sales.)
Eventually, this was met with backlash as fans became more aware of Disney’s subtle stereotypes, how its marketing encouraged a certain image of young women and, subsequently, a standard of beauty for young girls as well. Disney’s iconic damsels in distress were becoming viewed with greater suspicion. This placed Disney in a difficult position where they were suddenly forced to rethink the nature of a Disney princess, lest they lose their market.
And, maybe, things have begun to change. In recent films, Disney has shown they are deliberately attempting to deconstruct the very princess stereotypes they worked so hard to build.
In their recent remake of Beauty and the Beast, Belle – one of the pillars of Disney’s Princess line of toys – proclaims she is not a princess at all.
In the recent film Moana, the title character is adamant that she’s “not a princess. [She]’s the daughter of the Chief.” (“Same difference,” Maui replies.)
Even Wreck-It Ralph’s Vanellope, after discovering her princess roots, throws off her fancy garb in favour of more comfortable clothes.
All of this shows a tonal shift from the House of Mouse, even if they do seem to want to have their cake and eat it too. Yes, they still want little girls to be excited about their frilly dresses and magic wands. Still maybe, just maybe, Disney is also trying to counter the archaic understandings of gender roles it has supported over the years.
Nowadays, it’s often the princesses doing the rescuing. In fact, they’re often assertive, proactive and more courageous than their male counterparts. For example, Moana may need Maui’s help, but not because he’s a strong male. Rather, he draws much of his strength from her ferocity.
Disney’s new vision first started becoming clear with the educated and fiery Belle in the 1990s Beauty and the Beast. In the 2017 live-action remake, this princess is not only educated but also empowering, teaching young girls in the village to read for themselves.
She has a greater sense of the world around her and the limited worldviews of others (“Your library makes our village seem small,” she says).
And she’s even less complicit to her capture than the animated version – in the 2017 version she stays at the castle as an act of sacrifice and even generates a much more natural relationship with the Beast than in the original.
This is a far better example to the young women of this generation (and to the boys as well).
As a pastor, I constantly think back to Scripture and how terms like leper, tax collector or sinner are always culturally imposed and create spaces of judgment and limitation.
These loaded terms lose their power in Christ, where “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” In Christ, labels fall away and we are invited to be at our most whole. I would even argue that Jesus empowered women throughout the Gospels in ways that biases within his culture and the church prevented at the time.
It’s possible that Disney is finally buying into what we’ve known for ages: People can’t be limited to any specific label – and labels are, at best, incomplete pictures. While the cynical might simply call it a marketing ploy, it’s definitely a step in the right direction to see Disney offer young girls role models that contain qualities of being strong, educated and sensitive.
After all, like Moana says, there’s no telling “how far [they’ll] go.”