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Dad Next Door: The Princess Problem

A little encouragement from across the fence


When my daughter Maddie was in middle school, she wore nothing but T-shirts and baggy sweatpants. Most were my hand-me-downs, so “baggy” doesn’t do them justice, but that’s what she wanted. You couldn’t have made her wear a dress if her life depended on it.

But as a preschooler, Maddie dressed like a Disney princess. Snow White, Belle, Ariel — back then, that’s who she wanted to be. I still wonder why those princesses cast such a spell on her, and what (if any) effect they had on how she saw herself, and a woman’s place in the world.

Judging from the phenomenal success of the movie Frozen, I bet parents are still puzzling over those same questions. For all that the DPIC (Disney Princess Industrial Complex) dominates our airwaves, our toy stores, and the lunchboxes of every preschooler in America, we are just beginning to understand how those movies affect our kids.

One study found that princess movies devote from 60 percent to 80 percent of their spoken dialogue to male characters. Even in The Little Mermaid, which boasts both a female hero and a female villain, the figure is 68 percent. Of course, that’s due in part to the fact that Ariel literally gives up her voice for most of the film. So she can get a man. 

Let’s just contemplate that for a second.

So why are princess films, which are supposedly for and about girls, so dominated by men?  First of all, the industry is filled with male directors, producers and executives. Their creative vision may be grounded more in their own adolescent fantasies than in the tastes of their target audience. And yet, their success at marketing those fantasies is undeniable. Is that a testament to the suggestibility of 5-year-olds, or an indication of deeper gender archetypes bubbling up from our collective unconscious minds?

Beneath the veneer of neo-feminism in today’s princess movies, there lies an old, familiar dynamic: the damsel in distress and the knight in shining armor. That romantic ideal gets drilled into the minds of little boys, too. Men grow up thinking that we’re supposed to save someone — but first, we have to find someone who needs to be saved. And in order for a damsel to be vulnerable and in need of saving, she doesn’t have to be alone. She just has to lack the protection of women.

Have you ever noticed how often Disney princesses have no mothers? Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle... all they have are clueless fathers who are incapable of protecting them.  But none of them has a mother, and that’s what makes them vulnerable. That’s why they “need” a man to rescue them.

Deep down, men are in awe of the power of women who band together. We fear it a little. What are those women saying about us behind our backs? Why do they connect with each other, in ways that they never connect with us? Why, when they’re together, do they seem to not really need men at all?

In order to fulfill our destiny as knights, we seek out damsels who are on their own, in need of a man. It’s a deeply dysfunctional dynamic, and not just for little girls. In its more extreme and distorted form, it becomes the basis for abusive relationships, where the abuser isolates the abused so he can become her everything. Too often, a jealous control freak mistakes himself for a knight in shining armor, and forces a damsel into a very different kind of distress.

I suspect that princess movies are much more a symptom than a cause. We just saw the depth of our princess problem play out on a national stage, as one major presidential candidate promised to ride in on a white horse and save us all, while the other struggled to prove that her accomplishments, ambition and lack of feminine charm didn’t disqualify her just because she’s a woman. In a way, this election was a referendum on how much of a knight or damsel we expect our leaders to be.

Maddie has grown up into a confident, self-possessed young woman. But sometimes, when she’s sick in bed and needing some comfort, she’ll pop a princess movie into the DVD player, just for the pure nostalgic fun of it. And as Belle skips down the road toward her little French village, and the opening violins begin to swell, it’s not that hard to understand why. 

We all want to be the hero sometimes. And we can all use a little rescuing once in a while. The challenge, as in so much of life, is to find a balance. There’s nothing wrong with being a bit of a princess, as long as when we need to, we can strap on some armor and pick up a sword.

Jeff Lee uses antlers in all of his decorating in Seattle.

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