Tessa and Marcus, our heroes, are friends from childhood who see each other regularly for rousing and oftentimes insulting debates about literature, pop culture, and societal values. Tessa is our charmingly frazzled damsel whose only distresses are work and family; Marcus is our unmotivated knight armed with a shining iPhone that is consistently more up-to-date and cared for than his life. Both are at the age where they stand on the brink of irresponsible twenties and career-focused thirties, and both are successful at ignoring the milestone precipice upon which they stand.
In a diner on a chilly Autumn Tuesday, Tessa and Marcus sit at a table with their recently cleared plates between them, after spending their well-timed lunch breaks together. They have exhausted complaints about their office jobs, which were extensive enough to occupy all of the actual meal, and now find themselves with time to discuss the complaints of their personal lives. As usual, the conversation was not destined to remain about their personal lives.
Tessa: Yep. I’m still hosting her and her five daughters while my dear brother-in-law is in Europe on business. That is literally everything in my life right now that isn't work.
Marcus: It can't be all bad. Your sister is cool.
Tessa: She is, but it is exhausting having that many children in my house at once.
Marcus: I don’t know, I always like when my nieces and nephews come over. It gives me an excuse to watch all the movies I loved as a kid. Don’t tell me that you aren’t pleased as punch to be able to watch all those Disney movies. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid…?
Tessa: Oh, I don’t let them watch those ones. When it comes to Disney, I only let them watch princesses of color.
Marcus: I think your attempts to be politically correct have officially strayed into offensive territory.
Tessa: It’s not a race thing. It’s a feminist thing.
Marcus: …I’m sorry, what?
Tessa: Okay, already I don’t let them watch Cinderella or Snow White, based solely on the fact that they are terrible role models for young women. But after watching the other ones again, I realized that there is a sick bias involved.
Marcus: Cinderella is a bad role model? What—is there a bad message hidden somewhere in teaching little girls to dream big? Or teaching any young person how to be tidy?
Tessa: Yeah, when it’s literally the only thing they tell you to do. Just have a dream, and the world will hand you what you want.
Marcus: Cinderella works hard.
Tessa: Yeah, cooking, cleaning, sewing—this movie teaches little girls, “Hey, ladies. If you’re obedient, and you do all the proper chores of a woman, you’ll marry rich.” She doesn’t go on an adventure, or grow as a person; a magical old woman just appears one day, apropos of nothing, and gives her a bunch of shit that she deserved, yes, but didn't really earn.
Marcus: How did she not earn that? I think a lifetime of servitude earned her a fancy dress and some shoes, to say the least.
Tessa: But she didn't ask for the means to get out of the house. What ambitions is she being rewarded for? All she does is keep to herself and dream of marrying a rich guy to do that for her—a guy, by the way, who does not know her name or where she’s from or literally anything about her, except that she’s pretty. And all she knows about him is that he is rich and handsome. For all she knows, he could be abusive just like her family does. But, nope! Who cares! He’s rich, and she wants to be married, so slap a ring and a white dress on her and she’s got her happily ever after. She’s what men assumed of women in the 1950s, which...I guess is appropriate because it came out in 1950.
Marcus: And Snow White? I’m almost afraid to ask.
Tessa: Well you did, so now you’re going to hear all of it till the very end.
Tessa: Snow White also does nothing but cook and clean for a bunch of men, who literally only keep her around because she’s pretty. They, and the hunter in the woods, chose not to kill her because she’s pretty. And then a jealous queen tries to kill her—because she’s pretty. Then a man she’s only ever met once because he creeped on her while she was doing chores kisses her while she’s dead because she’s pretty. That’s, like, her only defining character trait. Being pretty.
Marcus: So…yeah, wow. Princess Aurora is the worst culprit, then.
Tessa: It’s in the goddamn name. Sleeping Beauty. That entire kingdom is a breeding ground for empty-headed women who cannot prioritize their skills. When the fairies come to give her gifts upon her birth, they give her the gift of beauty and song. So, what? She can sing and never take a bad photo? Oh, and they make it even worse in Maleficent. In that, she’s given beauty and the gift of never being without a smile.
Marcus: Who would want that?
Tessa: Right? What planet do you live on where those are practical skills? None of those things protect her from harm, hence the sorceress that comes in and fucks her sixteen-year-old shit up. How about, “Here you go, I cast protection against creepy men who would make-out with you in your sleep. Also, here, be super smart and innovative in the sciences. And here’s the gift of never having college loans to pay off.”
Marcus: We can only assume that the third fairy would have gifted her with dainty handwriting, just to make her as appealing yet totally useless in the real world as possible.
Tessa: To her credit, at least when she and her prince meet, she’s not like “Hey, let’s get married!” She’s like, “Here, let me introduce you to my family, which is made up of three completely incompetent spinsters!” But then, yeah. He makes out with her while she’s unconscious and she marries him anyway. Snow White and Aurora may not explicitly say it, but they certainly aren’t giving any alternative except reward for date rape.
Marcus: That's some dark shit.
Marcus: And Ariel—Jesus, she marries a guy that she’s barely spoken to before. It’s like if Simon Cowell proposed to someone after their audition piece for American Idol.
Tessa: Oh, I know.
Tessa: Right? And she doesn’t save the day, either. None of them do. A rich prince rescues Cinderella, the dwarves kill the evil witch for Snow White, Prince Phillip kills Maleficent to get to Aurora, and Prince Eric stabs Ursula with a freaking boat while Ariel is helplessly flopping around at the bottom of the ocean. Even Belle--
Marcus: Don't tell me that you don't approve of the plucky one who reads a lot and falls in love for heart instead of looks.
Tessa: She is great right up until the end, when there's a big boss battle on the roof of the castle that she is not invited to, because these women are not invited to be the heroes of their own climactic endings. Instead, she has to watch the fight where the Beast kills Gaston. All she has to do is tell the Beast she loves him. Oh, wow. You'd already sung a song about it, so I hope you didn't strain yourself there, Princess. Then at the end, all of these princesses get married. Well—I mean, separately. They don’t all marry each other, like one big wedding.
Marcus: I know what you meant.
Tessa: That gets to my point. It’s not a race thing, not for me. I just want my girls to watch examples of strong willed women, and as far as Disney is concerned, those women are not white. Disney’s the one that hates white women.
Marcus: That sounds so absurd that I’m regretfully going to have to ask you to continue this conversation.
Tessa: For Pocahontas, the main conflict is between her father and the Native tribes and Governer Ratcliffe and western expansion. Pocahontas goes to John Smith and brings peace between the settlers and the Native Americans—temporarily, I mean, because…well, we don’t all live in wigwams right now, so we know how that narrative turned out after the credits were done.
Tessa: While John Smith goes back to England, she still gets to fall in love and whatever. She falls in love and saves the day--this happens more in the sequel, but I'm not touching sequels today.
Marcus: I hope your other examples are stronger than this one.
Tessa: They are. Now to be clear, I only count Mulan because she kicks so much ass and is always included in Disney princess paraphernalia, even though she is not in any way, shape, or form a princess. I'm not even going to touch on Tinkerbell, because, like, come on, she's a fairy, not a princess, and yet she's still in all the pictures and coloring books--
Marcus: Stay on target.
Tessa: Anyway, Mulan saves all of goddamn China in an epic firework battle. She single handedly fights the leader of the Hun army and wins, but only after she casts off her male disguise and resumes her role as a woman. I mean, well...technically Mushu sets off the firework that kills Shan-Yu, but it's under Mulan's command. She orchestrates everything and immobilizes the villain, allowing her idea to come to fruition. As a man, she is a good warrior. But she isn’t a hero until she is a woman.
Marcus: Wow, this is more feminist symbolism than I knew there could be in cartoons.
Tessa: At the end, her mancrush comes over and presumably they get together, if the grandma is to have any say in the matter. And then Tiana is the one that kills Dr. Facilier in Princess and the Frog. Prince Naveen is elsewhere, trying to save the day with romance, which is a temporary fix because, while it will make him and Tiana human again, it will still leave Dr. Facilier to go around basically collecting souls in the name of evil. Meanwhile, she bucks up and breaks the talisman that will get rid of that troublesome voodoo man once and for all, ultimately bringing about a greater good. That one is really interesting, because it is the exact opposite of the ending of Tangled.
Marcus: Do you know what interesting means? I just want to make sure you know how you’re using that word.
Tessa: Shut up, I’m on a roll. In Tangled, Rapunzel spends the entire movie being badass by re-appropriating symbols for femininity, and therefore weakness—her pretty blonde hair, her normally kitchen-bound frying pan—into more practical, real world uses, thereby turning gender stereotypes on their noodles. Both her and Tiana, a self-made business woman in the works, are learning lessons and kicking ass. But in the end of Tangled, who kills Mother Gothel?
Marcus: I didn’t actually see it, because I was a grown-ass man when it came out. But I’m assuming by your tone that it wasn’t Rapunzel.
Tessa: Nope, it was her boyfriend. Rapunzel sacrifices herself to save his life—a temporary fix, like Naveen’s—but it’s Flynn Rider who destroys the villain and rids the land of an ultimate evil by chopping off her hair, which—oh! Oh, wow! Samson and Delilah!
Marcus: The Bible story?
Tessa: Yes! In that story, Delilah takes away all of Samson’s power by shaving his head, allowing him to be subdued. In Tangled, Flynn Rider defeats Mother Gothel by chopping off Rapunzel’s hair, which literally takes away her magic powers. After that, she is figuratively subdued, like a good woman: she is returned home to her parents and gets married. Earlier in the movie, she saves Flynn by being active and badass, using her hair and hitting bad dudes with a frying pan. After he cuts her hair, she saves him by crying. To recap: before hair removal, being active and assertive was the way to success. Afterward? Crying. What kind of sissy power is that?
Marcus: Just think of all the cool shit you could accomplish at the end of Titanic with that power.
Tessa: Holy crap, I could cure cancer and solve world hunger.
Marcus: So, wait, what about Princess Jasmine? She doesn’t save the day either, and she’s not white. She’s the bound and shackled Princess Leia to Jafar’s Jabba the Hut before she’s stuffed into a giant hourglass.
Marcus: If I didn’t make a Star Wars reference, I’d have to tell my friends that I had a conversation this long about nothing but Disney.
Tessa: You know, Disney bought Star Wars, so Leia is actually a Disney Princess, now. And she isn’t perfect, either--
Marcus: You will not ruin Star Wars for me. Talk about Jasmine.
Tessa: Jasmine gets a pass here, because it’s not her story. Pocahontas, Mulan, Princess and the Frog: they’re all title characters. Jasmine is a side character in her story; that story is about Aladdin. Hence why it’s called Aladdin. But even she is like, “Yo, you can marry me, but not just because I’m pretty. You’re going to marry me because we are in love and because of my sparkling personality, which is super bratty right now because, you know, I’m fucking fifteen.”
Marcus: Whoa, what? She is? How did I not notice that?
Tessa: Oh, yeah, they’re all children. But to a five year old, fifteen seems like real adulthood. Anything beyond that is incomprehensible.
Marcus: I guess that’s true. Pick your battles, right?
Tessa: Right, and my battles right now are against Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, which all have completely stagnant protagonists who do the least amount of work to get their own happy ending. They all manage to use their good looks to recruit men to get their happy endings for them, and my girls are going to learn better lessons than that bullshit. Do you know the only white girl to actually save the day in the end?
Marcus: Again, you’re assuming too much Disney Princess knowledge of a heterosexual adult man.
Tessa: Merida, from Brave. She is a kickass princess who won’t marry someone just because her parents demand it. She wants to stray from tradition and be her own person, instead of some well-crafted royal twat. And she’s the only white princess who does not end up with a prince. What does that tell little girls?
Marcus: Wow, that if you are white and save the day and are super badass, you die alone?
Tessa: I—dammit, I wanted to say it. But yeah, you’re right.
Marcus: That’s fucked up, dude.
Tessa: Yup. I do let them watch Brave, because I like the you-don't-need-a-man hints dropped in that. See? I'm not racist. Even though I think she might be the only princess to not have a distinctly American accent...holy crap, does Disney hate American white women?
Marcus: What about Frozen? You never mentioned Frozen.
Tessa: I don’t count Frozen. The songs were great, but overall I gave it a solid “okay.” [glancing around] Much like spiders, it is a statistical fact that you are never farther than six-feet away from a Frozen fanatic, and they are violently obsessive fans. They will pin you down and strip you of your Disney card if they hear you say you didn’t like Frozen.
Marcus: That is not a statistical fact, and Disney cards do not exist.
Tessa: But, anyway, don’t worry about Frozen. Trust me when I say it doesn’t count.
Marcus: Why not? Elsa doesn’t get married, and she saves the day.
Tessa: Oh my god, you saw Frozen.
Tessa: And you loved it.
Tessa: [singing] Let it gooo…
Tessa: Let it gooooo…
Marcus: [angrily] I am one with the wind and sky, okay? Talk about Frozen.
Tessa: [satisfied] Okay, so who is the bad guy in Frozen?
Marcus: Prince Hans.
Tessa: But what is the central conflict? What is the main problem? I'll give you a hint: it's in the title.
Marcus: Um…it’s cold out?
Tessa: Exactly. The real problem in Arendelle is not Prince Hans being a two-faced douchebag. The problem is with Elsa, who can’t keep her icy shit together.
Marcus: And then Anna chooses family over romance and sacrifices herself to save Elsa, which, like, shows Elsa the power of love which saves the day and gives everyone the happily ever after they deserve.
Tessa: Hearing you say that is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me, even if it’s totally bullshit.
Marcus: How is that—shut up—how is that bullshit? It’s true.
Tessa: Elsa saves the day by doing exactly what the trolls told her to do in the beginning of the movie. “Hey, Elsa, if you’re a fearful shut-in, shit will go wrong. You have to use the power of love.” It isn’t till the end of the movie that she’s finally like, “Oh my goodness—love! It’s love! Why didn’t I think of that before?” I feel like Elsa’s the kind of person who would put a pizza in the oven while it's still in the box because she didn’t read the directions.
Marcus: Well, when you say it like that…
Tessa: Yeah, and the only tangible villain in the movie is still out there. There’s Weselton, who, sure is exposed as an asshole and banished from Arendelle, but he’s a side-villain. The one who gets a song and betrays Anna is Prince Hans, who does not get his proper come-uppance.
Marcus: Come on. Anna punches him in the face. It's awesome.
Tessa: Yeah, and that’s it. That’s the only punishment he gets that we see.
Marcus: They say something like, "Let his brothers deal with him!" They won't be nice, I'll bet.
Tessa: Right, attempted regicide should be punished with wedgies and swirlies. He's the youngest of twelve, don't you think he's used to that by now? The pain of an Indian burn is probably just white noise for him.
Marcus: Okay, but...like, he is still foiled. He doesn’t get to rule his own kingdom, presumably.
Tessa: But he gets to go home and still be a fucking prince. Oh dear, what a hard life for him! He gets to go home to his riches and remain an evil dude. Who knows? Maybe he can turn his schemes upon some other desperate-for-love princess whom he can marry and then smother in her sleep. He gets a chance at a happily ever after too, one that he absolutely did not deserve. So even if we count him as the central antagonist, the princesses do not defeat him. Two princesses are fighting against him, and he still got away.
Marcus: Dammit. I should have let you ruin Star Wars.
Tessa: But if we go back and call the icy cold magic the main "villain" to be conquered, it’s Elsa who saves the day and stops screwing with the weather, not Anna. And which one winds up with a boyfriend? Not the day-saver.
Marcus: Wow, that movie is a freaking mess. And that’s without the perky little snowman.
Tessa: Don’t act like you don’t know his name.
Marcus: Shut up.
Tessa: So in conclusion--
Marcus: Thank god.
Tessa: --Disney's white women are not allowed to be heroes and live happily ever after with a prince. You can have it all, but only if you’re not white. Disney might be the only place where society allows women of color to be portrayed with more strength than their Caucasian counterparts. Even Frozen, the movie that was made basically so Disney could say, “Look! Look how aware we are of the problematic portrayals of romance and the lessons it teaches to young girls!” falls short of that goal.
Marcus: Any theories as to why that is? Like, why they only allow non-white princesses to be heroes? It seems like if they were knowingly pushing an agenda, they would have gone the opposite way with it, considering the state of racial inequality in this country.
Tessa: Trust me, I think about it a lot.
Tessa: Nothing so far. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that there are strong women of color for little girls to admire. But racial disparity is still racial disparity.
Marcus: Wow, this conversation is falling apart on you.
Tessa: Well, you spend all day with five children under the age of ten and tell me how spritely your cognitive functions are.
Marcus: I would rather watch all of the movies we just mentioned in a loop for the rest of my life.
Marcus: That sounds awesome to you, doesn’t it?
Tessa: I still love those goddamn movies. I watched Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid after the girls went to sleep the other night.
Marcus: And somehow, you’re still single.
Tessa: Are you kidding? If Disney has taught me anything, it’s that the best way for me, a pretty white female, to find love, it’s to obsess over unrealistic portrayals of it. Princess Aurora first falls in love with a guy that she has only literally dreamed about, Ariel fangirls over some handsome sea captain who doesn’t even know that her species exists—even Anna sings a song about meeting the one at a party, and she’s the one who finds love in the end. So in the Disney universe, I’d be on the right track.
Marcus: You really didn’t have to do all of this explaining, then. You could have just said, “Hey, I’m Tessa. I was raised on Disney princess movies. Look how I turned out!” and I would have been suggesting that the movies be banned.
Tessa: Oh, sure. Wait till we talk about your childhood role models and the man they turned you into. Let's look at how all of the hypermasculine, acutely heterosexual man-beasts like Arnold Schwarzenegger have sculpted an unhealthy relationship to yourself and to the lens which you view the world and your place in it--
Marcus: [standing up] I'm going back to work.
Tessa: Yeah, that's what I thought.