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Are Disney Princess Movies Getting Savvier?

Three key life skills we can learn from "Frozen 2."

 Image via Pixabay
The stories of our youth shape who we become
Source: Image via Pixabay

While studies confirm parental concerns over the ill-effects of “princess culture,” a new breed of Disney princesses offers hope that this culture can evolve. For the first time in forever—watching Frozen 2—I found myself admiring a new pattern of psychological strengths in Disney’s leading gowned ladies.

The alarming lessons in the princess movies of my youth.

Once upon a time, even before I became a mom to two daughters, I feared the impact of the disempowering messages inherent in our most popular western fairytales.

Cinderella found marrying a prince she’d just met as the only way out of an abusive domestic situation.

Snow White “awoken” and “liberated” by a non-consensual kiss.

Ariel sacrificing her voice—literally—for a prince she also hardly knew.

Perhaps even more alarming, each of these characters goes through these experiences in isolation because all the women around them seem to be dead or evil. As Peggy Orenstein writes in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, “Princesses may confide in a sympathetic mouse or teacup, but they do not have girlfriends. God forbid Snow White should give Sleeping Beauty a little support. Let's review: princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married, and be taken care of the rest of their lives.”

Disney seems to be evolving.

As I sat in the theater with my two young children—and the many other folks helping contribute to the over $1 billion global box office success—I was struck by the increasing complexity of the female leads and by the notable psychological strengths of Elsa and Anna.

And this isn’t the first movie showing signs that Disney is getting more psychologically savvy and putting better role models into the world:

  • Inside Out leveraged expert psychologists to ensure an accurate view of internal emotional worlds.
  • Moana represented sorely needed diversity and was the best demonstration of a female leader I’ve ever seen from Disney.
  • Frozen (the first) parodied its own pattern of princesses falling in love in one day by having this happen with Anna, but then clearly showing how dangerous and unrealistic this pattern can be.

Are these films the platonic ideal of media I want my kids watching? No. But they are an undeniable improvement upon the past. They portray female protagonists who use real strengths to find their way through challenges, rather than simply leaning on chance encounters with men.

Anna and Elsa’s possess very human superpowers.

The psychological strengths of Anna and Elsa were heartening on multiple levels. First, they accurately represent how strengths can be developed as a combination of nature, nurture, and good old fashioned practice. Second, they possess strengths that are critical for the leaders of today and tomorrow.

Here are three key superpower strengths I noticed:

1. Connection. As social animals, we are wired to thrive in connection. Anna and Elsa’s relationship is among their greatest superpowers. They draw strength from each other and the others they hold dear. This ability mirrors what researchers highlight in the power of positive relationships, serving as a salve against stress, a source of resilience, and the x-factor in a life well-lived. In contrast to the princesses of yesteryear who had no visible female friends, Elsa’s and Anna’s powerful connection is central to their success.

2. Life skills. The best therapists and coaches don’t just help individuals through their current challenges. They also convey learnable tools — life skills — anyone can develop to weather life’s challenges and thrive for the long haul. Anna and Elsa illustrated some of these very same powerful tools therapists and coaches teach their clients such as feeling one’s feelings, choosing to focus on the next right step amidst overwhelm, and anxious reappraisal.

I’ll dig deeper into "anxious reappraisal."

Just like the demure Disney princesses of the past, our society tends to value staying calm in the face of challenges, particularly for women. “Keep calm and carry on,” we say. But stifling fear, anxiety, and stress tends to make it worse. Indeed, researchers have shown it’s much more effective to transform anxiety in excitement. In one study, as reported by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic, professor Alison Wood Brooks equipped each participant with one of three affirmations to say before doing something typically terrifying, like singing karaoke in front of strangers. They were to say, “I am calm,” “I am stressed,” or “I am excited.” When participants told themselves “I am excited,” their heart rate remained accelerated, but their confidence and performance soared. Similarly, in the song Into the Unknown, Elsa shifts from working down to quiet the voices that scare her, to feeling a thrill for the unknown.

3. Purpose. A strong sense of purpose gets us out of bed in the morning and helps us persevere through the most daunting challenges.

Anna’s sense of purpose is steady and clear. She cares about the future of Arrandale and her closest relations. Elsa is also driven by purpose. What’s interesting is we can see how her purpose is a less powerful driver when it’s not authentic. Early in the film she tries to be content with the now, but feels there’s a higher calling. Only when she’s true to the voice inside does her purpose propel her through superhuman feats.

Why does this matter?

Before publishing this piece, I reflected upon why I felt called to draw attention to the progress I see in Disney films, especially when there is so much progress left to go. First, I believe in the importance of celebrating small wins. If we don’t recognize the good stuff, it’s hard to build upon that which we’d like to see more of.

Second, as a leadership coach and psychotherapist, I see firsthand the ways in which we carry lessons from childhood forward into our lives and our work. This is what Esther Perel describes as our emotional dowery. Children’s favorite characters from films and shows have an influence on who they become, and what they hold as possible in the world. Based on their stage of brain development, children don’t separate fictional characters from real humans in the same way adults do. According to Dr. Jessamy Comer of RIT's Department of Psychology, it’s not until the middle of elementary school that children really understand the characters in movies are fictional. "When they're looking at [cartoons],” she shares, “to them, it's real. It's very real."

And here’s my main takeaway: From the cradle to the grave we are influenced by those around us —for better or worse. For children, role models may be real or fictional. Every single one of us has influence — whether it’s directly as a role model, through the stories we tell, or through the stories we choose to highlight. Whether we are leaders in the corporate space, creators at Disney, or leaders in our families, let’s keep in mind that our choices have cascading effects for all those who are watching. Thank you, Disney, for taking some steps in the right direction. I look forward to seeing more progress and evolution as I grow alongside my children.

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