The word princess is synonymous with brat, spoiled, entitled and worse, but it can also be a term of endearment. Everyone interprets things differently and is entitled to their own opinions, but it makes me wonder, how are we shaping the lives and beliefs of young girls by introducing them to princesses? Do Disney Princess movies send a negative message to young girls? Have they set us all up for disappointment? Have these movies and characters allowed others to portray women as weak and in need of a man?

I realize these are rather loaded questions, and they deserve more than a simple yes or no answer. So let’s explore how the term princess and Disney Princesses have affected women and society’s view of us.

Princess as an adjective

The term princess is a noun, although many use it as an adjective.

Merriam-Webster defines princess as the following:

  • a female member of a royal family; especially : a daughter or granddaughter of a king or queen
  • the wife of a prince
  • a usually attractive girl or woman who is treated with special attention and kindness

Where the dictionary definition (especially the first two definitions) may ring true in many Disney Princess instances, popular culture and society tend to define princess slightly differently. Generally speaking, the term princess can be viewed one of two ways: as a term of endearment or in a derogatory manner.

After asking a number of my female friends and colleagues their opinions on the princess subject, the consensus was:

  • When called a princess by a loved one (father, grandfather or significant other) the term was generally an endearment
  • When calling someone or being called a princess in terms of “you’re acting like a princess”, it was deemed derogatory
  • Some took pride in being called a princess (the positive kind), while others believe they have never and would never be viewed as princess

I have been called a princess a few times in my life, and it was not always a term of endearment. I have been called a princess because I wasn’t going to settle or compromise my belief system; I believed I deserved better and I wasn’t going to accept anything less. If that makes me a princess, so be it.

However, I think others (women especially) would agree that standing up for my beliefs and not settling for mediocrity makes me strong-willed and determined, not a spoiled brat.

Where did this notion that being a princess is a bad thing originate? Don’t blame Disney Princesses. Yes, they tend to be rescued and swept off their feet by Prince Charming, but were they brats? Did they act as if they were the only one who mattered? Did they act entitled? I think it’s time we delved into the portrayal of Disney Princesses to have a better understanding of what a princess is.

The portrayal of princesses in Disney movies

Too often, we forget that society has changed significantly over the years. Unfortunately, women weren’t seen or treated as equals, and this is more apparent in the original Disney Princess movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959).

Released during a time when women were predominately in the home and supporting their husbands, the portrayal of Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora wasn’t meant to be degrading. If anything, these princesses had to overcome some hardship to become their princess-selves (minus of course, their inner and outer beauty). While each Prince Charming played a large role in their respective princess’ success, they certainly had to work to get the girl. (Spoiler Alert) I mean really, Cinderella’s Prince had to scour the kingdom to find the one woman’s foot that would slip into the left-behind glass slipper, and Aurora’s Prince Phillip is kidnapped and then has to battle a wicked fairy in order to find his way back to his one true love.

tumblr_m67eklFjjH1qhfc59o1_500Source: Classic Disney Tumblr

Fast forward to the 90s and 2000s, and you will see a clear shift from seemingly helpless princesses to courageous, determined princesses. Two Disney Princess movies that stand out in this regard are 1998’s Mulan and Brave from 2012.

In Mulan, Fa Mulan poses as a man to save her aging father from enlisting in the Chinese army. Despite some early hardships and obstacles, Mulan becomes a skilled warrior. Once discovered a woman, Li Shang, leader of the troops, expels Mulan from the army. In the end, Mulan saves the day, and is praised and honored by the emperor and the Chinese people. Eventually, Li Shang visits Fa Mulan at her home, clearly enamored with her.

So yes, in the end, Mulan gets the man, but that’s not the major message of the movie. The lesson in Mulan is about hard work and going after what you believe in, regardless of what others think. It also sends the message that women are just as capable as men are.

Even though the Disney Princesses always seem to prevail, they all overcome some obstacle, whether it’s an evil stepmother, society’s standards or cultural differences. And while they’re all beautiful, Disney’s Princesses don’t fit one mold. Each has her own unique characteristics, both physically and psychologically.

Rather than focus on the physical aspects of the princesses, let’s focus on the actions these princesses had to take to ensure their fate. Or, we could focus on the mere fact that these princesses are part of a make-believe world; they are called fairytales for a reason.

It’s clear that the original Disney Princess movies fairytales depicted women who were less inclined to go after what they wanted, but one could argue they reflected the belief system of the time. Over the years, these movies have certainly evolved; however, one theme seems to run throughout the majority of the movies: happily ever after means finding your one true love. In this regard, it insinuates that we (as women) do need a man.

tumblr_mdn1oaftla1ry182to1_500Source: aishaditta

I would argue that this notion of happily ever after with Prince Charming has been perpetuated by the use of the term princess and the portrayal of princesses in marketing.

Princess Marketing

When we’re little, we’re easily influenced, and when we’re older, we’re still easily influenced. Our childhoods inevitably shape our adulthood. The things we read, watch, listen to and participate in lay the foundation of our future. Despite their portrayal in some Disney movies, princesses have been sensationalized and humanized by the advertising and marketing world.

Princesses are the focal point of many a young girl’s youth. We all want to feel like a beautiful princess, find Prince Charming and live happily ever after. And while there is nothing wrong with that, the way in which achieving those “things” has been marketed is somewhat unsettling.

From a young age, we see beautiful women all over the place, from advertisements and marketing campaigns, to the media and entertainment industry. We equate these cookie-cutter women as princesses and strive to be them. We think that if we fit society’s picture of beautiful, we will get the man and live a perfect life, like the Disney Princesses.

I believe the true issue with princesses is the portrayal of women in society, and not the portrayal of characters in a Disney movie. As much as women have advanced in the past few decades, there is still some disconnect of our place in society, and sometimes I fear there will always be.

We can’t blame the Disney Princesses; instead, we should challenge our culture, like this marketing campaign from Mercy Academy, a Catholic college-prep academy in Kentucky for young women.

Let’s challenge young girls to reinvent happily ever after. Whether your dream is to be a stay-at-home mom, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, an entrepreneur, or a professional athlete, it’s time to stop allowing society decide what we should be doing and choose for ourselves. Be a princess of the 21st century, a princess who defines her own success.

Read more: Disney Princess Academy Is Back, 8 Lucky Girls To Feature On Disney Channel