Skip to content

In Defense of Princess Culture

I want my daughter to be treated the way we all want to be treated: as unique and special, in the way we are all unique and special.

Until a couple of years ago, I didn’t fully appreciate how many princesses inhabit the Disney cinematic universe. Of course, I was aware of the iconic female characters from the animated movies, from Snow White through Ariel and Jasmine right up to Moana, Merida, and Elsa. If pressed, I probably would have been able to tell you that each of these individual characters is a princess, and I was certainly aware of the Disney princess phenomenon—little girls dressing up like their favorite characters for Halloween or walking through the Magic Kingdom decked out in tulle and tiaras. What hadn’t entirely registered for me was the degree to which the worlds of Disney are populated by royalty. Nearly all of the prominent female characters in Disney’s animated films are actual princesses. They are daughters of kings and queens whose royal status is central to their stories. And even many of the female characters who do not start out as princesses—Belle and Cinderella, for example—end up marrying princes and becoming royalty at the culmination of their journeys. Though the trend seems to be changing in recent years, Disney films with female protagonists who are not (and do not aspire to be) princesses have historically been outliers. Even Disney’s recent film Encanto embodies the core structure of most other princess movies: the Madrigal family, while not royalty, plays a leading role in their community, is structured like a traditional royal court, and harps on finding suitable pairings for their daughters.

Critics have pilloried Disney’s animated films for perpetuating gender stereotypes—in particular, a view of femininity that reinforces patriarchal assumptions about what women should want or aspire to be. “Disney heroines are always beautiful, shapely, and often sexually attractive, while female villains are typically ugly and either extremely thin (Cruella) or grossly fat (Ursula), thus perpetuating norms of physical beauty prevalent in mainstream American culture,” writes media scholar Janet Wasko in her book Understanding Disney. Even though it has been more than 80 years since she captured the hearts of the seven dwarfs, Snow White remains, according to Wasko, the archetype of the “innocent, naïve, passive, beautiful, domestic, and submissive” Disney woman.

Even the company’s recent efforts to update its vision of femininity have not met with universal acclaim. For example, many viewers seem to regard Frozen (released in 2013) as Disney’s most thoroughly feminist animated film, since the sisterly relationship between Anna and Elsa is a central feature of the story and provides a number of moments that satisfy the so-called Bechdel Test for gender equality in a work of fiction: two women talking together about something other than a man. Indeed, the absence of any conventional romantic storyline involving Elsa, coupled with the themes of independence and individuality that drive the memorable song “Let it Go,” have made her something of a queer icon.

People might object to the stereotypical visions of femininity on display, but those visions almost always come with the additional trappings of royalty. If we are worried about the messages that kids are learning from the movies, why do we not also condemn this anti-democratic streak?

Nevertheless, media scholar Maja Rudloff points out that Anna and Elsa still very much “emphasize signs conventionally associated with femininity: their lips are painted red, their eyes are greatly exaggerated, and they have long hair and eyelashes,” even as their “tight dresses reveal unusually petite, slender frames, tiny waists, round, firm bosoms and slim wrists, legs and arms.” Moreover, despite Elsa’s ostensible status as the film’s main character, Rudloff contends that it is ultimately Anna’s search for “conventional heterosexual love” that “drives the narrative forward.” In her view, the seemingly feminist trappings of the plot merely paper over what really lies at the heart of the film: a woman in search of a man. Rudloff’s comments are representative of a large body of Disney criticism that runs along similar lines. If the differences between Elsa and Snow White represent clear advances in Disney’s portrayal of woman, plenty of critics think those portrayals still have a long way to go.

The aristocratic nature of the Disney universe, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to raise quite as many hackles. People might object to the stereotypical visions of femininity on display, but those visions almost always come with the additional trappings of royalty. If we are worried about the messages that kids are learning from the movies they are watching, why do we not also condemn this anti-democratic streak in Disney films? After all, we don’t want our kids to internalize gender norms that reinforce patriarchy or impossible standards of beauty. Why should we accept the social hierarchies that princess movies take for granted? The lives of royalty certainly aren’t more important than anyone else’s. Do we really want our kids thinking that there is a special class of people whose struggles are worthy of our attention, or that being a successful woman means not only being beautiful but also ruling over one’s inferiors (no matter how justly or compassionately)? Where are the movies about ordinary girls? As fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes put it to Malcolm Gladwell on his podcast Revisionist History, “Why should I care about these fucking princesses?”

My family has visited Disney World several times over the past few years, and all of these thoughts roll through my head when I see girls walking around the various theme parks in their princess costumes or (as happens somewhat regularly) when my daughter is greeted as a princess by Disney “cast members” (how Disney Corporation refers to its theme park employees) as she gets ready to board an attraction. (A rather different set of thoughts goes through my head when I see women in their mid-30s dressed up as Jasmine or Belle tottering around on heels in the 90 degree heat.) I don’t think it’s good for girls (or boys!) to internalize these ideals of what it is to be a woman. I don’t want my daughter to feel anxious about her appearance or to think that her happiness depends on finding true love with anyone, let alone Prince Charming. And the obsession with royalty violates all my egalitarian impulses. Like Zipes, I’m really uncomfortable that anyone cares so much about all these fucking princesses.

But I doubt that my daughter understands any of these sorts of concerns. Sadie, who is 15, cannot read or write. Though she is an incredibly active girl with a vibrant personality and sense of humor, she does not engage with others in a way that is at all typical for kids her age. And unlike most visitors to the Magic Kingdom, what she knows of Disney characters comes primarily by way of our visits to the theme parks rather than Disney movies, hardly any of which she has seen, much less watched beginning to end multiple times. She knows a few princesses by name—principally Anna and Elsa—but the concept of a princess as someone who occupies a particular social role is almost certainly meaningless to her.

As for her appearance, I have no idea what sorts of anxieties she may or may not have. She certainly has opinions about what clothes she wants to wear on any given day. Trying to get her to put on a shirt that she has deemed unacceptable will inevitably bring frustration for everyone involved. And as she has gone through puberty, she has made observations about the way her body has changed, but these observations appear entirely devoid of anxiety. I have never gotten the sense that she compares the way she looks to other people or has any thoughts about who might be more beautiful than who. Thus, while she is clearly intrigued by Anna and Elsa (and Ariel via one of her favorite rides, Journey of the Little Mermaid), I don’t think she views any of these characters as ideals of beauty, much less femininity, or worries about the degree to which her body conforms to the impossible standards they exemplify. I may, of course, be wrong about that. Figuring out exactly what goes through her mind isn’t at all straightforward. However, the idea that she is conceptualizing her experience in the terms that worry critics of Disney strikes me as highly unlikely.

Girls should understand that a successful life doesn’t have to involve romance or depend on finding a man. And can we please stop with all the crowns and palaces and social divisions between rulers and ruled?

For readers who might be wondering, let me clarify at this point that Sadie is intellectually disabled (for reasons that, even after numerous tests and visits to specialists, have never been precisely determined). She is quite small for her age—finally making it onto the growth chart at a visit to her pediatrician a couple of years ago was something of an event—and she has delays in basically every area of development, including fine and gross motor skills, productive and receptive language, and social interactions with peers. She has, thankfully, zero medical issues and is a remarkably healthy and happy girl who notices surprising details about her environment, has a remarkable memory, maintains a unique and loving relationship with her (typically abled) older brother, and enjoys going to school, playing outside, and trotting on horseback at her weekly therapeutic riding sessions. While she is not autistic, she does have certain behaviors that may present that way to people who don’t know her well. Most prominently, she tends to fixate and perseverate on whatever she has in mind—usually a past event she thinks is notable or something she is looking forward to (or dreading) in the future. Like many disabled people, she resists neat classification, and if this fact was troubling to me and my wife early on, it now seems entirely appropriate to someone with Sadie’s big and forceful personality. 

Sadie walks fine on her own in most environments, but lasting an entire day at the Magic Kingdom on her feet is not realistic, so we navigate the park with her in a pushchair. When I wheel her to the entrance of an attraction, park employees often smile and ask Sadie, “Are you having fun, princess?” And when we might have a short wait before getting on the ride, they tell her, “It’s going to be just a minute, okay, princess?” I hear these words, and all the troubling aspects of the princess discourse spring immediately to mind. Gender stereotypes are bad. Girls should understand that a successful life doesn’t have to involve romance or depend on finding a man. And can we please stop with all the crowns and palaces and social divisions between rulers and ruled?

And yet, despite my discomfort with much of what is portrayed in the world of princesses, I can’t help but smile to myself whenever Sadie is greeted in this way. For just a moment, the gesture places her on the same level as all the other girls wandering around the park, wide-eyed at sightings of Elsa and Snow White. I might bristle quietly as I think about the fraught ideals of the Disney princess industrial complex, but even that reaction is oddly comforting. Paradoxically, I want Sadie to be viewed like other girls so that I can worry about all the expectations that are placed on kids these days. I want her to be viewed as just another girl, and if that involves labelling her in a way that carries some negative baggage, I can live with that tension for a moment. And in any case, I think Sadie ultimately has more in common with some Disney princesses than do a lot of girls who actually know what a princess is.

The Raven Feather

I suspect that the features of Disney princess stories that violate my egalitarian and democratic impulses also explain a lot of their appeal to the millions of kids who continue to be captivated by them. Children like to dress up in fancy clothes and imagine that they inhabit fantastical worlds full of magical creatures. They like to sing and dance and pretend they have powers they know they will never have. And the idea that they might exercise authority over others is, no doubt, enticing. When you have little control over your environment and big people are constantly telling you what you can and cannot do, the thought of being in charge and giving orders is delightfully subversive.

Princesses are, for lack of a better way of putting it, special. They are celebrated and admired, often adored, not because they are just like everyone else but precisely because they are not.

However, embedded in the world that Disney princesses generally inhabit is a further assumption: that the girls and women at the heart of these stories have valuable traits that the masses somehow lack. The power that princesses exercise may be part of their appeal, but so is the way they are viewed by others. Princesses are, for lack of a better way of putting it, special. They are celebrated and admired, often adored, not because they are just like everyone else but precisely because they are not.

For kids, the prospect of occupying a wholly unique place in the world—one that draws the attention and adoration of others and warrants elaborate celebrations throughout the kingdom—may be too much to resist. Who doesn’t want to be celebrated in this way? Many adults probably entertain such fantasies more frequently than they care to admit. We dream of athletic glory or having thousands of people cheer for us as we perform on stage. We obsess over the lives of the rich and famous, trying to identify what sets them apart. Perhaps the 35-year-old Jasmines and Belles I see at Disney World are simply directing these impulses in a more imaginative direction, more willing than the rest of us to put their fantasies on display for others. Perhaps wanting to be special in the ways that kids think Disney princesses are special is an entirely normal feature of the human experience.

I think the same impulse that draws kids to princesses is part of the reason why I secretly like it when Sadie is greeted as a princess at Disney theme parks. Despite incorporating the label “special” into various aspects of disability culture (think here of special education services for children with special needs), few environments exist in which children with disabilities are actively celebrated in ways that other kids often are. Rather, disabled children (and adults, for that matter) are often regarded as special only insofar as they pose unique problems to solve or present a challenge for inclusion in collective spaces like schools or public transportation. They may be viewed as unique, but it is not a uniqueness that elevates them in the eyes of others. It is instead a peculiarity that serves to marginalize everyone whose differences are considered undesirable.

As with most everyone else we encounter throughout a day at the Magic Kingdom, I have no real idea what is going on in Disney employees’ heads when they call my daughter a princess. I suspect that if they are thinking about anything at all, it is probably about how to keep a mass of humanity moving through their attractions in a timely and orderly fashion or how hungry they are and what they want to eat for lunch. But whatever the precise contents of their thoughts, their gesture conveys a positive commitment to Sadie’s uniqueness. Even if they are just trying to sidestep their own discomfort with having to deal with a 15-year-old who requires a pushchair, and even if these exchanges are simply part of the scripted way in which they are trained to interact with all park visitors, calling Sadie a princess nevertheless groups her together with all the other kids who are enamored of princesses and want to be viewed as special. And for this reason, it is a precious glimpse of normality for our family—a glimpse we don’t always get as we navigate a world that has not been constructed with families like ours in mind.

The Raven Feather

At first glance, it might seem contradictory to lump the desire for normality together with the desire to be special. Being normal seems to carry with it a sense of being ordinary, and few people would equate being ordinary with being special (at least in the way that Disney princesses are thought to be special). Whatever else we might want to say about Ariel or Elsa or Moana, none of them is ordinary, so if wanting to be viewed as a princess means wanting to be viewed in the way they are viewed, it isn’t immediately clear that such a desire has anything at all to do with normality. If you want others to think you are special, then it seems you want to be extraordinary, not ordinary.

When other people think of princesses, they might think of castles and dresses and riding off into the sunset. When I think of them, I roll my eyes at all this extraneous packaging and think instead of all the girls who just want to be normal.

However, the normalizing experience of having my daughter greeted as a princess reveals a deeper connection between the desire to be normal and the desire to be special than this initial reaction might suggest. For starters, it seems entirely normal to want to be special. If the appeal of Disney princesses is that they tap into a pervasive desire to be viewed and celebrated as special, then that desire is remarkably common. Millions of kids love the princess movies and admire the characters, and while the Very Concerned among us might not love all the values those stories convey, I don’t think most parents worry that their daughter is abnormal when she wants to dress up like Elsa. Indeed, while some parents may panic if their sons express the same desire, that behavior is probably more common than many people assume, even among boys who do not ultimately identify as gay or gender-nonconforming. The desire to be viewed as special thus taps into something that most people want, especially kids who are gaining a sense of themselves and their place in the world.

When others then acknowledge this desire, they validate it as normal, and if we regard this validation as being at odds with being viewed as truly special, I think it is only because we mistake the trappings of the Disney princess universe for what really explains their abiding hold on us. The princesses are indeed special, but not because of their beauty or power or aristocratic privilege. They are special in the same way that every human being is special: because they are the particular people they are. They are unique individuals who deserve to be celebrated, not for what they can do or where they happened to be born but simply for who they are. At their best, the princess movies thus highlight the ways in which these characters want to be acknowledged as special in precisely this way. Their status as royalty is an impediment to being appreciated as unique individuals—one that must be overcome in order to be seen as more than a placeholder in an elaborate social hierarchy. And the characters who aspire to be princesses do so because they think that is the only way that anyone will really take notice of them—a belief that may very well be true in the worlds they inhabit.

It is in this way that I think Disney princesses share far more with my daughter than might be assumed. When other people think of princesses, they might think of castles and dresses and riding off into the sunset. When I think of them, I roll my eyes at all this extraneous packaging and think instead of all the girls who just want to be normal.

The Raven Feather

Disability advocates tend to shy away from talking about what is normal, and with good reason. If we prize what is normal, we generally end up marginalizing or demeaning what is abnormal, and denying that people with disabilities are normal can therefore imply that their lives are somehow less valuable or not as worthy as those who are “normally” abled. Think about the terms that middle-schoolers might use to label kids from whom they want to distance themselves: freak, weird, strange, odd. All of these descriptions contrast in important ways with being normal, and for those who are working to improve the lives of the disabled, refusing to employ the language of normality can thus be a valuable rhetorical strategy. It is, I would argue, often equivalent to simply resisting the idea that disabled people are freaks or weirdos—a goal that would seem uncontroversial for anyone who cares about basic human decency, to say nothing of social equality.

However, as philosopher Eva Feder Kittay has argued, the idea of normality is more complex than those who advocate for its elimination might allow. Kittay contends (in my view rightly) that being normal has both positive and negative connotations. While there may be some divergences from what is normal that we regard as undesirable, such that exclusion from the realm of the normal is a cause of great distress, there are also contexts in which being normal isn’t really what we’re aiming for. According to Kittay, granting that one is normal may involve “admitting to a certain banality, a lack of distinctiveness and so distinction” and in that sense be undesirable. Some people therefore disdain normality while others crave it, and the same people might feel both sentiments, depending on the time of day and the environment in which they find themselves.

The experience of this sort of ambiguity is, I suspect, familiar to most people, even if we might not think about it in precisely the terms Kittay identifies. When, in the context of discussing disability, I ask my students to reflect on the desire to be normal, their first impulse is generally to equate being normal with being average or commonplace. And since no Wake Forest undergrad strives to be commonplace, they usually deny that they want to be normal (often quite forcefully). Excellence is the order of the day, not mediocrity. At the same time, when I press them on other contrasts that might be drawn with normality—contrasts that gesture at being abnormal, weird, or freakish—they grudgingly concede that they would prefer to be normal. If being normal means not being a freak, then sure, they want to be normal; not so much when “normal” is equivalent to “ordinary.”

Princesses may be obeyed and admired, even adored, but what they most want is simply to be seen and loved for who they are.

I think these tensions in our ideas about normality ultimately arise from a fairly unified source, one that is on display in the ways that Disney princesses think about their own predicaments. Kids may be enamored of princesses because they want to be viewed as extraordinary. But the princesses themselves just want to be seen (and appreciated) as unique individuals and thus fear being wholly defined by their social status. As Kittay puts it, “the desire for normalcy is the desire to be loved, a desire realizable through the background of norms that establish and are established by self-regard, recognition, and community.” Princesses may be obeyed and admired, even adored, but what they most want is simply to be seen and loved for who they are.

I think the familiar criticisms of the Disney princess universe are generally fair, and I think it is legitimate to question how far that universe has progressed in terms of the ideals that it sets for children. That significant caveat in place, however, I think it is also notable that the role played by characters’ aristocratic status has changed since Snow White first graced the screen in 1937. Both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty confront nemeses who stand in the way of enjoying the privileges of royalty to which they are entitled. Cinderella happens upon the remarkable discovery that she is the perfect match for a prince. Even Belle’s journey in Beauty and the Beast culminates in the restoration of the castle’s royal grandeur and a prince and a princess who live happily ever after.

Contrast these story arcs with that of Frozen’s Elsa, who is saddled with a condition that won’t enable her to fulfill the expectations of her status or have any kind of meaningful relationship with her sister; or Moana’s, in which she isn’t permitted to explore the waters beyond the horizon despite her longing to venture into the unknown. Aladdin’s Jasmine and Brave’s Merida are both told they have to marry a certain kind of person because they are princesses, and the limitations that the aristocracy places on Ariel are layered on top of the fact that she is a mermaid who would prefer to walk on dry land. All of these women, it seems to me, would rather be freed from the trappings of their status so that they can simply live normal lives. What is standing in their way is precisely the manner in which they are viewed by the rest of society. 

To be clear, I am not here pleading for us all to feel sorry for the princesses, characters who are (in their fictional worlds) born to incredible privilege. Nor am I arguing that Disney’s more recent princess films are a string of unqualified feminist successes. The Princess and the Frog, for example, largely revives the ideal of princes and princesses living happily ever after (an unfortunate feature of the plot which, as Wasko points out, adds to the disconcerting fact that “the first African-American Disney princess spends a good half of the film as a small frog”). And stepping outside the animated realm, Maleficent focuses on the rather conventional tale of a princess who is denied her rightful status (even if it also follows the moral transformation of the film’s title character).

The middle-schooler who just wants to be normal wants to be grouped with everyone else so they can be seen as the unique individual they are.

Nevertheless, I am suggesting that while the princess movies are obviously about princesses, they are really about girls and women who just happen to be princesses. And thus, like my daughter, the most compelling princesses have to live in a world full of constraints they did not create (and over which they have little direct control). Like my daughter, they are vulnerable to the opinions and expectations of others and cannot be reduced to any single trait that people might use to define them. And just as I hope for my daughter, they want to be viewed and loved as the unique individuals they are, no matter the assumptions that others might make about them.

The Raven Feather

Consider the fear that all middle-schoolers have of being labelled a freak or a weirdo. It might seem like this fear results from anxiety about being identified as different from everyone else and thereby marginalized as an individual—the fear of having some unique trait used as a basis for mockery rather than admiration. If we worry about being singled out and isolated in this way, it stands to reason that we would instead want to blend into the crowd and be viewed as just like everyone else. Being normal in this sense thus appears to contrast with being noticed. However, I don’t think this fear of being noticed can be the whole story.

Some kids no doubt wish to blend completely into the crowd, and thus desire an exceptionally high degree of anonymity, but I suspect that far more kids fear being reduced to one trait or characteristic in the eyes of their peers. If you are a freak, it’s not just that you are marked out as different; it’s that you are marked out as different in a particular way and that people see you only through the lens of that difference. Kids who are labelled as weird because of the way they dress or because they have unique interests or habits are not really viewed as individuals. They are viewed as “the kid who wears funny shoes” or “the kid who still collects Pokémon cards.” Such labels serve to mark out weirdos from the rest of the group, but they certainly don’t highlight their individuality. After all, such kids may very well wear funny shoes or collect Pokémon cards past the age of most of their peers, but they also do many other things and have many other traits that make them the particular individuals they are. Reducing someone to being “the weird kid who wears funny shoes” pushes all of these other characteristics into the background and thereby obscures a person’s uniqueness. They are marked out as different, only to be grouped together and socially set aside with all the other kids who are different.

The middle-schooler who just wants to be normal thus wants to be grouped with everyone else so they can be seen as the unique individual they are. Yes, maybe they wear funny shoes and have a hobby that many kids their age do not have. But they also have a variety of family relationships and other interests, and they have complex and varied personalities that help to define their unique place in the world. People with personality quirks can no more be reduced to any one of their traits than those of us who move somewhat less noticeably through society. In this way, the desire for normality emerges as the desire for others to see us as complex individuals rather than unvaried blobs who are wholly defined by the one trait that marks us out as different. We want to be normal precisely so that we can be more fully seen by those around us and, indeed, regarded as special just for being ourselves.

Being reduced to your athletic talent is not all that different from being reduced to the quirky hobby you have or the funny shoes you wear.

Apply this analysis to the desire not to be viewed as ordinary or average. The fear of being normal in that sense is the fear of not being seen as an individual because one simply blends in with everyone else, and the only way to avoid that fate is to do something that makes one stand out from the masses. Achieving success in a pursuit that is socially valued—and being viewed as exceptional or extraordinary as a result—enables us to distinguish ourselves in a positive way and thereby garner the kind of attention and recognition as individuals that we crave. The fear may run in the opposite direction from those who do not want to be weird, but its motivation is largely the same.

The mistake is in thinking that being special (in the way we want to be viewed as special) actually depends on extraordinary abilities or achievements. There is certainly nothing wrong with pursuing excellence for its own sake or striving to achieve various goals that we set for ourselves. But the cultural assumptions that lead people to think that the best sorts of lives are those which others would regard as exceptional has all sorts of pernicious consequences. By definition, not everyone can be exceptional or extraordinary. Insisting that the only truly good lives are those which are full of remarkable achievements thus entails that only a small handful of people can live truly excellent lives. This conclusion seems not only false—there is no reason to limit in advance the number of people who can achieve excellence in living—but it also potentially encourages people to do things that will not actually make them happier. If you define success in terms that only some people are able to achieve, then a whole lot of people are going to end up regarding their lives as failures—a scenario that doesn’t seem to be a good recipe for personal fulfillment, at least on any kind of consistent basis. Put differently, if you think that being special requires living in a castle and having others hang on your every word and take care of your every need, you probably aren’t ever going to think that other people regard you as special.

Moreover, a lot of people who achieve the sort of success envisioned by this standard still end up wanting to be viewed as normal. Being a star athlete with a long list of accomplishments on the field (and the fame that often comes with them) does not eliminate the desire to be viewed as an individual. In that regard, being reduced to your athletic talent is not all that different from being reduced to the quirky hobby you have or the funny shoes you wear.

In a similar vein, people who achieve great wealth as a result of their business endeavors are often ridiculed for complaining about various aspects of their life, particularly by those who are unsatisfied with their own financial circumstances. Sometimes this ridicule is justified, but those with great wealth do not necessarily want to be reduced to the sum total of their material possessions any more than a seventh grader wants to be marked out as a weirdo just because of the shoes they wear. To be sure, we might prefer to be reduced to a trait that people admire rather than one they are inclined to disdain, but anyone who wants to be seen as a unique individual will resent either form of reduction. The rich and famous, for all their achievements, often just want to be normal like the rest of us.

The Raven Feather

Wanting others to see you as normal, and thereby appreciate you as the particular person you are, is fundamentally precarious: we have relatively little control over whether it is fulfilled. Middle-schoolers who desperately want to be normal may go to great lengths to change their appearance or to behave in ways that keep them from standing out, but whether these efforts are successful depends on how their peers ultimately view them. Sometimes things will work out as we hope, but often they will not, as preconceived notions and teenage social dynamics prevent kids from getting the reactions they want from their classmates. In this way, the desire to be normal is the manifestation of an important kind of vulnerability. We can’t truly be normal entirely on our own, at least not in the ways we most care about. Hope as we might, there is simply no guarantee that others will view us in the ways we want to be viewed.

The precarity I have in mind here comes clearly into view when families are navigating the world with disability. People whose disabilities are immediately identifiable to the outside world have no control over how they are seen—whether their disability will be the only thing that others note about them or whether they will be appreciated as unique individuals who cannot be reduced to any particular characteristic they have. When I wheel Sadie up to a Disney attraction, I have no idea what people see, nor can I control what they think when they attempt to interact with her and do not get the responses they are expecting. I can hope they see her as a vibrant girl with a varied personality who cannot be wholly defined by what she isn’t able to do. But whether that is the reaction they ultimately have is almost entirely beyond my sway.

Similarly, I may very much want our family to be seen as normal and not defined wholly by the fact that my daughter has a disability. That Sadie is disabled certainly has a significant effect on how our family operates, but it is far from the only fact that is worth knowing about us, and in many contexts, it is not particularly important or relevant. However, what other people see when they look at us making our way around the Magic Kingdom isn’t something I can control. I might hope that they see just another family trying to enjoy the day—a normal family who just happens to be navigating the park with their 15-year-old in a pushchair. But it might turn out that they are unable to see past the way Sadie is moving around the world on that particular day.

By greeting her as a princess in an environment where so many other kids are enamored of princesses, cast members display a commitment to the idea that Sadie is just another girl who loves being at Disney World and who deserves to be treated as special.

The point here isn’t to make any comments on how people react to us. I have no real idea what people are thinking when they see us at Disney World or, for that matter, when we are walking around downtown Winston-Salem. They may take no more notice of us than I do of most other families, and I may very well be projecting my own insecurities onto others when I think I see looks of puzzlement or disdain cross their faces. Nor do I mean to suggest that an inability to see past Sadie’s disability indicates any malice on anyone’s part. I know that when I see people with disabilities, particularly those which differ in significant ways from Sadie’s, I often find myself focusing on that single characteristic, and I certainly don’t think I have any hostility toward people with disabilities, at least not any of which I am conscious. Rather, my point is simply to highlight the fragility of our desire to be normal. When the object of a desire rests so fully on the thoughts and feelings of others, we are largely at the mercy of forces beyond our control.

Most of my concerns about Sadie’s future involve the precarity of her place in the world. While most parents worry about what colleges their kids will get into and whether they will have successful careers earning good salaries in respectable professions, I worry about what minimal levels of independence Sadie might be able to achieve—whether she might ultimately be able to complete basic daily tasks of self-care without assistance or have any kind of job. Most parents probably think about whether their children will find partners with whom they can share their lives and raise children of their own, should they so desire. Sadie will never have or be able to raise children, and whatever forms of companionship she is able to develop over the course of her life will look markedly different from the domestic partnerships that many kids want to have when they grow up.

I worry about where Sadie will fit into a world that, despite the advances of the last 50 years, is simply not designed to include her. Will she be loved and seen as the remarkable individual she is, or will people only view her through the lens of her disability? I do not worry that she will internalize stereotypical gender norms or have anxieties about her body of the sort that trouble so many girls (and an increasing number of boys). I don’t worry that she will think that happiness can only be found in the love of a man, because I doubt very much that she will ever think about happiness in anything like those terms. My concerns are much more rudimentary—worries of the sort that probably don’t cross the minds of most parents and threaten to expose our normal life as mere pretense. 

This fragility lends an additional poignancy to encounters between Sadie and Disney employees. The challenges that will confront Sadie in the future are obviously not going to be solved in the line to It’s a Small World. Nevertheless, by greeting her as a princess in an environment where so many other kids are enamored of princesses, cast members display a commitment to the idea that Sadie is just another girl who loves being at Disney World and who deserves to be treated as special. We are, at least in those moments, just another family doing our best to enjoy the day, and I’m just another dad who gets to feel conflicted about the ideals that the Disney princess universe lays out for our kids. The encounters last only seconds, in the many working hours that cast members put in addressing children as princes and princesses. But for a fleeting moment, someone is treating Sadie as special, and our normality doesn’t feel quite so precarious.

Works Cited

Eva Feder Kittay. “Thoughts on the Desire for Normality” in Surgically Shaping Children: Essays on Technology, Ethics, and the Pursuit of Normality, edited by Erik Parens (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), pp. 90-110.

Maja Rudloff. “(Post)feminist paradoxes: the sensibilities of gender representation in Disney’s Frozen,” 35 Outskirts 1-20 (2016).

Janet Wasko. Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy, 2nd Edition (Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2022).

Adam Kadlac is Teaching Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and author of The Ethics of Sports Fandom (Routledge 2022).