YA Herorines: Disney Princesses in Disguise

I’m sort of in a reading rut right now.  And I think a lot of it has to do with the God awful characterization that goes on in YA.  To be honest about it, the typical YA MC is just not that interesting.  It’s usually a female protagonist which I have no problem with because if you look at all the other books that have been published since the storytelling has been going on it’s about damn time that there’s a genre that features a female protagonist.  It’s just the way our female protagonists are portrayed that I hate.

Initially I blamed Bella Swan because let’s face it’s easy to blame Bella for everything that’s wrong with the genre today even though there were problems long before Bella-i.e. the late 80’s and early to mid 90’s were filled with horrible Lifetime like YA books (more proof of this can be seen at your local used bookstore).  But then I thought about it more.  Surely, Stephenie Meyer must not be the only inspiration for these characters.  And besides, didn’t Bella need inspiration?  And then it hit me….

Disney freaking princesses.

Okay, so I know that the princess merchandising only got super obnoxious in the past decade or so (though I was an 1990’s kid and was decked out with an Ariel t-shirt, Belle socks, Cinderella sheets to match, plus half a dozen Disney Barbie dolls), but if you really think about it all these drippy YA heroines are really Disney princess minus the ball gowns and talking furniture/sidekicks (oh, wait, that’s why they have their useless b.f.f.).

Now let’s get one thing straight, am I anti-princess?  Hell no.  If I have a kid, I’ll probably buy them that crap because my mom bought me that crap and I don’t think it did any permanent damage from it.  But I get why people are bothered by it.  If you raise your kid on pure Disney without talking about reality or telling your kid in order to succeed they’re going to have to actually open up a few books and actually pursue their goal rather sitting there and singing about it, you’re going to have issues (unless, of course, you’re raising a mini Lea Michele then encourage the singing). Your kid could end up, well, starring in their own YA book.

Dead parents (check), lives in a castle mansion (check), too beautiful but hides it by wearing hoodies rags (check)= YA Disney Princess.

To prove my theory, I’m going to be discussing and analyzing some of the groan worthy tropes with some fun Disney comparisons.  I’m not saying that YA herorines are identical to Disney princesses, but I do think that a lot of them are influenced by them.  Is this a bad thing?  Yes and no.  And I’ll sort of touch more on this at the end of this essay.

Insta Love:

This is probably the trope that  would make my case-you know, if I was going to go all Perry Mason in this would be the way I’d open my case.  Insta love it originates in Disney.  The earliest princesses especially exhibit this trait.  Even Ariel the first princess of the Disney Renaissance exhibited this trait.  Jasmine sort of did too (although, she didn’t sell her voice to Ursula  because of a boy that she met in five seconds and decided….yeah).  And let’s face it Disney made insta love seem so romantic.  How perfect it is to see a random guy and know you’re going to love him at first sight.  Like this:

And it makes relationships so easy.  You don’t have to do any ground work.  The thing is it translates so much easier on film than in book.  And I don’t know if that’s because when you see two animated characters  falling in love so fast in a span of eighty minutes, you sort of make an exception.  And most of the Disney princesses are from fairytales.  With genies, evil witches, poison apples, and singing mice I think you can make an exception in the case of Disney princesses.  It also helps that you can actually see their reaction to lover boy.  Those little looks that the characters give each other actually help the insta love.  Howeer, when it comes to books…

Insta love without a doubt fails.  I think authors believe that true love at first sight will make a relationship epic.  Either that or they want to take the easy way out when it comes to relationships.  I’m an optimist though and really want to believe it’s the former because if it’s the latter-it’s cheap, it’s disgusting, and there’s NO freaking excuse.  The former though…I can sort of understand what they’re doing.  Do I think it works: no.  But I understand. After exposure of Disney movie after Disney movie, I get why you’d think these things are epic.  After all, there are characters that freaking dance in the clouds like heaven consented to their insta love union in these movies.

The truth is though that dancing in the clouds isn’t what we get as readers.  Rather we get a contrived love story that honestly seems half assed.  There are pointless cases of insta love to list in the genre.  I’ll illustrate my post by listing a recent book that I read, Prophecy Girl by Cecily White.  The book had many problems and was cliche on several levels, but I think the insta love was what pushed the novel over the edge.  Not only did it cause character development to suffer, but it also caused major issues the plot and pacing as well.  And this book is not an anomaly.  Insta love usually some adverse affects even in the best case scenarios.  Some might argue that insta love originated with Romeo and Juliet more than Disney princesses.  And yeah, Shakespeare did exist a few centuries before Walt Disney.  But the inspiration for insta love is Disney.  Pure and simple.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet where the insta love later served a purpose to the story (teenage impulsiveness ends with death and destruction or a really bad marriage twenty or so years down the line), Disney insta love has no consequences other than the girl getting  her happily ever after.

Mary Sues:

Most of Disney’s princesses are considered to be some sort of Mary Sue.  Even Belle who’s probably my favorite Disney princess for the sake that she reads and actually doesn’t fall in love with the Beast over night.  Let’s admit it, being able to sing randomly without making an idiot of yourself and having the hottest guy fawn all over you isn’t helping you with any Mary Sue Litmus tests.  But she’s far from the worst offender.  And honestly, even some of the worse Disney Mary Sues aren’t as bad as their YA counterparts.  Obviously, a lot evolves from YA.  Most Disney princess don’t have five billion powers, have forty boys in love with them (I’m looking at you Zoey Redbird), and drive a Ferrari.  However, that still doesn’t mean that they’re not the original Mary Sues.

Let’s talk about the concept of a Mary Sue for a moment.  Mary Sue’s are essentially self gratification characters.  In fan fic they’re more often than not a made up character by the fan writer who essentially steps into the role of a character(Bella) who is currently hooked up with the character they want to be with (Edward).  The character is more than often a failure becuase people see the character for what is a perfect non-realistic version of you.  And really bashing Bella so that Mary Sue Raven Darkness can get with Edward is sort of pathetic.  However, Mary Sue’s don’t exist in just fan fiction this has also bled into the world of fiction and this is one phenomenon we can’t blame p2p publishing for (and you know I blame p2p publishing on just about everything, save for Prospect Park taking away Todd Manning from General Hospital and the clubbing of baby harp seals).  I guess people want to fantasize about themselves making out with a vampire or whatever.  Which is really gross because vampires are dead and….I relent other than to say I’d rather make out with an animated character than a vampire.


Ah, side kicks.  Disney is probably the king of side kicks.  Because side kicks=stuffed animals/more merchandise and merchandise is how you make your money if you don’t do shitty spinoffs a la Cassandra Clare direct to video sequels.

Besides being cute, a side kicks main role is to pimp the Disney princess or couple.  This often seen in YA.  However, the cute animal concept is dropped for the slightly off best friend.
What is a slightly off best friend?   Well, the b.f.f. would be popular save for the following….
A) They have strictly religious parents who cause them to dress in dreaded modest clothing
B) They go all Annie Potts, circa Pretty in Pink, so that their parents will pay attention to them
C) They are just different (which usually means they’re secretly evil)
D) They are the token gay best friend
Yes, I know very 1d.  Not that different from being a talking mouse or a singing bird.  And what’s worse is usually these “friends” have to make due by vicariously living through their b.f.f.’s happiness.  Take, for example,  Kristien Miller’s The Eternal Ones.  Where the only point of the main character’s best friend is to help her sew her wardrobe (in other words, he’s a mouse).

Slut Slamming:

Ah, yes, slut slamming it did exist in Disney movies.

Okay, maybe it’s not as horrible as it is in YA books.  But I can think of a few cases where slut slamming is sort of alluded to in Disney.  In both early and Disney renaissance.  The obvious case of slut slamming is the stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella.  And okay, that’s just the nature of the story.  I guess.  But…but…the stepmother is essentially evil just because she married Cinderella’s dad.  And yeah, she is a gold digger.  And it’s for story purposes but I’m trying to show that the origin of slut slamming came from Disney.  My arguments are a little bit better for latter Disney movies.  Take The Little Mermaid.  Remember, Eric’s fiancee Vanessa (okay, it’s Ursula is disguise), but before Ariel and her ocean friends knew that they still thought she was an evil bitch just because she was with Eric.  Slut slamming is also alluded to in Beauty and the Beast.  Remember, those silly girls who were in love with Gaston?  They were depicted as silly because of their crush.  Which is honestly ridiculous because I could honestly sort of get the Gaston thing if he wasn’t an egotistical jerk.
In YA, slut slamming is more blatant and borderlines sadistic.  Take CC Hunter’s Born at Midnight a girl is demonized because she has a sex life while the MC she’s pure and virginal as, well, a Disney princess.  Admittedly, the purity myth has origins that are way before Walt Disney was even conceived, but I find it particularly interesting to note that these sort of values are not only installed in preteen and teen minds but children’s minds as well.
Ah, sexism plant the seed while they’re young.

Prince Charming:

A Disney prince: pretty to look at both awfully lacking a personality.  How quaint.

And let’s admit it lots of YA guys are like that too.

Okay, once again I’ll give animation the benefit of the doubt since we get to see these characters visually develop.  Prince Phillip, for example.  He doesn’t talk much except sing to Aurora and talk to his horse.  But those scenes with him rescuing her really gave us some insight to his personality.  In YA you don’t have the luxury of the visual medium, unless your book is turned to a graphic novel (which occasionally happens).

A lot times in YA the prince factor is replaced by a dark broody personality.   The Iron King by Julie Kagawa.  Although, you’d think the heroine would be smart enough to get with her I’m Hot But You Don’t Realize It b.f.f. she falls in lust with the broody handsome prince.  And he barely has two lines within the first two thirds of the book. It’s just not right.  And you know what’s even sadder this is not the first or the last YA book that uses this formula.

Conflict You Shall Not Get in the Way of my Happily Ever After:

Growth and development.  That’s something that most Disney princesses lack.  You can make a case that some of the latter ones do grow and change (notably Belle and Mulan), but…you could also make arguments otherwise.  Essentially all these girls get what they want with very little effort. Mulan might’ve had to chop off her hair, train as a solider, and pretend to be a boy, but once her dirty little secret got out there one sad montage and bam! She got everything she wanted Chinese history be damned.

This is the same sort of shit that goes down in YA book after book.  I got the idea to write this essay after having a discussion about a book by Wendy Toliver called The Secret Life of a Teenage Siren.  In this book, the character gets her happily ever after having the equivalent of a Disney montage.  Mistakes are swept under the rug and plot holes appear to give Roxy her happily ever after.

Don’t get me wrong, I love happily ever afters.  I try to avoid reading sad books, but I do think that you have to have a quasi realistic happily ever after.  Having things just resolve with no emotional fall out or working for your goals isn’t realistic.  In fact, it’s insulting.  The reader wants an ending that doesn’t seem half assed.  In movies that run ninety minutes total montages are acceptable because we can visually see a passage of time going by-though I still think there should’ve been more fall out for the Mulan reveal.  In books though, having things happen in a span of five pages just so you can go okay I get my happily ever after or coming up with a crapilogue so that you can justify your character getting with both characters with very little consequences.  Is more than a little annoying.

Concluding Thoughts

I think a lot of the problems that people have with Disney princesses transcend to YA.  Do I think that YA authors are ripping of Disney?  Not really..okay, maybe a little.  But I think the true problem resides in society.

One of my favorite movies is Disney’s Enchanted.  Yes, I know that there are parts of this movie that are arguably flawed but I like the message it’s trying to get out.  That while these tropes are not healthy and we shouldn’t follow them literally like many of these YA heroines do, the spirit and the optimism from these films the ideal of happily ever after should be a part of our lives.  Are we ever going to get swept off our feet by a prince and carried off to Windsor Castle?  Probably not (well, maybe if you’re Kate Middleton).  But the ideas that these movies have at heart are good.  The problem that I have is with the way some people view them and that view I believe has transcended into YA. It’s flawed and leads to painful days of eating Butter Pecan ice cream.  And shitty books with bitchy characters.  Look, I get it’s fiction but Disney movies only work for Disney movies. Trying to use a technique that is brilliant in an animated ninety minute movie can often spell disaster for a book.


6 thoughts on “YA Herorines: Disney Princesses in Disguise

  1. OMG that Disney Mean Girls video has me laughing! Although I totally don't agree on the Mulan thing. I think she worked damn hard for what she got – she wasn't after a man, after all! He was just a bonus. She wanted to save her father and also China. Achieved!

  2. Thanks for commenting! One of my friends on FB posted that video and I knew I had to feature it eventually. As for Mulan, I agree she worked hard. But at the end it just seemed like everything was rushed, so that things could get resolved. I honestly wish the movie would've been longer, but it's Disney so yeah….

  3. Hahahaha, that's awesome. You're pretty much right about that. The problem is that Disney princesses are simplified so that they can be enjoyed by young children. Of course, children don't need to be talked down to, which is why we're getting kid's stuff like Shrek now instead of Snow White. At least some awesome ones like Belle and Jasmine did crop up sometimes, which I suppose are the bookish equivalent of awesome heroines like Jarra from Earth Girl, for example. Also, I love this: "It's usually a female protagonist which I have no problem with because if you look at all the other books that have been published since the storytelling has been going on it's about damn time that there's a genre that features a female protagonist." Having so many heroines is not a freaking trope and it's not stupid. There are a lot of women on this planet, and there's nothing wrong with women being represented in literature. In fact, there's so much right with it.Very insightful post.

  4. Thanks for commenting. I agree with you. I love Disney movies, even the early ones but the lack of character development is quite heinous. I feel over simplification is a problem that has not only prevalent in kids movies but in other media as well which is just sort of sad.Honestly, I hate people state the female protagonist is a YA trope. To me that's just so sexist. It's really major pet peeve of mine as see from the post.

  5. You made some really interesting points, MJ. I hadn't seen many of these things from the angle you showed them. For me, I love all the princess stuff, I love that they sing for the heck of it and follow their hearts, but I don't remember ever thinking, even as a kid, that I wanted my life to play out just like that. Meet a guy and marrying him 24 hrs later, and all that, and no one – least of all my mom -ever pushed me to believe otherwise. Which is why I can sing pretty much all the songs from any Disney movie ever but I have never really expected to meet the love of my life hiking through the goods trying to find strawberries while he's singing to his horse. But anyway, the part I found most interesting was the whole slut shamming thing because it's true in some places.Also, I love Enchanted too, I love how both Robert and Giselle had to change a bit to be together, he had to stop being so practical all the time and she had to tone it down a little too and recognize he could make her angry and that wasn't a bad thing. 🙂

  6. I think most rational people know that life isn't like a Disney movie which is my main of bone of contention with the anti-Princess movement. Though after reading a few of these YA books you'd start thinking otherwise ;)Yeah, when doing comparison of YA tropes to the movies I was actually sort of surprised about the slut slamming thing, but it's there which is really sort of disturbing. Grant it's diluted but still….Glad you like Enchanted too. I think I must've watched that movie a thousand times. Also, sort of random but is it just me or does Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey sort of look like a grown up modern day version of Ariel and Eric minus the fins/shell bra/and Old English Sheepdog?

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