Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

What to Do About Those Disney Princesses

In improvisational acting, one big rule is that when another actor does something, you say “Yes! And…” This means that you embrace the prompt that the actor gives you : Yes! Then, collaborate by adding something of your own to it: And….

Joy Martin-Malone from the MamaPop blog wrote a piece that appeared in the Huffington Post. To this I say “Yes! And…”

I love her article and urge you to give it a read. I love it so much that it is preventing me from doing my sacred exercise ritual because I have to write this post NOW.

Her article is about the striking parallel between Disney princesses and drag queens (big hair, fancy gowns, dressing up). It is also about the author’s discomfort as a parent of young girls who adore Disney princesses and their glitzy paraphernalia, princesses who share perfect looks and wait around for rescue from princes and their assorted ilk. She says that where drag queens revel in humor, Disney princesses wait and worry; at other times they wake up singing with animals. But unlike drag queens, they lack spunk. Martin-Malone worries how that imagery affects her children. About such princesses, she writes that “[t]hey are a perpetuation of the stereotype of the weak, dumb woman who obediently waits for a man to come along and make her valuable. Between the two I’ll always promote the big-wigged man crooning “I’m Every Woman.”

Yes! And….

Much of the imagery that Martin-Malone disdains is borne of visuals. Movies and accompanying products like dolls and princess apparel are examples. Because they are visual, these images get FIXED in the minds of those who view them: the princess must look or dress a certain way, sometimes she must even behave the way we saw her behave. The power of the picture is very strong indeed.

So what can you do about it?

Tell the stories yourself.

If the stories are told in person, face to face, by parent to child at home, in live storytelling performances, by librarians or teachers without picture book accompaniments – if visual representations of the princesses in a story are NOT physically shown to a child, then that princess can look and act like anything the imagination can conjure.

Together, the storyteller and the listener can fashion the princess into anyone. A princess can look like Mommy, she can look like the child, a friend, a relative, a babysitter, a drag queen, anyone! Princesses can be from any cultural background and they can have spunk, compassion, drive, or whatever your parental heart desires. Stories contain powerful role models; you don’t have to let Disney be the main storyteller in children’s lives! Take back that power and draw princesses with your own lips.

As professional storytellers, Barry and I take this responsibility seriously. We carefully craft our stories to describe princesses (and all characters actually) in broad enough terms so listeners can thrust themselves or others they know into the role. A broad description opens the door for them to do this while hearing the story and later in imaginative play. It also allows listeners to be creative and morph their princesses in future play sessions or when they tell the story to others.

An upcoming blog post will share ideas for how to describe such characters in broad terms. Be on the lookout for that. In the meantime, tell stories to the young ones around you. Later, when you look at the pictures in books and movies, you and your children can talk about how each visual representation of a princess is only one representation out of the limitless human imagination.

Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters

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3 thoughts on “What to Do About Those Disney Princesses

  1. Barbara Burns on said:

    Reading your well written blog reinforces my belief that TV, technology, and the educational system contribute to masking or eliminating inventive, outside the box learning and ideas as well as imagination.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! (And… 😉 )

    Julia is crazy about princesses right now—I think it is an almost-five-year-old-girl thing. (Although Asher digs them also and he is an almost-four-year-old-boy so perhaps I shouldn’t pigeonhole.) I am embracing the princess while rejecting the Disnification (hey, a new word!) of …well, everything…and letting both of my children make the characters into whatever they want. Any pretty dress, or even just a silk tied around the waist, can be a princess dress; a leftover ribbon from a birthday gift can be Rapunzel hair. Sometimes the princess gets to slay the dragon! (But lots of time she lets “the brother princess” do that because he likes to use his sword.)

    This—”Later, when you look at the pictures in books and movies, you and your children can talk about how each visual representation of a princess is only one representation out of the limitless human imagination.”—is an approach I hadn’t thought of, but…of course! My instinct is to turn up my nose at those images, but they really *are* just one among many representations, aren’t they? So much better to approach it the way you suggest, I think. Thank you for sharing it.

    • I am so glad this gave you an idea that could be helpful to you and your kids! Yee hah. I will be sharing more on how to interpret and speak about stories to kids soon. I was mulling over thoughts just yesterday as I was driving. Hope to see again live and on here Meghann!

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