Disney princesses
Lauren Elisabeth

Opinion

What Princesses Want: A Fable

Everybody in the whole world loves Disney Princesses. When you’re a kid, you love them for the songs, and the dolls, and the $30 plastic wands. When you’re an adult, you love them for the semi-ironic loungewear, and the “Order a full meal from Olive Garden, and we’ll tell you which Disney Princess you are” online quizzes, and the hot takes. But mostly the hot takes.

Deconstructing Disney Princesses is the best kind of clickbait there is. So it goes without saying that whenever a celebrity has a daughter, they get asked in interviews for some hot take—i.e., internet-friendly commentary—about Disney Princesses. (This will never end for as long as celebrities have daughters.) This month, we have fresh new hot takes from Kristen Bell, the voice of a Disney Princess herself; and Keira Knightley, who’s made several non-princess movies for Disney, which is all the flimsy excuse you could ever need to mine her for that sweet Disney Princess hot take.
To start us off, in her interview with Parents, Kristen Bell tries her darnedest not to say anything that could upset Disney, while still being critical of the classic princess stories. "Every time we close Snow White, I look at my girls and ask, 'Don't you think it's weird that Snow White didn't ask the old witch why she needed to eat the apple? Or where she got that apple?' I say, 'I would never take food from a stranger, would you?'” said Bell, the voice of Frozen's Anna.

For the record, this first example is really weird. Reminding a child not to take an apple from a mysterious old hag in the middle of the forest isn’t subverting the toxic message of the Snow White story. It was the message. The witch told Snow White that the apple was a magic wishing apple, and Snow White shouldn’t have believed her. Lesson learned. Don’t believe everything you’re told. This is a common element in Disney Princess hot takes: pointing to mistakes, which the story frames as mistakes, as reasons the princesses are bad role models.

Bell continues, "Don't you think that it's weird that the prince kisses Snow White without her permission? Because you cannot kiss someone if they're sleeping!" If Bell really wants her children to think critically about the literal events of these stories, she ought to be traumatizing her 5- and 3-year-old daughters with such nuanced ethical questions as:
● Is it OK for a prince to kiss a woman’s dead enchanted body at her wake, if her next-of-kin are there and have given him their blessing? 

● What if there’s tongue—like, that makes it weirder, right? But what if it’s part of the prince’s grieving process—like, as far as we know, she’ll never come back to life, so whose needs take precedence in that situation? 

● The dwarves gave their blessing, and they’re watching, but does that make it OK, or at this point does it make the whole thing weirder? 


Is it OK for a prince to kiss a woman’s dead enchanted body at her wake, if her next-of-kin are there and have given him their blessing? 


What I’m getting at is that fairy tales often involve bizarre and unrealistic situations with no clear 1:1 correlations to real-life experiences. Especially the further back you go, fairy tales tend to be a collection of bizarre and unrelatable events in service of one hyper-specific lesson. Like, how Pinocchio is a carnival of fear vaguely in support of the idea of being a good boy.

Still, asking reading-comprehension questions at the end of a story-time session is a good practice. Ironically, Bell is teaching her daughters the same lesson the Evil Queen taught Snow White: Don’t take everything at face value. Think about what people tell you.

Anyway. Let’s move on to Keira Knightley, whose hot take is the more fire-and-brimstone kind of hot. In an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, she said that although she agonized over the decision, her young daughter is “banned” from viewing The Little Mermaid. “I mean, the songs are great, but do not give your voice up for a man! Hello!” the Pirates of the Caribbean actress explained.
This idea about Ariel “giving up her voice for a man” is so often repeated, usually in these exact words. Somebody must have said it once, and it resonated with people, and they took it for granted that that’s what happens in the story. If you watch the movie without that preconception, that’s obviously not what’s happening.

It’s not exactly a subtle point in the movie that Ariel is obsessed with the human world. Before even laying eyes on Prince Eric, we see her fawn over her seagull friend’s explanations of human objects. (He’s wrong about all of them, but Ariel is naive and believes what he tells her.) She visits dangerous shipwrecks to collect artifacts, which she keeps in a creepy collection in a dedicated grotto. Her infatuation with Eric seems to almost entirely be because he’s the first human she’s met up close. She’s basically an amateur anthropologist, or whatever is the mermaid-to-human equivalent of a "weeaboo" (a.k.a. the internet's term for a non-Japanese person who's obsessed with Japanese culture). 

The inciting incident for Ariel to finally leave the ocean isn’t even her encounter with Eric—it’s a fight with her father, during which he tries to ban her from researching the human world. Ursula frames her contract around getting a kiss from Eric, but that’s presumably because that sounds unattainable, and Ursula wants to win. Remember when Keira Knightley said that she loved the songs? Does she remember that one song, “Part of Your World?” Ariel sings that whole song about all the cool things she would do if she lived on land—and notably absent from her list is any mention of Eric, getting to know Eric or even being around Eric. Was Knightley listening to those lyrics?

Ariel temporarily gambled her voice, and her freedom, on an opportunity to live her lifelong dream, in a deal in which a man was kind of weirdly an unwitting pawn. You go, girl!

I’m not trying to call Keira Knightley a fake The Little Mermaid fan. What I’m getting at is that Ariel definitely did not give up her voice for a man. Ariel temporarily gambled her voice, and her freedom, on an opportunity to live her lifelong dream, in a deal in which a man was kind of weirdly an unwitting pawn. You go, girl!

The princesses are always an easy target, but in a general sense, Bell and Knightley are both just parents carefully considering the media their children consume and how it impacts their development, so I can’t really fault them there. I wish all parents would do that.

The idea of “banning” things, though, as Knightley put it, is a little worrying. You can’t forbid your children from liking what they’re going to like. Didn’t King Triton learn that lesson in The Little Mermaid? Quick, somebody please tell Keira Knightley about The Little Mermaid! You can’t keep your daughter away from the human world or the Disney Princess movies forever. They’re all around you.

At some point, you have to trust kids to think critically and draw their own conclusions. They’re going to grow up and be told lots of dumb things. Like, that this apple is a magic wishing apple, or that Ariel gave up her voice for a man. I hope they won’t believe all of it.