Welcome Kristoff to the magical world of Disney’s Princes!
In light of the new edition to the Disney Prince family, I think it’s the right time to take our critical eyes off of the deeply controversial Disney Princesses and ask, “What about Prince Charming?” Just as the Princess is a role model for little girls, the Prince is a role model for little boys. Even if the little boys weren’t watching, the girls around them are, and through these films they are taught how to judge a man, and what to expect from love. Because they set expectations, it is important to look at the Disney Princes with the same interest as the Disney Princesses.
Much has been made of harmful roles placed on Disney heroines, but there is another side no one talks about. Sexism as it appears in the depiction of our male heroes can be even more dangerous than the sexist tropes of the beautiful distressed princess. The majority of gender roles forced upon men are not even considered problems.
As romanticized as the atypical male hero appears, there is no such thing as a “good” gender role. Even a gilded cage is still a cage. As writers, it is impossible to write completely void of tropes, but it is important to recognize when we are using them. Tropes can be cages for characters, their writers, and their audience. Since gender roles are assigned purely out of habit, writers must endeavor to question and break patterns of classical storytelling. That’s why it is important to recognize that Disney Princes, despite being better off than their distaff counterparts, can still harbor harmful ideologies.
Spoiler warnings: Frozen, Tangled
Prince Charming Has to Be a Handsome Prince
In film, there is a much greater diversity of body types among men than women. While watching Frozen, I literally gasped when full bodied, non comical women were dancing at the ball as just background characters. It is rare. However, just because there are more variations of male bodies presented, that doesn’t mean it’s considered okay to fall outside of what is deemed traditionally attractive. Nearly every Disney Prince is the token attractive male in their film. The variety of bodies: fat, thin, old, short, and so on, are there to illustrate that the Prince has no real competition from the men around him. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Snow White especially illustrate the importance of handsomeness when it comes to being the hero. The real heroes of those films, the Hunchback and the dwarves, don’t get win the girl in the end – they were too short and dumpy.
The exceptions to the token attractive male rule are Pocahontas, Princess and the Frog, Brave, and Frozen. Brave uses the handsome prince trope to illustrate the absence of a love interest by making the men in the film comically unattractive. In Pocahontas and Princess and the Frog, there were a lot more traditionally attractive men. In Pocahontas, only the film’s villains were ugly, and its opening song was dedicated to getting across that John Smith was unquestionably the alpha male, aka love interest. The main characters of Princess and the Frog spent the majority of the film as frogs, making the appearance of other attractive men less relevant. I have a theory that these two films had more attractive men as a result of the creative team wanting to avoid the trap of racist caricatures.
Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, and Frozen all had stories with two attractive men: Mr. Wrong and Mr. Right. I almost don’t count Gaston, since his character design is clearly not meant to be appealing to the audience. In all of these stories, Mr. Wrong must be removed. Disney does its best to keep their hero’s hands clean, so few princes actually kill Mr. Wrong; instead, a story convenience will remove him for the hero. But it doesn’t change the message that beauty is vitally important for the Prince as well as the Princess.
Princes Are Objectified
We most often hear the word objectified used to describe the use of a woman as nothing more than an object of desire; the reward for slaying the dragon. A character is objectified when they are not given given personality or consideration beyond the one purpose of furthering the protagonist’s story.
In Snow White and Cinderella, the Princes aren’t even given names. Both are desired by virtue of their status and looks, not their personality. This is perhaps the simplest criticism of the Prince Charming trope: just as girls are being told they must beautiful, boys are being told they must be rich, powerful and handsome. This is unquestionably destructive to both men and women.
The Little Mermaid is often called out for Ariel sacrificing her voice to be with a man, but that ignores Ariel’s obsession with walking on land and the fact that her father had just violently destroyed all of her most beloved possessions. Ariel falls in love with Eric the moment she sees him, quite probably because this is the first human she has seen up close. Eric is not a two dimensional character, but Ariel treats him like one. On board the ship, Eric is gifted a statue of himself in the classic heroic pose and Eric clearly doesn’t like it. The statue ends up sinking to the bottom of the ocean, where Ariel fawns over it. While unintentional I’m sure, the statue illustrates how Ariel sees him. He is a symbol of her ambition to go on land to be among the beautiful people. He is her ticket out of the sea; their entire romantic montage takes place against Ursula’s deadline. Ariel must seduce Eric within that time or lose her dream of living on land. When Ariel traded in her voice, she wasn’t just giving up her ability to speak – her act also shows how little importance she put on talking with him.
Prince Phillip and Princess Aurora are equally objectified in Sleeping Beauty, as neither of them are the protagonists. Phillip and Aurora are used as pawns in the conflict between the three fairies and Maleficent. Prince Phillip’s agency is usurped by the fairies, and he is used as a weapon to kill Maleficent in her dragon form.
Princes Must Make Sacrifices for Love
Whenever we talk about the damsel in distress, the emphasis is put on the loss of agency and power of the damsel. Disturbing, upsetting and frustrating as that is, I am frightened by the way we talk about the hero, in contrast, as being a golden role model for boys. It’s always the assumption that the princess is loved because she is beautiful, but often times she just is loved without comment as to why. Mulan is the one exception – a princess who has to prove herself worthy. The rest didn’t need to.
In contrast, the only Princes who didn’t have to prove themselves are the two nameless Princes from Snow White and Cinderella. All of the other Princes had to prove themselves by fighting, giving up their dreams, or sacrificing their lives. The Beast and Flynn Rider make the ultimate sacrifice and are luckily resurrected.
To be loved, a prince has to be willing to kill or die. As most heroes have traditionally been models for warriors, that’s not really surprising. It frustrates me that in the discussion of heroes and damsels, we dismiss any assertion that violence is undesirable. The damsel in distress is not just about using women as trophies. It is also sets the idea that to be worthy of affection, a man must kill and be willing to be killed.
Some of the most recent Princes have added a new sacrifice, their dreams. This is usually colored as them having to mature. Flynn Rider and Naveen had their own plans, but the moral of their stories was to put their Princesses’ dreams before their own.
How We Are Moving Forward
Frozen is another step forward in the right direction, following Mulan and Brave towards breaking the long standing fairy tale conventions of the knight in shining armor. The film plays out almost satirically, as it teases the audience with its twice over bait and switch. Frozen leads the audience down the familiar path of “Prince Charming is the answer to all girls’ problems,” and then does a dramatic 180°, resolving the obstacles through sisterly love. The boy even asks for her consent to kiss her – how awesome is that?
Kristoff still technically rescues Anna, several times, but the pivotal breaking of the curse and saving of the kingdom was all done through princess power.
Frozen and Brave are clearly responses to the criticisms of the knight in shining armor trope. Merida’s three suitors, Hans, and Kristoff are used in these films to illustrate the princess’s independence through their unimportance to her. Even so, neither of these films offered male role models that broke with the established trends. The men are still evaluated based on their abilities as warriors, rescuers and their willingness to sacrifice.
To address the dissatisfaction with the Princes of the past, Frozen gives us Prince Hans. Anna is actually punished for falling for the old Prince Charming act. Hans is a full on vilified Prince Charming. Unlike Gaston, this handsome villain is legitimately handsome. He couldn’t look more like a Disney Prince if he tried. Frozen is clearly declaring that this trope is done.
Despite all the movies since, Aladdin remains at the top of the Disney Princes when it comes to providing a male role model. Every Disney Princess film has the pivotal moment where the Prince and Princess fall in love. The common ways are while singing, dancing, or after rescue. Aladdin and Jasmine fall in love while talking to each other and sharing their dreams. Aladdin is a nonviolent Prince who solves his problems by being clever. He starts out by aspiring to be the alpha male to prove he is worthy. Jaffar has a similar goal, but to the extreme. Through defeating Jaffar, Aladdin discovers he doesn’t need to change at all. He doesn’t need to be rich and powerful to deserve a princess. We need more Princes like him who challenge the expectations of male heroes.
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