I'm finally at the point where I'm done with writing and editing, and all that's left of my master's thesis is printing, binding, and signing. I've had several people ask for a little insight into what exactly I've been working on for the past year, and so now I'm sharing a few bits and pieces from an introductory document--my bibliographic essay. If I jumped from one section to another, I separated it with a little manual page break [--]. This means so much to me; I hope you enjoy.
I have always closely identified with the Disney Princesses. Before I could read, I had the Disney book version of Cinderella memorized. A spunky little toddler, I’d sit down with the upside-down book clutched to my chest and recite the tale to my parents as much as possible. The interest became an obsession when I renounced my given name and began responding only to the name “Cinderella.” There was a pointed princess hat with sequins and colorful tulle that adorned one of the posts of my curly brass bed, and “make believe” time was often some version of Sleeping Beauty.
I went to a small, private school for first through twelfth grade. I was part of a number of teams, but it was my high school cross-country girl’s team that really changed my life and has stuck with me into early adulthood. Five of us in the top ten or so became friends through our training, and after numerous races and summer camps, we all truly became the best of friends.
“The Princess Club” began, like many things in high school, with the Prom. I wore a yellow dress and went with a boy who ended up ignoring me all night, so my friends tried to make me feel better by very quickly remarking that I looked like Belle, but my date acted like a Beast. And just like that, I evolved from the three year old who wanted to be Cinderella into the sixteen year old who suddenly needed to identify strongly with Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
The rest of the girls assumed roles of their own—our blonde, down-to-earth friend was Cinderella, our long-haired, spunky friend became Ariel, our friend who was working several after-school jobs and took a lot of naps was Sleeping Beauty, and with a very Disneyfied treatment of race, our Filipino friend took the only non-white princess available and happily became Jasmine. All of us have collections of cards and notes from one another, adorned with stickers of our respective princesses, and I still receive Princess Belle birthday cards in the mail, even from friends of my parents. My high school friends and I were outgoing and fun, but we were exclusive. We’ve stayed friends over the last six or seven years, but it hasn’t been without unnecessary drama, and a few of us aren’t as close as we used to be.
So, when it came time to choose a topic for my thesis, I knew that I wanted to do something regarding Disney’s Princesses and the idea of friendship. I had taken a course on Anthropomorphism in Children’s Literature the summer before and was noticing that all Disney characters, especially the Princesses, have anthropomorphized animal friends. Instead of sweet and charming, I found the animal friends to be disturbing because they did nothing for the story except for helping each princess triumph over the opposing evil force so that they could win the love of their prince. Without them, though, the Princess would just sing and dance through the film until eventually, she married a strange man.
I finally decided that what disturbed me most about the idea of friendship in Disney’s Princess films was not the animal friends, but the fact that almost any of them could have been a female human friend, and weren’t. It might sound odd, but I still feel frustrated that Flounder in The Little Mermaid could have so easily just been another little mermaid, but instead was a male, anthropomorphized fish. A mermaid friend had the potential to bring something special to Ariel’s life before the Prince; Flounder was an animal who seemed human-like, but could be left without much thought on her wedding day. So that’s what I was thinking about when I started this paper.
I knew that I wanted to examine the absence of friendship and how that made for an unrealistic and strange world, but it wasn’t until I connected the Disney films to Mean Girls that I realized that this wasn’t just a strange quirk; it was a real-life problem.
The more I connected the Disney films with Mean Girls, the more I understood what I was trying to say: that I was finding these connections for a reason, and that young girls very well may start out on the path of the innocent little Princess in their youth, but if they don’t learn how to make and keep friends, they end up acting like Mean Girls in high school and college. I discovered that it was not just the absence of friendship that I wanted to discus in my thesis, but the addition of conflict between women as well. I decided to focus on the Disney Princess films that not only portrayed a young girl with no female friends, but who also encounters an evil female antagonist—that is, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid.
I am almost twenty-four years old and have had friendships my entire life, but the past year of working on this thesis has really made a profound impact on the way I see and react to the people around me. There were parallels between my work and my life that lined up in ways that really made me think. I always just believed that my issues with my past friends never had anything to do with me; that they were caused because my friends had their own issues which made our friendship too difficult. My friends thought they were princesses, and that was the problem—but I’m embarrassed to say that it never really occurred to me just how “princess-y” it was for me to even think that in the first place.
More than anything, I have learned—from both writing my thesis and from talking to other women about it—that I have something to offer to my generation, as well as the next ones. I learned that almost every young woman has at least one friendship that fell apart and really broke her heart, and that deep down, female friendship actually is important to us. I learned to trust other women, and that not doing so was not just ridiculous, but harmful. Most importantly, I learned that this is not some huge, impossible-to-solve cultural problem, but one with a solution. And finally, my thesis taught me that there is still so much hope for us.