Personal is Political: A Feminist Defense of Cinderella – The Feminist Wire

Personal is Political: A Feminist Defense of Cinderella

By Shoshanna R. Schechter-Shaffin

CinderellaI recently returned from a family trip to Disney World with my 3 girls, ages 7, 4 and 4. My husband and I have been to Disney World several times before having children, but this trip was planned for the kids, and that meant, in plain terms, as much princess exposure as possible. The girls packed their favorite princess costumes, and agonized every morning regarding which costume they would wear to the parks. We stood in lengthy lines to meet princesses, we watched princess shows, we ate at a special princess character dinner, and I even saved up all of my Disney credit card points for the princess make-overs at the “Bibbiddi Bobbidi Boutique” in Cinderella’s castle. With much glee, I shared many photos of our princess-filled trip on Facebook. My friends were horrified.

I’m a card carrying feminist. Heck, I even hold a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies, and I teach Women’s Studies at a local university. I rejected my Jewish Orthodox upbringing at 13 years old—inspired by the works of the great Jewish feminists pioneers Judith Plaskow, Susannah Heschel, Evelyn Beck, and Rachel Adler—and begged my parents to remove me from an all-girls Ultra Orthodox school and allow me to attend an open-minded community Jewish day school that employed both men and women rabbis and that unapologetically taught Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.

Prince CharmingUnsurprisingly, the truth is that almost all of my academic friends and colleagues are vehemently “anti-princess,” and will do anything to keep their daughters away from the dangerous world of tiaras, ball gowns, and, the most evil of all, Prince Charming. I even have one friend who vented on Facebook about how frustrated she was at the caretakers at her newborn’s childcare center referring to her 6 week old daughter as a princess. “Why should I do???” she wrote in desperation. “Should we continue to send her to such an institution?”

As a scholar of Women’s Studies, I do find it quite interesting that for this new generation of American little girls, the Disney Princess machine has only grown stronger and stronger. In fact, Disney World is in the process of completing a brand new Magic Kingdom expansion project that includes a much more directly princess focused Fantasyland.  The young girls becoming enraptured in this world are not the daughters of 1950s and 1960s housewives, but rather educated and often times high-ranking professional women. Modern little American girls simply can’t get enough of princesses. These are girls who are growing up in a world of female doctors, lawyers, clergy, legislators, etc.  Yet, they still fantasize about wearing a ball gown and being swept off their feet. What would Gloria Steinem say?

So why, then, would someone like me actually encourage and embrace the princess overload?

To me, it’s very simple. Being a feminist does not mean an overall rejection of everything it means to be a traditional girl.

Madonna Launches Her Signature Fragrance "Truth Or Dare" By MadonnaIn “What it Feels Like For a Girl,” Madonna sings, “Girls can wear jeans/ And cut their hair short/ Wear shirts and boots/ ‘Cause it’s okay to be a boy/ But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading/ ‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading.”

When we completely and totally reject princess culture, we limit our daughters from a full exploration of their gender and femininity. I find this quite ironic, since many of my “mommies of girls” friends worry that by exposing their daughters to princesses they will limit their future ambitions to only dressing up and searching for a man to “save them.”

If being a feminist truly means that I am expected to act, dress, and think like a man, then I have no interest in such a movement. In many ways, that archaic “Working Girl, big shoulder pad 1980s” feminism seems to claim that all things culturally deemed feminine are somewhat “less than” or always already problematic. Is that what feminism is really for, to create a female-driven form of misogyny? Are we teaching our daughters that being worthwhile means that they need to reject hyperfemininity? If someone is a true feminist, then they will allow their daughters to fully and completely explore the world around them. And yes, as scary as it may seem, that world might sometimes include high heels and lipstick. My daughters know that Mommy wears dresses, pantyhose, and make-up to work every day, but they also know that Mommy has a job that she believes is making a difference in the world.

The true gift of women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was not the ability for women to turn into men, but rather for women to have choices and the ability to create their own destinies away from a prescribed formula. Today, our daughters have options, but if we really want to give them a sense of limitless possibility, then we cannot limit them from their earliest moments. So yes, I encourage parents to let their daughters explore, create, and experience all that the world has to offer…even if that includes a little fairy dust along the way.

Schechter-ShaffinShoshanna Schechter-Shaffin is the Director of Women’s Division, Israel, and Overseas Programming for the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond and serves on the faculty of the Department of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at Randolph-Macon College. Shoshanna earned her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Jewish Studies from the University of Maryland and a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies with a focus on Jewish Gender and Women’s Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary.


  1. Hauptman

    March 27, 2014 at 8:31 am

    The problem with princesses/princes is not about embracing or not embracing the full spectrum of feminine/masculine gender performance; rather it is that princess femininity/prince masculinity is a construct of the patriarchy. The problem with princess/prince culture is that it is designed to distract women and men with the myth of romantic love. This myth obfuscates the real function of marriage (an alliance of power between land owning families) and reinscribes the problematic values of capitalism that would prefer both men and women abdicate responsibility for their own lives and choices and continue to align themselves with a value system that serves power by prescribing normativity. Normativity is subjugating.

    It is no wonder that a corporation like Disney would promote and disseminate this propaganda; their interest is in refining, developing, and controlling market share.

    It is important that we teach our daughters the difference between high femme power and princess culture; they are not the same.

    Best of luck to you and your daughters.

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    • Erika

      March 29, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      I appreciate the insight and conversation this sparks. I will bookmark as recommended reading for gender studies classes, see how students engage with both the main essay and public responses. Thank you!

  3. FeministPrncess

    March 27, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    Princess culture has a lot of positive elements: follow your heart, be kind to animals, marry only for love (or in the case of Merida, not at all, if that’s what you want)… I think it’s sad that the previous comment calls romantic love a “myth”. My feminism believes that our freedom to marry for love (rather than money or familial pressure) is one of the most important advancements women have made since the past century. Romantic love is definitely not a myth, regardless of how jaded some people may be.

    There are obviously many problems with the heteronormativity and emphasis on beauty in Disney princess movies, but the main theme of most is “be true to you”.

  4. Krystle

    March 28, 2014 at 5:45 am

    This opinion is coming from a 26 year old who grew up watching Disney princess movies (A LOT). I think many people put too much emphasis on the prince’s role in the movies. I cared much more about the magic and beautiful dresses than a love story. My 3 year old daughter is the same way. In fact, I don’t know too many little girls who are caught up in the romance of the story. I think girls are able to enjoy princess movies without subconsciously bring taught that men are better or more capable than them. And it also certainly comes back to what its being taught at home. If they see Mommy going to work and making a difference (or staying at home and teaching them about how they make a difference) then they are less likely to think women are helpless or in need of saving.

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  6. SXPemberton

    March 28, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Princess isn’t just a gendered term, it is also an indicator of inherited elite status. In what way is an aristocratic system of inherited wealth and privilege giving women “choices and the ability to create their own destinies away from a prescribed formula”? Which women benefit from that? Hint: a tiny minority of rich, white, heterosexual women who are compliant with the needs of that system. That doesn’t sound so feminist to me!

    Encouraging your daughters to identify with Princesses is encouraging them to identify with the beneficiaries of inherited wealth and status inequalities. It’s also, by extension, encouraging them to participate in class and racial exploitation – if you don’t believe me, ask the British Royal family where all those mansions and jewels came from. I fear that the lesson that your daughters are learning is that they should focus on benefiting from unearned privilege, not individual merit.

  7. A

    March 28, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    There’s nothing wrong with femininity or acting feminine, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with Cinderella. This article makes a lot of great points but very few of them address anything about Disney princesses. Have you seen the actual movie? It’s about a girl who is rewarded for taking abuse and being beautiful.

  8. Tragic Sandwich

    March 28, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    My problem with Disney Princesses is not that they are princesses, but that the marketing removes their individual characters and replaces them with color-coded dresses. I like a lot of things about the characters as individuals (Cinderella is kind, Belle is curious, Merida learns how to take responsibility for her actions, etc.), but I passionately dislike Disney Princesses: The Marketing Phenomenon.

    If Baguettte develops an interest in them, we won’t deny her that, but we’re not pushing her toward it, either.

  9. You missed the point

    March 28, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    The problem with the disney princesses is not their femininity. I’m happy for girls to embrace all things pink and sparkly and pretty. It’s about the ugly classism. It’s about the narrative of your full self worth being linked to getting the right man (if he’s working class he’s sure to be evil and a brute or just a little working gnome…but if he’s evil and a brute and rich then that’s awesome and you can hopefully transform him.) It’s the fact that these toys have swallowed up any market for toys for girls that allow them to create their own role play and narrative. It’s about the beliefs that raise attractiveness to the most important quality a woman can have. It’s about the lack of diversity. It’s about so much more than being girly which is awesome for girls who wish to be that.

  10. Yvette

    March 29, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    As a child, I always loved Cinderella and Mulan. I watched the Cinderella movie over and over again as a child and dressed up as the princesses for various halloweens. I’d like the think that I turned out ok. Yes, I do dream about true love. But I have big dreams for my future and finding a man is not at the top of the list. I don’t think disney princesses are nearly as dangerous as many modern mothers may fear.

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  12. Ashashwat

    March 31, 2014 at 10:59 am

    My problem with Disney is that most of their movies had stereotypes – prince = amazing, ugly = cruel and petty, beautiful = kind etc. Is that the case in the real world? We continue to ascribe these qualities to external characteristics without to people in the real world.
    Also, the whole deal with being a princess is pretty skeevy. Do those princesses actually rule the land, or do something more than just marrying the prince? Of course, there are exceptions: Mulan, Pocahontas etc

  13. mistakesweremade

    April 1, 2014 at 9:54 am

    These responses are great, and they’re all telling Shoshanna R. Schechter-Shaffin the same thing: you haven’t listened to the reasons behind *why* thousands of parents are turned off by the message that Disney has for their daughters. By reducing the extreme ambivalence we have for Disney Princesses to simple anti-girliness hate, you are ignoring all the feminist critique that goes into our media choices.

    Speaking of choices, is it just me or does your argument boil down to, “choice feminism includes the choice to embrace the patriarchy”? I’m trying to find a more charitable interpretation, but you’re not giving me much to go on. Next, I’d love to hear how because Belle likes books and doesn’t want to date the high school quarterback or whatever, she is a completely liberated woman.