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The Unpretty Portrayal Of Dads In The Disney Princess Movies, Part 1
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The Unpretty Portrayal of Dads in the Disney Princess Movies, part 1

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part epic about how dads are portrayed in the Disney Princess movies. Check back tomorrow to see part two!

As the father of a five-year-old girl, I fought the good fight against the Disney Princess franchise and – I’m man enough to admit – I lost. I totally got my butt kicked. My wife and I did our best to keep our little girl away from all of the princess culture indoctrination material with the crowns, make-up, jewelry, and the wishing that someday her prince would come, but, despite our valiant efforts, Disney Princesses found their way onto her radar when she was about three years old and they’ve stayed there ever since. And, now that I’m two years in, I’ll acknowledge that the whole princess thing isn’t completely horrible, provided that, as a parent, you balance it out with a lot of other material and some indoctrination of your own.

Our main worry was that some of the Disney Princesses aren’t exactly the best role models for young kids. They’re often submissive, passive, way too focused on their looks, and completely beholden to the men who come to their rescue. And, trust me, as the father of an only girl, you definitely want your little sweetheart to act more like Wonder Woman or Hit Girl than Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. And, thankfully, I think my daughter gets it. When she plays with her princess figures, she has THEM save the princes and not the other way around. She’ll wear princess dresses, but only if she can also carry her homemade lightsaber too. We somehow stumbled into a nice equilibrium with the Disney Princess craze, which was a nice surprise, but, once I stopped worrying about how the princesses were portrayed in the Disney films, I had time to start worrying about how the dads were portrayed. You know, the kings, the lost aristocrats, the noble warriors… the extremely, extremely absent father figures. And, as you can guess, what I was seeing wasn’t very pretty.

As a service to the dads out there struggling with kids who might have a similar affinity for the Disney Princess Industrial Complex, I decided to breakdown how fathers are portrayed in all ten of the major Disney Princess films, if only to point out exactly how low Disney sets the bar when it comes to showing fathers in a positive light onscreen. Disney Princess fathers are largely absent, oblivious, easily manipulated, loathe to accept responsibility, and generally not the sharpest tools in the shed. Their daughters normally succeed in life DESPITE them, not because of them. And, speaking as a dad, I think that kind of stinks. Take a look at ten of the least impressive fathers in film history and decide for yourself if they’re as potentially damaging to a kid as the old-fashioned damsel in distress.

 

Princess: Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Father: Dead King

What’s Daddy Like?: Aside from being the template for 75 years worth of subsequent Disney fairy tales, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also firmly establishes the archetype of the Disney father, i.e. an absentee dad with a penchant for being completely, brain-numbingly oblivious. How oblivious was Snow White’s dad? He married the fairest maiden of them all (at the time) without realizing that she was sociopathically vain AND a fairly profound student of the black arts. Yes, people have written ad nauseum about Disney’s apparent obsession with the wicked stepmother, but let none of us forget that the true villain in an evil stepmother story is the IDIOT father who lets such a jerk get near his kids. Behind every black-hearted witch-queen stepmother is a spineless father-king muttering, “C’mon, you two, can’t we just get along?”

Snow White

Some instincts surpass daddy-issues.

I’d actually prefer it if more of the Disney Princesses had unrepentantly evil fathers because, at least then, they’d be active and powerful and have a personality. As is, the majority of Disney Princess dads are SO ineffectual and emasculated that they barely register. It’s no wonder that Snow moved in with the first seven guys that gave her the time of day and MARRIED the first guy who ever kissed her. When a princess’ dad isn’t around and the long-lost king has such a legacy of being a legendary wimp, of course, she’s going to seek out new daddy figures whenever she can find them – no matter how short they are or how short a time she’s known them.

 

Princess: Cinderella from Cinderella (1950)

Father: Dead Aristocrat

Wicked QueenWhat’s Daddy Like?: The fathers from Snow White and Cinderella are shockingly similar. Both are supposedly well-heeled men who married well and sired beautiful and kind daughters… until their “nice” first wives died and they lost their minds. At least, Snow White’s dad had the excuse that his replacement wife was allegedly the “fairest of them all” at the time, so it was a classic case of an older dad getting hypnotized by a banging trophy wife. Not a great excuse, but it makes way more sense than what happened with Cinderella’s dad. He married the strident, humorless Lady Tremaine on the rebound and brought her jerky, entitled daughters to come live with his supposedly angelic daughter. I guess there’s some assumption that Lady Tremaine kept her evil side a secret until Cindy’s dad kicked off, but, come on, again, the responsibility lies with the DAD in this situation – how could you bring such blatantly terrible people to come live with your only kid?

And, unlike Snow White’s situation, Cinderella’s stepmom had NO black magic ability – Cindy got all the bad hoodoo powers in her family – so the dad couldn’t even say he was bewitched. He was just a nebbish idiot with blinders the size of a pumpkin carriage. So, again, Mr. Oblivious drops his daughter into a horrible situation and, of course, she runs off with the first guy who gives her the time of day. At least, the Prince appeared to be active – searching for the woman he wanted – rather than Cinderella’s own father, who, in retrospect, comes off as a sad bachelor who thought that it was better to pick a new mom at random rather than, you know, hire a governess and spend some time raising his own kid.

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Author: Tom Burns View all posts by
Tom is a 10-year veteran at an educational publishing company and has been a writer and/or contributing editor for pop culture sites like UGO, Movie Retriever, The Deadbolt, and Hollywood Chicago. He founded Building A Library - a website devoted to helping parents find the right books for their kids. He's also published by The Good Men Project and has been spotted on The Huffington Post.
  • http://twitter.com/thesuperungnome Remy Stevensen

    Good read! As I now have a little girl to balance out the force of my two boys the whole “Princess” culture scares the crap out of me.  I am glad we live the way we do and the chances of my daughter getting wrapped in in Disneyfication are slim to none.  I look forward to the next installment!

    • http://profiles.google.com/mr.aion Justin Aion

      I have two girls and no boys to even it out.  My in-laws insist on buying all sorts of pink stuff, no matter how often I tell them to stop…

      • Ronald McCall

        Have you tried telling them that pink is fine, so long as it isn’t a negative idol or imagery you have to fight? Like maybe some pink camo, or bow and arrow set (suction cup if too young of course). They clearly won’t stop, so try to get them tailored on more positive things in pink.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sigurrosjona Sigurrós Jóna Oddsdóttir

    Actually, Cinderella´s prince didn´t put on an active search for his true love himself. His father sent his loyal servant out to do the search. Maybe the prince had already forgotten the whole thing… ;)

    • http://8bitdad.com Bryan Ferguson

      Hello, Iceland! :)

  • LizzieSavage

    I have to disagree with you on a lot of these points. I’m the mother of 2 boys, I have 6 sisters so I was raised with princess movies & ideals, and I was a sociology major, so I’m reading this from 3 different perspectives. First, the sociologist and modern parent in me agrees with your points but you are judging the fathers with a modern and already negative mind. It sounds like you WANT to find something wrong so as to devalue the fathers in these films and at the same time you are giving them too much credit for their roles in their daughter’s lives. I like to view these dads by different standards: first of all, by the time-period each film is suppose to reflect and the roles of fathers “back then.” second, by the time-period that the films were produced in (the role of fathers has changed dramatically from 1930s to present). Third, the role of the mothers, servants, other influential people in these girls’ lives. Fathers (even kings) weren’t as influential to royal girls as their nurses, confidants, teachers, etc. Also… we come into these girls’ lives just as their major life changes are happening. We do not know what happened to lead up to that point, what psychologically happened to the princesses and/or their fathers, whether there was a change from childhood into teen years, how the fathers reacted to their girls entering puberty, maybe they were perfect dads before and don’t know how to deal with them as “women of marrying age.”

    You’re also missing an important point: every princess loves and respects her fathers very much! These fathers are more “daddy” material and it seems this helps define where the kindness and compassion in the girls comes from. Having a dopey father also seems to make the female characters stronger, so I find it to be empowering for girls to see these princesses taking care of their problems on their own, since dopey-dad can’t help them and mom is absent, they only have their animal friends to rely on. As for the beauty, fashion, materialistic qualities of these films: they show girls that they can be beautiful AND strong, girlie-girls don’t have to be ditzy, and kindness is NOT a weakness.

    You can show your daughters that these are fictional characters by relating them to the Disney animal films. Having boys, we only really watch the animals ones (Lion King, Lady & The Tramp, etc) and hero films (Hercules, Incredibles, etc). That way you don’t have to worry about your kids wanting to grow up to be literal princesses, like I don’t want my boys to become Simba. :)

    • LizzieSavage

      It also just occurred to me that none of these characters have siblings. Interesting…

    • http://twitter.com/BuildaLibrary Tom B.

      I see where you’re coming from, but, broadly, I will say that I don’t think the time-period distinctions – “this is just how it was back then” – are that important to young kids. Those distinctions are going to be lost on them since, chances are, they’re not going to know the historical context. I DO think children view these movies and look for “roles.” This is the role of the mother, the step-mother, the father – and, while I agree, the father figures shouldn’t be the dominant characters in these princess stories, I do think it’s unfortunate that there are so few positive father figures in these movies.

      Yes, the princesses love their dads – their absent, oblivious, ineffective dads. I’d even take a positive male mentor or grandfather figure, but there are no really constructive paternal role models in most of these movies. (And don’t even get me started on how poorly stepmothers are treated… oy..)

      And I respectfully disagree with you about the emphasis on beauty in the princess films. Yes, being beautful and strong is important, but the emphasis on beauty FAR out weighs the “strong” in most of these movies. Ariel, in particular, makes a series of remarkably shallow decisions based on very surface level emotions and then stands back as everyone around her cleans up her mess and dotes on her.

      I’m not anti-princess, but, as the parent of a young girl, I do have to do a LOT of filling in the blanks, providing context, and sometimes outright lying to my daughter (“And then Ariel and Eric decided to date for a few years while Ariel pursued her medical degree…”) to counteract the mixed messages in the film.

      • LizzieSavage

        That didn’t even occur to me! These girls have no real goals, except “to find happily ever after” and true love. Except for Tiana who want to own a restaurant, there really are no long term, real-life goals. But then again, these films aren’t meant to be teaching tools like Little Einsteins, Magic School Bus, and other educational materials. It’s escapism: look how miserable these girls are and how happy they become (usually because of finally finding and snagging their ideal man).
        The best father-figures I can think of in animated Disney films are Mufasa (Lion King), Merlin (Sword in the Stone), Roger & Pongo (101 Dalmations), Marlin (Nemo, even though he’s overprotective), Mulan’s dad (within historical context, since forcing your daughter to the matchmaker is no longer acceptable)… but they’re not princess films. That’s all I can think of for now, but good mother-figures are hard to find as well

  • Annie

    Why don’t you show your girl some of the ghibli movies?