Why We Need Disney's Dirty Princesses

Over the past couple of years there has been an increased fascination with Disney characters–especially the princesses. This is partially due to the spate of releases that put heroines (princesses, not princes) front and center, including Brave and Frozen. The ladies are gaining interest thanks to some serious makeovers, from goth to hipster, pin-up to zombie, renaissance to urban. The results are most welcome.

Belle Elvgren Pin-Up By Kittren"Belle Elvgren Pin-Up" by Kittren

Disney princesses are without defects, or so we’ve been told. The characters show little girls a perfect world in which what they wish for can come true. Even in the worst circumstances, somehow a magical creature or a prince will come along and save us. Recent Disney movies where the heroine is a strong-willed princess, like the protagonists in Tangled, Frozen, and Brave, show us that even though you might feel you can’t control what’s happening to you, you are not helpless.

As children we associate Disney princesses with moral and physical perfection. When we grow up, we want to take their flawlessness with us through life. We are constantly searching for a way to make the fantasies more real, to adapt them to our individual circumstances. “What would Ariel do if she were in my position?” a girl might ask. Maybe not consciously, but if this movie influenced you as a child, your view of the world and your reality was partly built with help from its characters; you might appreciate a little help from your childhood idol.

If we disfigure or twist these perfect creatures into something imperfect, or even mash them up with even more empowered figures, like those in Game of Thrones, The Avengers, or Star Wars, the transformations may reach us on a deeper, emotional level. To make these perfect creatures evil or in some other way deformed takes our breath away. Making a Disney princess purposefully flawed tweaks our view of the world, and maybe subconsciously, reality. Their deficiencies are proof that our flaws are common, that we are not abnormal.

Princesses With Secrets

José Rodolfo Loaiza Ontiveros Mirror Mirror on the Wall"Mirror Mirror on the Wall" by José Rodolfo Loaiza Ontiveros When I saw the hipster Disney princesses for the first time, I burst out laughing. When I saw the Renaissance princess recreation, I was awed. Artist José Rodolfo Loaiza Ontiveros’s "Profanity Pop," in which Disney characters appear drunk, gay, pregnant, and fat, just made me happy. This art does not destroy my childhood, and they don’t scar my moral reflection of society. I feel the same about my beloved Disney princesses as I did as a child, but now I think about them with a smirk: “I know your secrets.”

Disney makeovers are not only used to shock or confuse us for the fun of it; artists are using them to raise awareness of real problems. “When did he start treating you like a princess?” or “When did she stop treating you like a hero?” are slogans for activist-artist Saint Hoax’s domestic violence awareness campaigns “Happy Never After” and “Prince Charmless.” Compare that artistic production with Alexander Palombo’s series “What kind of man are you?” in which Disney couples are joined by Marge and Homer Simpson, Superman and Wonder Woman, and many more famous cartoon characters. Together with Saint Hoax's “Princest Diaries,” which raises awareness of sexual abuse made by family members, and “Royal Misfits,” which highlights anorexia nervosa among children, we see great examples of how Disney images can be used as a forceful reminder that society is not pretty and perfect, and that appearance does not necessarily reflect reality.

Saint Hoax Princess

We’ve seen the precious figures tattooed, smoking, drinking, beaten up, disabled, gender-swapped and dressed up as super heroes and villains. And it was good. Making the princesses stronger helps girls feel the need to be stronger, too. Depicting the young women bruised and beaten shows us that even the most perfect world can have horrible secrets. And seeing the princesses tattooed, smoking, drinking shows us that they are not so different from us.

Using Disney characters to convey messages on societal issues is similar to using celebrities to share the same information, but somehow the delivery has greater resonation. Maybe it’s because we expect Disney characters to remain in a pretty box, so when they break out it’s somewhat shocking. The message has a greater effect because people may relate to the messenger (rather than to a super rich celebrity) or even consider them role models worth imitating.

The Lolita Effect

Another topic in the princess modification genre relates to the sexualization of those perfect girls. It is no surprise that the little princesses, symbol of purity and moral perfection, turn up as 1950s pin-up girls, as porn stars in the nudity of Dillon Boy’s “Dirtyland.” Instead of a shy teenage princess we meet a fully grown bombshell to fulfill some very naughty fantasies in Scott Campbell's "Fairytale Fantasies," or extremely sexy warrior princesses in Mike Roshuk’s scenarios. Basically it’s the Lolita effect.

Dirtyland by Dillon Boy"A Whole New World" by Dillon Boy

To transform the innocent, pure little girl into a sexbomb or to display her in erotic postures shows us, again, that every fairy tale kingdom has its dirty secrets and even a princess has sexual desires. And although those very independent women do not need much saving, they wouldn’t mind playing along for their Prince Charming to save them.

One may contend that some of those artists have taken it a step too far, perverted the image too much to be of any value for society. But in the end we are talking about art. And art should evoke an emotional reaction in us, be it positive or negative, hate or love. As long as we’re processing what we’ve seen, forming an opinion, and applying the thoughts to aspects of our lives, the image is successful.

By making those perfect characters display weaknesses or undesired traits, artists hope to achieve consciousness in society for the acceptance of “weirdness” and for tolerance of “alternative” ideas. Disney princesses are, after all, known to almost every child in modern societies, much to the dislike of more active parents who wouldn’t like their daughters to take some of the weaker princesses as role models. Those parents may appreciate most of the above-mentioned transformations (with the possible and very understandable exception of the porn star Disney princesses).

To all those artists out there who are making amazing transformations of our beloved Disney characters, I say: keep going, we need this!

hipster disney princesses

Laura is The Mantle's Arts & Culture Editor. You can email her at laura [at] mantlethought.org. Follow her on Twitter @LScheriau.

Laura gained her M.A. in GFL, Linguistics and Comparative Literature Studies, with extra credits in Literary Translation, Prehistoric Archaeology, as well as Polish, Spanish, and Korean Language Studies. She is the translator of "Sins of the Crown" by Aidan Davidson.