Are Fairy Tales Finished?

Before I had kids, I insisted that our family wouldn’t do all of that awful Disney stuff. I cringed at the thought of my home being sprinkled with pink and plastic, and was determined that my girls wouldn’t know that world. We succeeded. For about 10 months. Then Dorothy learned to talk.

My word-hungry toddler learned to say “princess” (pronounced “frin-cess”) almost as soon as she said “momma” and “daddy.” It’s like there’s something genetically encoded in her to love fairy tales, ballroom gowns, castles, and rescue stories.

You learn to love what your children love. The sparkle in their eyes as they take delight in something changes the way you see your world. So our family took it as bad news this week when, alongside the release of Tangled, Disney announced that the princess franchise was finished.

It may just be marketing. The Princess and the Frog didn’t perform well, and the announcement adds a tone of urgency to the new release. “Catch the princesses in the theater while you can!” It also may simply be a sign of the times. One excerpt from the above story puts in it this light:

Among girls, princesses and the romanticized ideal they represent—revolving around finding the man of your dreams—have a limited shelf life. With the advent of “tween” TV, the tiara-wearing ideal of femininity has been supplanted by new adolescent role models such as the Disney Channel’s Selena Gomez and Nickelodeon‘s Miranda Cosgrove.

“By the time they’re 5 or 6, they’re not interested in being princesses,” said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children’s lives. “They’re interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.”

Our New Feminine Role Models

So instead of aspiring to be Belle, Aurora, and Cinderella, Disney is betting that our 5- and 6-year-old daughters will be much more interested in being Miley Cyrus or Miranda Cosgrove. It’s a chilling thought, given the short shelf life and inevitable journey of a “tween” star. Frank Bruni, writing about the scandal that erupted around the GQ photo spread of Glee starlets, said, “These images were less shocking than predictable, part of an established gallery that includes not only Miss Cyrus but also Britney Spears.” Elsewhere, Bruni says, “The starlets change, the story doesn’t. If a young female performer with a relatively straight-laced image wants to take full charge of her brightest future, she apparently has to do some time on the pole.”

What Are We Losing?

It’s a bizarre exchange. While there are exceptions (and I would quickly say The Little Mermaid is one) most of the Disney princess tales celebrate virtue. Snow White is a beautiful, humble servant of all (even a scary collection of bachelor dwarves) and is contrasted with the vain and self-centered queen. Her downfall happens when she eats “forbidden fruit,” and is trapped in death until a prince comes to rescue her. Sleeping Beauty is a profound metaphor for the gospel. The princess is cursed, with death hanging over her head from the day she’s born. When death finally stings her, a prince must battle against the powers of hell to rescue her. Armed with the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue, he fights his way to the princess and awakens her with true love’s kiss. Sound familiar? A bride enslaved to death, a warrior-king who battles the powers of hell?

At another level, fairy tales teach the concept of meta-narrative. There is no instant gratification in Cinderella, who labors like a slave until she’s discovered. In fact, most of the fairy tales involve some level of suffering. Snow White’s “Someday my prince will come” can be seen as a song of eschatological hope. Belle, like Queen Esther, throws her life in peril in exchange for her father as she finds herself imprisoned in the Beast’s mansion. Fairy tales teach us to believe that suffering is part of a bigger story.

And of course, most of the princesses (The Little Mermaid, again, being an exception) are symbols of purity and innocence.

Why Don’t They Make Sense?

I don’t know enough about the tales tweens tell to know whether any such parallels exist. Maybe Hannah Montana and iCarly are full of their own morality tales and metaphors. Miley’s trip around a stripper pole at the Teen Choice Awards makes me doubt it, but I also doubt that Disney is motivated by a philosophical desire to eliminate virtue and meta-narrative from cultural memory. For Disney, it’s all about market share and money. If fairy tales sold, they’d sell them. (They certainly aren’t going to give away the licensing for their princess empire.)

Certainly, our hyper-sexualized culture is a part of the problem. Our porn-saturated generation is used to a much more visceral and aggressive portrayal of femininity. Cinderella’s modesty seems out-of-touch in a world where Victoria’s Secret ads are plastered on the side of buildings and running during prime time.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if the cognitive disconnect between today’s families and the world of fairy tales isn’t rooted in something even more complex. Maybe the idea of long-suffering doesn’t connect to an instant-gratification culture. Maybe the idea of being part of a larger story (like the redeemed kingdom of Sleeping Beauty) doesn’t connect to a world of narcissism, where the story is all about us (like Hannah Montana). Maybe too, we hate the idea of being rescued. We’d rather believe that we could save ourselves.

A Little Perspective

Perhaps this is a molehill, not a mountain. It’s not the first time that Disney abandoned the princess franchise. They didn’t release any princess movies between Cinderella in 1959 and The Little Mermaid in 1989. (That era brought us timeless classics such as The North Avenue Irregulars, Freaky Friday, and the Hayley Mills epics, Pollyanna and The Parent Trap. Hmmm . . . perhaps timeless isn’t the right word.)

In itself, the decision doesn’t represent any sort of crisis. It’s simply a sign of the times, or rather, a sign of the economics of the times. There’s a whole lot more money in tweens than princesses, and Disney is responding to the writing on the wall. As parents, we need to be alert to the pressure that’s being applied to our children. This is their cultural milieu. Even if they never see any tween entertainment, their friends will, and it will shape their relationships. The stories we tell shape us . . . for better or for worse.

One thing I’m certain of: the fairy tale isn’t finished. Even if Disney isn’t telling the story, it will continue to be told. A beautiful bride will be held captive, and at the cost of his life, the prince will rescue her. Until Jesus returns, (and probably thereafter) we’ll want to hear the story again and again.

Because it’s true.

  • Ian

    I noticed the image attached to this post is a promotional for ‘tangled’. I saw it the other night and found it brilliant. Whilst it is no glamorous fairy tale, the prince is a rogue who’s pursuit of the captive princess redeems him. In this way there is an exchange. That was an interesting shift away from the ‘handsom prince’ (though we’ve seen it before in Aladdin).

    There was no real ‘christ figure’ as far as I could tell, but the transforming love the two protagonists shared spoke powerfully of the real change that can occur.

    I think what Tangled and other newer interpretations show us is that the princess wants to participate in the struggle, not just be a helpless victim of it. Princess Fiona saves Shrek just as much as Shrek saved her. We are also shown the weakness of the male hero, who is tempted, most often, by greed to abandon his quest.

    Yet, the magic of these newer stories for me is that despite those flaws, love somehow brings the heros to look outside themselves and to do what is right. When the hero comes to rescue the princess, she will fight with him, and sometimes even against him, for what is right. The princess always brings something to the story when she is rescued.

    I’m not sure I share your concern for the decline of the helpless princess, though of course it is right to be concerned about the direction both genders are headed. I think it’s right that women should feel empowered, but that empowerment can be destructive and painful as I’m sure we’ve all seen to some extent. I mean, men have been far more autonomous for far longer and we can see that the vast majority of crimes are perpetrated by men, for example.

    What I find more exiting is the tendency for story tellers to have love motivate an otherwise unwilling hero to do acts of extraordinary bravery.

  • Ronald McDonald


    I love your ability to view everything thru Gospel-tinted lenses. Thanks for this thoughtful article on a topic that we could easily overlook as unimportant or not relatable. Keep up the good work…Pastors need to be able to see these things so that we can love and shepherd our people better. Teaching parishioners to see the Gospel in something that is already permeating their household is vital.

    Shame they won’t be up for princess fairy tales any more, i had been working on a script that tells the epic story of a princess named Birdie who is rescued by a dashing clown in red shoes and his merry sidekick ( a giant purple bush ) from the evil clutches of a hamburger-thieving bandit.

  • Julie Gross

    Well said Mr. Cosper. Especially the it’s “a sign of the economics of the times.” How very true. I’m forwarding this to several parents of little princesses whom (I’m sure) will fervently agree on your stance.
    BTW- What up with The Little Mermaid? Was it the shell bra?

  • Hayden


    I agree with you on the article and have the same misgivings about Little Mermaid as Mike. I think I dislike the movie so much because her rebellion is never dealt with only coddled. Actually one of the the most popular tunes “Part of Your World” is one that celebrates being discontent. The shell bra thing is secondary. I say this as a Father of a 3.5 year old that loves the princesses.

    Funny side story: We took my daughter to Disney this year and she said that she wanted to find Ariel so that she could tell her to “Obey her Daddy!” That made me smile.


    This was a great article. I enjoyed it thoroughly and enjoy some of the things you guys do at Sojourn from afar.

  • Kevin

    I don’t disagree with your view of Disney’s the Little Mermaid, but if your daughter is still young enough to be read to I would recommend that you read the original Hans Christian Anderson story. It has so much more depth and beauty and has a truly poignant ending. As you say at the beginning, Disney is a thing to be resisted, more because of the sugar coating than anything.

    If anything their latest fare is worse because the focus on girls as the audience means that the heroines become more “sassy” and the male leads more ridiculous and pathetic. I’m not saying that some degree of gender rebalance isn’t a good thing, but Disney seems to go in for gender see-saw.

  • Kim

    I think the whole concept of a fairy tale itself is being altered today. Children need fairy tales to work out their own sense of good versus evil. They need to know that the bad guy gets it in the end. The role of the princess is being changed to reflect attitudes of feminism and the role of the bad guy is being changed so that the issues are not black and white. We are supposed to feel sorry for the bad guy because he was misunderstood. I think a lot of it is a reflection of today’s attitudes. I wish Disney didn’t have to make their fairy tale movie resemble an MTV video, but I guess that is what sells.

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  • Chris

    _Tangled_ really is fantastic, guys. If Disney is giving up the “Princess” franchise (and about time, I would say–the franchise generally emphasizes the tackiest elements of the films rather than anything that has much to do with the myths and folktales supposedly inspiring them), I can’t think of a better farewell than _Tangled_, which, while non-formulaic, also avoids the cynicism of, say, the “Shrek” films. I would go see it before deciding that it’s purely an instance of the cultural trend described in the article above. To be honest, part of the point of fairy tales and myths is that they leave us free to make applications, analogies and reinterpretations. I certainly agree that there is something about fairy tales that corresponds to the Gospel–Tolkien’s word for it was the “eucatastrophe.” But that element can certainly–and does certainly–still occur in fairy tales (and in Tangled) without the rigid formula (politically correct or otherwise) that Disney used to ruin the Hunchback, Pocahontas, and (to an extent) The Little Mermaid and Aladdin (good films though they may have been). Rapunzel is not some immaculate “angel of the house,” nor is she a woman straining to break out of the the roles assigned her by an oppressive patriarchy–she’s a good, but fairly mixed-up teenager trying to figure out the world, and I think this is absolutely in accordance with the OFTEN confused heroes and heroines we encounter in the actual folktales and myths. Disney gave us 1940s OR 1990s ideals of femininity/masculinity, but the stories themselves (which I think Tangled draws upon, honestly) give us something deeper–something that doesn’t depend on a particular model. They give us an analogy, not necessarily to Christ-church roles, but to those two doctrines which really are indispensable to Christians–the Resurrection and Incarnation. The Sacred embeds itself deeply into our culture, and when all grows dark, it flares out suddenly, conquering all. In Tolkien’s words, the old stories give us “Joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

  • ZT
  • Emily Whitten

    Very interesting. I can relate to this on a number of levels, especially as the mom of two very pink and plastic Disney-loving girls. In my time as an editor, I learned that the story-makers today believe that kids want to read or watch stories about protagonists their own age or a couple years older–not princesses who are essentially adults. Of course, the “success” of Christian Bible stories for kids would seem to be a very loud rebuke of such an idea. My girls are still quite young, so maybe when they are older they will find it harder to relate to adult role models. Still, I hope that keeping them on a steady diet of Biblical role-models, as well as a few choice princess stories, will keep them open to more “mature” stories.

  • Dan Ball

    If it wasn’t for the princess genre dying between ’59 and ’89, we would never have had Tron.

    Dude, you hit the nail on the head everytime. You should be teaching some sort of media analysis class. We had a class like that at Asbury College, but it was like a 200 level and wasn’t as in-depth as it could’ve been nor was it focused on theology as much as the media’s impact on society. It’d be cool if the Church someday could be equally as academic as accredited institutions. Maybe even like a second chance for people who wish they could go back to school simply because they want to study Creation and humanity more for God’s sake, but don’t have the time or the means.

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  • jaelle

    As a teacher of tweens, I appreciate your concern for our girls and share it. I want to add an additional concern….for our boys. While I can appreciate that girls have genuinely needed to feel empowered, and it is refreshing to see a few role models (mostly real women) they can look up to (Michelle Obama comes to mind), I worry for the role models our boys have been subjected to in the media. In so many sit-coms, cartoons, children’s books, and movies, the cliche archetypes have become a strong, independent female and a passive, incompetent, bumbling male. Both generations of Simpsons characters reflect this but they only scratch the surface. I agree with Kevin’s comments. In our quest for equality, I believe the pendulum has swung too far. Regardless of what women will tell you, and I am one of them, while we enjoy our independence and freedom, we appreciate males with quality leadership skills. Honor, bravery, loyalty, intelligence, and strength have not gone out of style. Just as we have been championing these qualities in young women, let’s remember that we still need them from our young men. In fact, can we all just admit that we really do need each other?

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