I cannot recall my life before Disney princesses. To be sure, there was such a time, and I did not know then about the rewards of beauty and kindness and all other things that make up a woman. I did not know then that, if my life went right, I’d end up in love with a man and that romance would heal and make life worth living. In some pure time, I was a girl, untainted by these truths, but now I fear I cannot separate myself from the stories I’ve been told.
So let’s travel back to when those stories were still crystallizing into cold, hard fact. I was Cinderella for four Halloweens. The costume was blue tulle and centered in its chest was a plastic brooch printed with the likeness of the princess. Cinderella was still a natural choice for my once-a-year transformation and for one simple reason: who doesn’t want to be a princess?
Princesses are everything a girl is supposed to be. Primarily, beautiful and because she is beautiful, docile and sweet and a type of thin bordering on fragility. She does not yell but sings her grievances, letting verse sugar-coat her sadness. She does not concern herself with vanity but rather spends her time spreading kindness to animal friends and yearning for something more than the dullness of her surroundings.
She manages, by a combination of dedication and fate (the exact proportions of which remain uncertain) to overcome the dinginess of common people. How exactly, you may ask? Well, by marriage. It is a truth often lost that a princess is not a princess for most of the movie; only once she is chosen does she become extraordinary. This narrative of the miracle of being chosen assumed a different form when I grew out of princess movies and into rom-coms. A girl transforms into something more than just a girl. Romance animates her life, gets the plot rolling. Every main character of a rom-com teen movie is essentially Cinderella.
The centrality of romantic love within stories about girls is a peculiar phenomenon. Love is a good thing, but should it be the central object of a young girl’s life? And why do movies and T.V. shows revolve around romantic love? What does this elevation say about us?
The stories we as a culture consume are not neutral by any stretch of the imagination. They tell us what is good in life: what to crave and what to work for. Cultivation theory proposes that the media one consumes affects the way one sees the world; for instance, a 2015 study shows that because the world of Westeros rewards the immoral and punishes the good, watchers of Game of Thrones are more likely to believe the real world is unjust. Media seeps into one’s worldview, quietly bending one’s values and judgments. Media also does not live within a vacuum; tropes arise from the onslaught of entertainment we constantly consume, and if certain sexes are fed different stories, it follows that differing priorities should arise.
The prioritization of romantic relationships lends itself well to the American imagination of the ideal community, namely the nuclear family in the suburbs. If the goal of life is to have a nuclear family, a partnership is the core of that community. However, as David Brooks argues in his March 2020 Atlantic article “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” the nuclear family is a terrible way of arranging human relationships. The core is too fragile: one fraught relationship, say, a mother and father divorce, and the whole structure collapses. In the past, humans arranged themselves into tribes, then into extended families, in which the plethora of social ties ensured security if one tie broke. But the nuclear family (especially in the suburbs) is the opposite of such a healthy organization. Families sit isolated in islands fenced off from their neighbors, fully absorbing the blows of relationships fracturing.
Relationships are breaking more and more, as 45% of marriages end in divorce, which is a rate that’s been going up since the mid-’60s. Yet we stubbornly hold only this ’50s ideal of a suburban family with two children. In a society in which 35% of adults report being chronically lonely, there must be another way to structure society in which people feel supported by their platonic and familial connections rather than relying solely on romantic love. But the desire is reasonable—this is what we have been told to want.
The alternative, namely, not being in love, is cast in a villainous light. The single woman in princess stories like Ursula in the Little Mermaid is the antithesis of womanhood. She is ugly and alone, and because she is ugly and alone, she is vengeful and immoral. Female villains are never in happy relationships because to be in a relationship is to be a full and happy woman. Moreover, women who break relationship taboos—for instance, stepmothers—are similarly stigmatized. From the time children start watching princess movies, the foundation of the ideal, toxic American lifestyle is being built.
The primacy of romance in stories presented to girls also reflects the deeper misogynistic thread that a woman’s existence must be attached to that of a man—Eve herself was a rib ripped from Adam’s chest. In the decades following the Industrial Revolution through to second-wave feminism, most women remained trapped in the household, financially dependent and thus wholly dependent on her husband. Even now, a single woman is an incomplete one. This incompleteness takes on a subtle form; it manifests as a lack, a feeling that one is missing something essential. It is also an insidious lack as it can easily be mistaken as something innate and untethered from the seemingly inextricable misogyny that permeates our culture.
The first time I felt this lack was when I was in third grade. I was walking down the hallway with my best friend. We were four when we first met, and by the time we were eight, she was an extension of me. We dressed up as a monopoly board and dice for Halloween that year; my Cinderella days were behind me or so I thought. We walked side by side, her head a few inches above mine. Her face was delicate and precise, with long lashes and groomed eyebrows that her mom waxed every month. Two boys came up to her in the hallway as we walked. They said they were in love with her and asked her to choose. I stood silently having no choice, and I understood that there was a chasm between her and me. Somewhere, in the combination of our lips and noses and the curves of our cheeks, we were severed. The lack began to take up space inside me.
In my twenty years, I have not known what it is to be loved romantically. Infatuation? Yes. Platonic and familial love? More than I deserve. But I have been told there is a certain kind of love above any other, and it is in songs and movies and T.V. shows and everywhere that I look I am told it will save me. Perhaps I will never be able to rid myself of my feeling of incompleteness. I cannot stitch together the hole it leaves with feminist history, theories about family, sadness, logic, rage. Perhaps who I am is inextricable from what I’ve been told to want.
As Naomi Wolf wrote in 1991, while women are no longer physically or professionally relegated to the household, they face a psychological prison, trapped within a legacy of misogyny disguised as their own desire. Is it possible to bring down those prison walls without destroying the foundations of my life? Who am I if I strip myself of my innermost desires and of the cultural objects that built my childhood?
And sometimes I want to scream. I do not want to be small and docile, a little play-thing princess doll, but I still want to be kind, and I want to be loving, and I want to be caring and gracious and all other things that make up a good woman. I want to be a good woman. Can I trust myself to know what that is? Can I love myself enough to believe in my wholeness?