Fairest of Them All: The Disney Princess-ification of Femininity

by: Mimi Nguyen

Once upon a time, I became friends with a princess.

Cindy and I met a couple months after I moved into a Chicago. She was very pretty — tall, long brown hair, and a face that turned heads. But what drew me to Cindy was our drastically different perspectives. I grew up in an immigrant family of working women who taught me to rely primarily on myself. Cindy, on the other hand, has always had a man take care of her.

“My ex-husband works and takes care of everything.” Cindy shrugged her shoulders. We were taking the El train and I just asked how she covers expenses without having a job. Cindy’s normal weekday consists of taking her son to elementary school, going to the gym, chatting online, picking her son up, going to the gym a second time, and then having a family dinner with her ex-husband (he usually picks up dinner). Cindy also has a house cleaner.

Worn out tracks made the train shake a bit as I asked, “Do you mean child support?”

Cindy shook her head. “No, it’s not just that. He pays for everything. He wants to.” She looked out the window as if she were commenting on the weather. By everything, Cindy means: her apartment (separate from her ex’s home), her car, her laptop, her gym membership, her food, her bike, her clothes, even her tampons.

I frowned. “But, aren’t you afraid of being dependent?”

Cindy kept her eyes away from me. “I told you. He likes it. I’m a damsel in distress and he wants to save me. Guys love princesses like me.”

***

In 2000, the newly appointed president of Disney Consumer Products, Andy Mooney, went to a “Disney on Ice” show where he noticed young girls in the audience wearing homemade princess costumes. The following day Mooney introduced a sales plan revolving around the Disney princesses. The marketing team even turned the word princess into an adjective to fully comprehend its marketability. How can they “Princess” the lives of little girls? What does a princess need and want? If a princess had a plaque remover, what would it look like?

“The first Princess items, [were] released with no marketing plan, no focus groups, [and] no advertising…Within a year, sales had soared to $300 million. By 2009, they were at $4 billion… There are more than twenty-six thousand Disney Princess items on the market, a number which, particularly when you exclude cigarettes, liquor, cars, and antidepressants, is staggering. “Princess” has not only become the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created, it is the largest franchise on the planet for girls ages two to six.”[1]

***

Cindy’s favorite topics of conversation were physical looks, men, and sex. Once she told me her ideal weight was 115 lbs. I responded with, “Cindy, that’s the healthy weight for women my height and I’m at least a foot and a half shorter than you.” Cindy looked sad and said, “You’re more athletic than me. And, I don’t think I can get a boyfriend unless I’m skinny.” This was a strange thing to say considering Cindy worked out every day of the week. It was even stranger because Cindy’s life was filled with men. If the contacts in her cell phone manifested into actual people, there would literally be a line of men outside her door ready to do whatever she wanted, needed, or vaguely hinted.

Cindy has tailored her personality and life to be what she thinks is every man’s wet dream. She will talk about sex anytime, anywhere, and to anyone. She masturbates multiple times every day. She loves to brag about her lack of a gag reflex. She has an extensive knowledge of porn. She plays basketball. She loves steaks and hamburgers. She showers her men with compliments. And all these efforts WORK. There was a night when Cindy and I were having dinner at a family restaurant. During our meal, Cindy got up to use the bathroom. When she came back she brought a man that she met on her way to the Ladies room. There is no embellishment to this story. She did this all the time.

For research, Cindy only reads male authors and only listens to male musicians. I’ve tried suggesting talented female artists to Cindy and her usual response was pretending to throw up and then saying, “I don’t like chicks.” She has a similar response to the word feminism.

***

            At the beginning, the primary princesses used for Mooney’s new marketing strategy were Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel and Belle. Although there are a plethora of additional Disney princesses, these four characters are on 95% of all Disney Princesses products. The browner princesses, Mulan and Pocahontas, are to this day still difficult to find in association with the Disney Princesses branding. Jasmine makes regular appearances but she is not as prevalent as the first four. It wasn’t until 2009 that Tiana, the first African-American princess, joined the fabulous four and turned the primary princesses into a “diverse” group of five.

Being an Asian American woman, I always keep my eye out for Mulan. It took me a while to realize Mulan isn’t very marketable. She’s a cross dresser who joined the army disguised as a man. Being pretty and having tons of outfits simply doesn’t match her personality or storyline.

With all their beautiful dresses and emphasis on materialism, the princesses drive home the message that every girl should want to be the fairest of them all. Not surprisingly, the general ideas of femininity in America are not much different. Consider how common dieting, waxing, plucking, and make-up are in our society.

***

            Even with her power over men, Cindy is actually an insecure woman. Her greatest fear is abandonment. Despite her obvious beauty, Cindy constantly finds herself unattractive. She suffers from an eating disorder, depression, anxiety and panic attacks. She is infatuated with death and has tried to end her life on multiple occasions.

“I have never seen a study proving that playing princess specifically damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. And trust me, I’ve looked. There is, however, ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy. And a ream of studies shows that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity – especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior – are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers. They are also less likely to report that they enjoy sex or insist that their partners use condoms.” [2]

***

            Next time see several Disney Princesses illustrated together, pay attention to their eyes. None of the Princesses look at each other. They either look directly at the customer or glance off to the side. It’s like they are all involved in one tremendous cat fight. Who is the fairest of them all, bitches?

To keep their storylines separate, Disney purposefully keeps the Princesses from acknowledging each other’s presence. The Princesses will never share tea or even comb each other’s hair. Perhaps this is for the best considering the Princesses barely know how to interact with other women. None of the Princesses have any girlfriends. Each princess is so elevated and unique they can’t share their lives with competing women.

***

I was unsure for a while why Cindy and my friendship ended after a few months. In the end, she had stopped talking to me. I felt like I had broken something but did not know what to apologize for. Finally I realized our relationship had been unraveling each time Cindy called herself a princess or used this self description as an excuse for bad behavior. Cindy’s ex-husband was not the only man financing her life. When I asked why she kept using these men she answered, “I’m a princess. I have needs. If a man is going to pay for it why should I?” I think Cindy grew tired of my questions and the messages they implied and I grew tired of being associated with a princess.

Tien (Mimi) Nguyen is a former TriQuarterly Online Art Director, and nonfiction and fiction editor. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Northwestern University. She contributes regularly to TriQuarterly Online and has worked for The Long Beach Press-TelegramRunes Literary Magazine and The Iowa Review.


[1] Orenstein, Peggy. Cinderella Ate My Daughter. New York: Harper. 2011. p14.

[2] Orenstein, Peggy. Cinderella Ate My Daughter. New York: Harper. 2011. p16

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