How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney Princesses

My wife and I are the kind of parents who think too much. For years we worried that Disney merchandise, especially the Disney Princess line, would corrupt our child. Disney Princesses, we believed, would exploit our daughter’s faith in hope and happiness and pervert her inner purities toward commercial consumerism, damaged imagination and general stupidity.

We held this line, more or less, for 5 years. Then, the Disney Store had a sale on Disney Princess dolls. We were shopping for nieces and nephews and were lured over by the hugely discounted dolls. Our daughter loves the stories and the dolls are way more interesting than standard Barbie fare. First, we picked up Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. Rapunzel’s hair was outrageously soft and we had never seen a wicked stepmother doll before.

Then, Belle and the Beast. Belle likes books and the Beast has a removable head that transforms into the Handsome Prince. Then, we picked up Snow White because her dress is a lovely shade of blue and Prince Philip because he has a great cape and looks very princely.

There it was. In one fell swoop and $60, we abandoned our principled stance against the Disney Prince machine. We took them home, wrapped them and waited for the stupidity to set in.

It didn’t happen. I unboxed the 6 dolls the day after Christmas, expecting the immediate onsite of trite story arch — true love, magical kisses and happy ever afters. Instead, my daughter picked up the 6 dolls and launched into a 30 minute, improvised musical about Rapunzel’s co-dependent conflict with her wicked “mother”, wrestling to balance her own need for adventure against the knowledge that leaving the tower would devastate her already emotionally crippled mother forever. The other characters intervened to fuse a ¬†fantastically complex mashup of fairy tales that served as foils against the Rapunzel/Gothel storyline to show other ways of being mother/daughter.

It was a powerful, mature mini-opera sung in more or less rhymed couplets. I tried to record it to share with the world but my daughter forbade cameras during her performance.

I was powerfully amazed and powerfully humbled. I should not have been surprised. My daughter is creative and can’t help but make stories from the objects around her.

Disney dolls are not totems. They have no power beyond the power that is lent to them through story. I knew this but had somehow forgotten. Toys have no power until they are brought to life through story. With a sufficiently strong imagination, all objects become playthings and the story is everywhere.


Fairy Tale Fact Check: Do Dreams Really Come True?

A few nights ago, my daughter and I read the Disney storybook version of Cinderella for bedtime. Cinderella is one of her favorite Disney stories and we read the storybook on a pretty routine basis. We got through all the usual stuff – cruel stepmother, bratty stepsisters, endless chores and a party for which Cinderella has nothing suitable to wear. Fairy godmother shows up and temporarily fixes things with a killer dress, fancy hairstyle and some new shoes. Oh yeah, and she turns Cinderella’s only friends in the world into work horses.

That’s all fine. Cinderella gets to the party, dances with the prince and accidentally breaks curfew. She rushes home in a panic, leaving behind the prince who has fallen completely in love with her based on a few dances and exactly zero conversations. He is so smitten that he sends a servant out to find a woman with the same shoe size so he can marry that person. The shoe, of course, fits Cinderella so the prince is happy to marry her. We never learn what she thinks of the prince. Presumably, he is a good match. He is, after all, handsome. Being Disney, he is probably charming. Also, he appreciates nice shoes. Not a complete recipe for happiness but certainly an improvement on her current situation.

And so the story resolves with the very practical solution. Cinderella marries the prince to get out of her bad family situation, and they live happily ever after.

At the end of the story, my daughter says, “Dad, is it really true that if you wish hard enough your dreams will always come true?”

I resisted the urge to explain that plenty of girls besides Cinderella have used sudden, unplanned marriage as a way of getting out of bad situations and found that it didn’t really help them all that much. But, that wasn’t what she was asking and that isn’t really the moral of the story.

My daughter is five. I am always giving her advice for when she is twenty.

I struggled around for a bit and finally came up with this: “I believe that the things we want most in life can happen if we are patient; work very, very hard; understand our talents and use them appropriately.”

She considered this for a moment, shrugged and said, “I mean, can you be a princess and marry a handsome prince?”

It was my turn to consider, my turn to shrug. And then, the fatherly wisdom of last resort, “Maybe. Go to sleep.”