Disney Princess versions of real heroines expose culture of absurdity

Artist David Trumble creates a set of satirical cartoons depicting real-life heroines as Disney Princesses. If Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, and Malala Yousafzai, don't fit the Disney Princess mold, why must fictitious role models?

Courtesy of David Trumble
Real-life Disney Princesses: Artist David Trumble created satirical depictions of real life heroines with the sparkle of a Disney Princess in hopes of highlighting the absurdity of painting all fictitious heroines with the same brush.

In the midst of the “Sexy Merida” controversy back in May, cartoonist David Trumble posted a satirical set of cartoons to the Huffington Post. His cartoons imagined how Disney’s Consumer Product Division would redesign other female role models to fit the Disney Princess mold. (The answer: more hair, bigger eyes, narrow waists, and sparkles!!!)

Last week, Women You Should Know wrote about Mr. Trumble’s project, and it went viral. The WYSK article gained a million page views in a matter of days, while a post by Jezebel captured 85,000 views in 24 hours.

I’ve known about Trumble’s project since he first posted it; I even included it in my post about how cartoonists and animators were responding to the “Sexy Merida” debacle. But lately, with his project going viral, everyone has been messaging me about it. So I’ve followed the reception of his satire with much interest.

A lot of people get it – but a lot of people don’t. (It doesn’t help that the Jezebel post presented his cartoons without quoting him on his original intent, creating some confusion.) And many people who say they understand his point nevertheless take issue with it for various reasons. Some say he didn’t take the satire far enough; other say he went too far. A recurring complaint is that by portraying Anne Frank in princess style, he has crossed a line unnecessarily.

Interestingly, a few commenters have even written that when their daughters walked past their computers and glimpsed these images, the girls were drawn to them. When the girls started asking questions about the people depicted, some commenters said they took advantage of the opportunity to teach their daughters about these important women. From a media studies and parenting perspective, this intrigues me.

Anyhow, given the project’s newfound success in the blogosphere and the mixed reception it has received, I was interested in learning more about Trumble’s intentions, his process in developing the project, and his thoughts on people’s varied reactions in recent days. I contacted him, and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me.

Role Models Reimagined as Disney Princesses: A Q&A with Artist David Trumble

Rebecca Hains: As a critic of the Disney Princess brand, I appreciate that with this project, you are encouraging people to think critically about Disney’s presentation of women and girls. Whereas the characters in Disney films have many interesting, individual traits, the Disney Consumer Products division takes all the individuality out of them – reducing them to sparkly, frilly stereotypes of femininity.

Could you tell me more about your initial thinking in this project, and why you decided to respond to the Disney brand in this way?

David Trumble: Well, this blog was conceived quite a few months ago during the controversy over Merida’s “makeover”, and so at the time I did not view it as a standalone blog, but as one of many satirical pieces that highlighted the debate. The “princess” archetype is indicative of a cultural attitude that needs to be re-assessed.

The creation of Merida in “Brave” was a step in the right direction, to broaden the definition of what a princess could be for young girls looking for role models. So when the glossy version of her arrived, I felt it was two steps back – and then the image I created popped into my head. I imagined that if I depicted real-world female role models but then conformed them to that specific mould, through the iconic Disney template, it would better reveal how ridiculous it is to limit female characters to that one archetype.

There are many many more archetypes out there that are just as valid and inspiring for young girls (and boys), and this is evidenced by our real-world heroines. My thinking was, if we can’t place all these diverse women into the same box, then why are we trying to do it with our fictitious women? And so that was the germ of the idea….

RHThat’s a terrific point, because indeed, princess culture as a whole is reductionist. Whether it’s Disney or Mattel or whomever, “princess” promotes a narrow standard of beauty and privileges whiteness. So with that “germ” of an idea, how did you work to develop it? Did you consult others from the feminist/girl empowerment communities? If so, what was the extent of their involvement?

DT: Indeed I did. Whenever I work on a piece of satire, I always share with close group of trusted friends, though ultimately the buck stops with me. I have had the privilege of being welcomed in a community of women who champion female empowerment online, so I shared my concept with a few of them, particularly educational psychologist Lori Day (I have since illustrated the cover to Lori’s book she wrote with her daughter, Her Next Chapter – you should check it out!). Lori was my confidant and co-conspirator while I developed the idea, and with her deep knowledge of feminist issues provided the perfect litmus test for whether or not I was making the right choices creatively.

RH: As far as the buck stopping with you goes: I’ve been reading the online comments about the illustrations with interest – on threads on Facebook, WYSK, Jezebel, and elsewhere. Lots of people understand your project, but perhaps because we are living in the age of Tumblr, lots of people are clearly just glancing at the image and misunderstanding your intention.

DT: You raise an interesting point, Rebecca, which is that the age of Tumblr is certainly a tricky one for satirists. Having started off my career as a political cartoonist, I am nostalgic for the time when a piece of satire or political commentary would be found on the page and be digested by the reader in its own time. The point was not even always explicit; you used to have to find it, or look closer at it, and then it would hit you.

Nowadays, not only have people learned to take in images in as expeditious a way as possible, to the detriment of nuance, but blogs are reposted and re-appropriated by numerous sites and articles (with or, it seems, without permission), to the detriment of the original idea itself.

This blog is a perfect example, since it was originally a Huffington Post blog published at the height of the Merida controversy, with an accompanying commentary from me and captions under each individual princess portrait which made it very clear that the piece was satire. Even then there was a split between people who got it and people who didn’t, which I suppose is the knife-edge of satire anyway.

It is a shame then that the act of reposting is akin to photocopying an image over and over and having the sharpness degrade, in blogging terms the subtext, and even CONTEXT can be lost.

RH: Now, I’ve noticed that even among those who “get it,” a lot of folks seem particularly uncomfortable with your inclusion of Anne Frank in the lineup. As you thought about which women and girls to include, how did you settle on Anne Frank? Did you realize this would be a controversial move?

DT: I did know at the time of drawing that the Anne Frank cartoon would be a divisive and controversial inclusion. The most common complaints from people regarding her avatar was that she was referred to as “Holocaust Princess,” which I completely understand rubbed many the wrong way, and their unhappiness is perfectly valid. I actually visited the Imperial War Museum in London today with my brother and a few friends, and seven decades later, the Holocaust is still impossible to fathom.

I also noted that Malala’s inclusion, whilst also riskier than the others, carried less ire, because she has risen to become a leader in her own right, as opposed to Frank who became famous because of the atrocities she suffered through. Unlike the others, she was defined not by her achievements, but by her victimization. She is the only one who is defined in this way.

I chose to include her anyway for two reasons. The first is that as a satirist, my point about how inadequate the glossy template is in capturing the spectrum of female experience required taking the concept to an extreme, to commit to the irony of the thing. The idea that there could ever be such a product as a Holocaust Princess… the terms themselves are so mutually exclusive. I made a call and I owned the decision.

But secondly, and more profoundly, if ever there was an individual who WAS a holocaust princess… by virtue of her grace, her spirit, her writings of hope, of belief, of faith in the face of great evil ... it is Anne Frank. For all the farcical aspects of the princess satire, I felt her inclusion in this list of diverse female role models was nevertheless entirely valid, so that is why I included her. In my view she earned her right to be there alongside these other women, because she earned her strength … as a writer.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have named her “Diary Princess” to evoke her strength rather than her fate. I take that onboard, and everyone’s opinions are valid in this instance. An artist can never hope to earn everyone’s approval, nor in fact should he.

RH: Another theme I’m seeing in the responses: Some people say it isn’t clear enough that the drawings are satire. They seem to expect that good satire should be recognizable at a glance–and people glancing at these drawings think you’re serious. As an experienced cartoonist, what’s your take on the state of satire today?

DT: Well that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? How clear SHOULD satire be?

An argument could be made that if half of your audience don’t get the joke, then it’s very successful satire indeed. The history of political cartoons is filled with examples of artists who would mimic propaganda posters to ridicule their form and function, and in fact, how many of us have clicked on a shockingly ridiculous headline only to realize as we’re about to post it everywhere that it came from The Onion?

The artist’s ability to almost pull the wool over someone’s eyes is central to the conceit of parody, to be as close to the material it’s mocking as possible, whilst at the same time being ridiculous. In my opinion, good parody is not about the first glance at all, but every glance after that as you look closer. It’s a trick, a feint, and its effectiveness is closely linked to its slyness.

RH: Some of those who missed the satire really liked what you did. Many people are fans of the Disney Princess brand and cheered for the idea of a Disney film about women like Jane Goodall or Rosa Parks.

Do you think there is something about the Disney Princess style that makes it especially hard for people to recognize this project as satire?

DT: I believe the answer is closely connected to why I chose that style in the first place: Because it’s very powerful. The archetype is so specific and the style so iconic that when the real-world princesses were placed into that mould, many were delighted with the results.

Perhaps I was too proficient at replicating the style, since I traced the poses directly from examples in order to draw further attention to the cookie-cutter template. The one-size fits all princess mould has ascended to a universal language in our culture, we recognize it instantly, and part of the delicious irony of the point I was making was how successful the transformations were–however inappropriate they might be.

RH: Indeed. One final question: A lot of us have a love-hate relationship with Disney. How would you characterize your own feelings about the company?

DT: It’s important to note that I have been a fan of Disney my whole life, and adore Pixar’s film library. Seeing Pinocchio at the age of 6 was one of the reasons I am the artist I am today. My blog is not an attack on Disney specifically; in fact, they have many times created strong female character that defy the mould (such as Lilo, Dorey, Jesse the Cowgirl, and of course Merida).

My blog is not to say that the archetype of the princess is innately wrong – merely that it is over-used. In my view there IS a place for those kinds of characters, but that they should just not be taking ALL the places on the stage.

Our cultural ideal of a woman is this princess mould that has been captured by too many cartoon media outlets, books and movies. Being an ideal woman has come to mean squeezing your individual greatness into this archetype. My drawings are meant to convey that greatness in women exists in our history books and before our eyes, and they do NOT fit into these moulds. Importantly, they never needed to in order to be who they became,  so it’s time to take away this artifice of expectation.

We as a society have embraced an archetype that does not serve our daughters. We have to change our consumer habits in order to change what marketers sell to our daughters.


Note: Since our conversation, David Trumble has decided to officially retitle the Anne Frank cartoon as “Diary Princess.”

In related news, David Trumble’s new book series for children, Mother Goose Retold, will be released in the U.S. in 2014. The series retells the classic Mother Goose rhymes with original new verses that take the stories into unexpected realms. Retailers have already ordered 500,000 copies of the series’ first three books, Twinkle Twinkle, Little Miss Muffet, and Humpty Dumpty. Congratulations to David on this success!

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Rebecca Hains blogs at rebeccahains.wordpress.com.

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