Fronting a multi-billion dollar brand, Disney Princesses have enraged feminists for decades. Their impossible proportions–stick-thin waists, enormous eyes, and barely visible noses–create unrealistic beauty standards for the young girls who worship them. The messages their stories deliver are often sexist (the Little Mermaid has to sacrifice her ability to speak in order to get with Prince Charming?). Until the 1990s, all of the Disney princesses were white.
Setsu Shigematsu, a Southern California mother and professor of media and communications at the University of California, Riverside, was fed up with this outdated cast of characters. But instead of banning princesses from her family altogether, she decided to create a new book series called the Guardian Princesses, about a diverse group of women who protect the environment and model compassion and self-reliance.
“The dominant and traditional stories that portray princesses as waiting to be rescued by a prince are too restrictive and limiting for children in terms of their gender roles,” Setsu tells Co.Design. “We wanted to combine the action-oriented adventures and ethical challenges faced by superheroes to reinvent the princesses as superheroines. The Guardian Princesses protect people and the planet with their special powers.”
The Guardian Princesses were born when Shigematsu decided to write an alternative princess story for her daughter’s fifth birthday party. After an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from her daughter and other mothers, she decided to turn it into a series with anime-inspired illustrations, which she is self-publishing, and which will be available this month.
Though they still have the giant twinkly eyes, tiny chins, small noses, poreless skin, and luscious manes of the traditional Disney cartoons, the Guardian Princesses were deliberately designed to range from size 2 to 14, and the group is racially and culturally diverse.
“The Guardian Princesses have undergone multiple revisions and some are still being redesigned,” Shigematsu says. “Princess Mariana is currently undergoing a wardrobe change because we received some feedback that she looked too modern and sexy, whereas others felt that Princess Ten Ten’s outfit looked too traditional.”
In her quest to redefine beauty standards, Shigematsu says she welcomes feedback from readers about how the characters should look. Which raises some questions: Will there ever be a story about a princess with acne, or oversized ears, or even glasses? What about a princess with normal-sized eyes, recently imagined in a series by Buzzfeed?
Designing princesses with traits that aren’t considered conventionally beautiful poses a tricky marketing challenge: As The Atlantic‘s Olga Khazan recently explained in “The Psychology of Giant Princess Eyes,” research shows that the “babyfaced” princess formula is more universally appealing, than, say, a face with wrinkly skin, a big nose, small eyes, and a large, pointy chin. Incidentally, animators often reserve that formula for villains, like Maleficent or the witch in Snow White.
One way the Guardian Princess series aims to market itself is that it’s written in accordance with Common Core, the educational standards currently held by 45 states, which gives it more of a chance of succeeding in elementary school classrooms. But will it catch on outside of politically correct, progressive niche communities? “We think that those beyond liberal and progressive communities will like aspects of our stories,” Shigematsu says. “We hope that most people would be interested in protecting endangered animals or learning more about the relationship between food systems and health, or pollution that harms marine life and people.”
The series offers a much-needed solution for parents and educators who don’t want to deny children’s attraction to fantastical, magical princess stories, but who also don’t want to feed them damaging messages. And in a world where traditional gender roles are becoming increasingly less defined and restrictive, Shigematsu says, “I believe that the Guardian Princesses will appeal to girls and boys. When we did readings in second grade classes, after we finished the story, many boys jumped up and enthusiastically exclaimed they wanted to join the Guardian Princesses.”
The Guardian Princess series is fighting against a still-strong tide: in May, when Pixar redesigned Merida, the star of Brave, they made her waist smaller and her hair bigger. And, of course, “princess culture” has its pervasive adult counterpart–once young kids leave behind their unrealistically animated heroines, they often move on to unrealistically photoshopped and airbrushed celebrities in big-screen fairytales. Efforts like Shigematsu’s to turn the princess archetype on its head are still sorely needed, and can only help in promoting a healthier body image and allowing a more diverse range of women to see themselves reflected positively in the media. Out with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, in with Princesses Leilani and Ten Ten.