One of feminism’s favorite targets is the Disney princess films which, it is widely assumed, implant passivity and helplessness in young girls and perpetuate damaging gender stereotypes. I have to wonder if the critics of these princess films have seen one since Cinderella in 1950, because the Disney heroines haven’t been passive and helpless in a long, long time, while the male characters have become more companions than saviors. But that stereotype persists.
In The New York Times’ “Motherlode” blog last week, Zsofia McMullin wrote about how the “save the princess” theme of fairy tales like that found in some Disney movies was destructive not only to girls but to boys as well. She has a 5-year-old son and “a complicated relationship with fairy tales and the princes and princesses who live in them.”
That relationship seems more fearful than complicated, and what she apparently fears is her son’s masculine nature. McMullin writes that she “loves it when my son decides to play princess.” She and he “break out the nail polish and the sparkly eye shadow” together and watch Sophia the First, the animated TV series about a princess-in-training—a choice that hints at where she is steering him. “I am excited,” she admits, “when he wants to explore a different part of himself.”
But she is not so excited about him exploring his masculine side. Once, they were playing together and her son told her that “princesses don’t know how to use swords,” so they need to stay in the castle and wait for him to come to the rescue. McMullin found this chivalrous attitude disturbing:
I really don’t want my son to grow up with the perception that girls are princesses. I don’t want him to expect women to be passive, weak, waiting at home to be rescued and incapable of rescuing themselves… I don’t want him to think for one moment that women are not as strong and smart as he is. I don’t want him to want women like that. I want him to know women who can wield swords and drive fast cars and scale castle walls. Because we can. And we do.
She needn’t worry, because he’ll discover all that as he grows up. Like every other little girl and boy, he’ll learn that reality is more complicated than fairy tales, and that people are more multi-dimensional than morality tale archetypes—although that does not necessarily invalidate archetypal truths.
But “what if [boys] are not the rescuing type? What if they are scared of the dragon?” McMullin worries. “I don’t want my son to think that he himself can’t be a princess. I want to tell him—and I do—that it’s O.K. for boys not to be the rescuers.”
I’m sorry, but by definition a boy can’t be a princess. As for absolving him from coming to someone’s rescue because he’s “not the rescuing type” or he’s too afraid, that’s a worrying message to inculcate in boys. As the saying goes, courage isn’t the absence of fear—it’s the judgment that something else is more important than fear. If someone needs rescuing, your son needs to put aside any feminized insecurities and rise to the occasion, because that someone is depending on him.
McMullin wants to reassure her son that “it’s O.K. to not know how to use a weapon.” This also is odd advice. It’s wise and honorable and reasonable to know how to protect yourself and your loved ones. If you—male or female—don’t know how to use a weapon, then you and your loved ones are at greater risk of being victimized by someone who does.
“I want him to know that women—real women—will not expect him to be a rescuer and so he does not need to pretend to be that if it doesn’t come naturally.” As much as McMullin, in her feminist naiveté, would like to believe otherwise, women in the real world don’t respect men who aren’t prepared to protect them or to step up and handle an emergency.
But McMullin believes it is “necessary” for her son “to have some of that princess softness inside of him.” I seriously doubt McMullin would be so quick to encourage such weakness and passivity and softness in a daughter. What women like McMullin are really fashioning in their gender-erasing zeal is a world full of strong princesses and weak princes. This is at least as socially and culturally problematic as the reverse.
Ironically, McMullin ultimately faults herself more than Disney, because her own life—cooking dinner, shopping, letting her husband fix things around the house—reinforces the traditional gender roles that she fears are warping her boy. But if those traditional roles work for her and her husband, then what’s wrong with them? Absolutely nothing.
“I hope that with time,” she concludes, her son “will discover both a prince and a princess in himself.” My hope for him is that he grows to become a chivalrous prince, not a damsel in distress.