Disney

The Problem With Disney Princesses Is Their Narrow Definition of "Happily Ever After"

Growing up, I desperately wanted to feel a connection to Disney princesses. I remember being over at friends' houses when they would be playing with their princess dolls or reciting lines from Sleeping Beauty. "Who's your favorite, Cinderella or Aurora?," they’d ask. But the problem was, I had no idea. I didn't get to experience this fantasy world because my mom had a problem with Disney princesses — she felt like they played into gender stereotypes in a harmful way. And as a kid, I thought her perspective was totally lame and uncool.

I, unlike many young girls, did not grow up with the stories of Ariel and Snow White dancing around in my head. My mom didn’t want to instill the idea that a man would have to come “rescue me” to make me complete. It all ties back to her own childhood — when she was five years old, she watched a TV version of Cinderella for the first time. She stared at the screen, transfixed by this story of perfect romance with a handsome prince. And this image stuck with her. “I remember being swept up in it,” she told me recently. “My idea of a relationship was that you’re caught up in this dance, and you live happily ever after.” It took her years — and a lot of hard work in her own marriage — to realize this isn’t how love really happens, and she hoped to help me avoid that confusion.

So instead of princess movies, I watched films like 101 Dalmatians and Fox and the Hound. And this didn’t exactly give me street cred with my kindergarten crew.

Courtesy of Sarah Ellis

For so many young girls, Disney princesses are central to their experience of growing up. These characters infiltrate every aspect of American culture, with most of the films grossing more than $100 million each and prompting every spin-off imaginable, from merchandise to traveling live shows. Frozen, the highest-grossing animated movie of all time worldwide, was released in 2013 and has brought in more than $1.2 billion to date. It has recently been turned into a Broadway musical, and a much-anticipated sequel will be out later this year — so it's safe to say our societal obsession with princesses isn't dying down anytime soon.

Ever striving to fit in, I worked hard to get in on the hype. By the time middle and high school rolled around, I had seen most of the films, either by watching them with friends or telling my mom it was high time I finally saw them. And at that point, I pushed back on what I had been taught as a child, and I dove head-first into princess-loving frenzy. During my high school choir trip to Disney World, I got every princess to sign my autograph book, and I even played the role of Cinderella in a community theater show. I had a group of friends who jokingly nicknamed me Snow White because I acted like a walking, talking Disney movie, always encouraging others and putting on a happy face, even when I didn't feel like it.

My poor mother begrudgingly accepted this — I think she figured I was old enough to choose my own role models, and after all, there were certainly worse things I could be into as a teenager than cartoon princesses. Since I was old enough to know my worth, surely I was old enough not to get swept up in the patriarchal elements of princess culture. So night after night during my Cinderella performance, she watched me sing “A Lovely Night” on stage and pine over the man who found my glass slipper. Given her personal connection to the movie as a child, I can imagine how strange this must have felt — her pride in my accomplishments mixed with a reluctance toward the character I played. She gracefully accepted her daughter embodying the very same role that shaped her views on relationships.

Courtesy of Sarah Ellis

It wasn’t until college that I started to think twice about my love for Disney characters. I had toned down my princess obsession by then, but I still hung on to my sentimental attachment. Princesses were childish, sure, but I didn't think there wasn’t anything problematic about them, per se — they were just another children’s franchise that made kids believe in magic.

Then, slowly but surely, things started to shift. I remember one day between classes, sitting online and taking a BuzzFeed quiz titled, “Which Disney princess are you?” (These were the days when BuzzFeed quizzes reigned supreme.) As I scrolled through my options, I realized I didn’t feel a strong connection to any of the princesses. For the most part, they had no real aspirations other than finding love. Belle was into books, sure, but she ended up trading her independence for a life of love with her prince/beast. And don’t even get me started on Snow White (who used to be my favorite) — she needed true love’s kiss to rescue her from never-ending sleep! These women didn't look so strong and magical to me anymore.

For the first time in my life, I understood what my mom was trying to do. From the time we're born, women are exposed to messages that make us feel lesser than men and enforce the notion that we are incomplete until we find true love. I think this mindset runs really deep and can be difficult to course-correct. By shielding me from princess movies until I was old enough to view them rationally, my mother hoped I would learn that love isn’t a magical fairytale ending.

Courtesy of Sarah Ellis

Now, as an adult, I couldn’t be more thankful for her guidance. Here’s the not-so-magical truth behind Disney fairytales: The expectation that "someday my prince will come" disempowers women from living lives on their own terms, or from seeking out romantic relationships that make them feel like equal partners. If we wait around for a significant other to find us, believing that true love is the only achievement that matters, we’re missing out on the chance to write our own personal narrative.

You have every right to a great love story, but you also have every right to happiness that transcends your romantic life.

This isn't to say, of course, that love is a worthy goal. You can seek out happy, healthy relationships and still maintain your independence and ambition, as long as you don't sacrifice your own dreams in the process. Pursue relationships that make you into the best version of yourself, rather than the ones that dull your light. You have every right to a great love story, but you also have every right to happiness that transcends your romantic life.

It’s critical that young girls are exposed to female heroes who don't rely on love to determine their value. Icons like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Beyoncé, or Wonder Woman, if you prefer a fictional character — or even Meghan Markle, if you want royalty! — show us that femininity is powerful in and of itself. These trailblazers changed the game because they flipped the traditional gender dynamics upside down. To me, a real princess is a woman who quits waiting for her prince and becomes the hero of her own life story.

If we teach our daughters they can grow up to do anything, we're sowing seeds for a world where women chase down their dreams with equal vigor as their male counterparts. And that's a world we desperately need.