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When The Princesses Grow Up

Many Millennial women grew up on a steady diet of Disney. The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) were released when many of them were kids who rewatched them, and previous Disney princess classics, over and over on VHS. In the late ‘90s, Disney created their princess line, and began aggressively marketing their princesses together, captivating the younger end of the generation with even more princess mania. But as Millennial women have grown up, taken media classes, and learned a little bit about some of the potential impacts of Princess Culture, their view of the princesses they grew up with have shifted. But interestingly, having a more adult point of view and understanding of their crowned cartoon favorites has not led to a mass rejection of them. In fact, representations and reinterpretations of the princesses are wildly popular online. Instead of snubbing the images of their youth, Millennial women and men have instead forced the princesses to grow up with them, co-opting Disney imagery and celebrating versions of their beloved princesses that more closely align with their world views today. 

Internet art haven DevientArt hosts a plethora of Disney princess interpretations, re-imagining the princesses as everything from burlesque dancers to tattooed beauties with images that very often go viral on curation sites like Buzzfeed, Jezebel, and Neatorama. YouTube also proves that princess fandom has grown up with its audience—just last week a video from Todrick Hall mashed up the Cinderella story with Beyoncé songs, and the delightful result  “Cinderoncé” went viral. Mashups and genre splicing are one approach to rethinking the princesses’ looks and stories, but just as often their images are adjusted to fit a more modern point of view, and more closely match the way that Millennials think today. Sometimes this takes the form of hero redrawings, which mashup the Disney classics with roles that more empower their heroines, turning them into DC or Marvel superheroes, Star Wars inspired light-saber wielding siths and jedis, or The Last Airbender style kickass Avatars, among others. These redrawings “correct” one of the biggest grown-up criticisms of the princesses—that they are helpless and weak— and turn them into the kind of powerful characters adult Millennials crave. Other times, the princesses are given modern-day messages to tell, as with this live-action workplace version of Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World” that has Ariel and her fellow princesses in office clothes, singing about their lack of equal pay, and their desired to be “make as much as a man.”

Brandjacking the princesses for the sake of criticizing Disney is also a part of grown-up princess culture. When news of the next Disney princess from the upcoming Frozen hit the internet, the reaction from some was frustration that they had produced their “billionth white princess,” and one who looked nearly identical to Rapunzel. Tumblr swept into action, “correcting” the imagery and creating their own more diverse versions of the character in order to make a statement and show that a non-white princess could have been just as captivating.

But perhaps the most popular grown-up take on the princesses is showing their dark side, and taking a look at what might have happened after the happily ever after. Millennials have embraces dystopian storylines in full force in the last decade, and have taken to casting their favorite childhood characters as the stars of some darker stories. Some of the most popular Disney princess videos have taken this approach in a comedic direction, perhaps most famously on SNL in the 2012 Real Housewives of Disney sketch which hilariously showed Cinderella as a sloppy drunk stuck in a marriage with a gay Prince Charming, Ariel as a snob, and Belle as a music star wannabe. In the same vein, this year’s film Spring Breakers inspired a College Humor parody sketch featuring the former Disney princesses as the stars of a Spring Breakers trailer, doing drugs, robbing the evil stepmother, and spouting their most famous lines with some distinctively dark and adult alterations. “After Ever After,” a one-man YouTube acapella video is all about what might have happened to the princesses after the movies end and includes imaginative futures like Ariel’s ocean friends perishing in a BP oil spill and Belle persecuted for bestiality. The very humorous and creative clip has 18,686 views so far. Other recent dark takes on the princesses include street art that shows them wielding weapons in dark corners, the princesses as horror movie characters and seven deadly sins, and Fallen Princesses, a photo series that has the damsels succumbing to alcoholism, cancer and other adult nightmares. 

Whether re-casting the princesses in adult roles, or imagining them as grown ups themselves (as with hipster princesses, hipster Ariel, and a recent imagining of what their Instagram accounts would look like) Millennials have proven again and again that they are still captivated by the images of their childhood, and take great pleasure in updating them to better fit into their lives today.