Why Shouldn't Gloria Steinem Be a Disney Princess?

Giving history's most influential women the sparkly-gown treatment, as artist David Trumble has, doesn't trivialize them—it celebrates them.

David Trumble

Halloween has come and gone, and with it that most terrifying of Halloween costumes: princesses. Angst about the ubiquitous, frivolous, artificial, beauty-obsessed femininity of Disney princesses is year-round, but is perhaps especially intense at this time of year, and that may be why David Trumble's anti-Disney-Princess satire—a gallery of 10 inspiring female heroes, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Harriet Tubman to Malala Yousafzai, reimagined as princesses—is making the rounds on the web again after first appearing last May.

Trumble was initially responding to Disney’s “girlification” of Merida from Brave in their princess marketing. Trumble started thinking of great female role models, and wondering, as he put it, "How many of these women would be improved by a few extra sparkles?" The point here is supposed to be that, contrary to what Disney might be suggesting, strong, inspiring women—female role models—don't need to be princesses, and that turning them into princesses trivializes them. Heroes don't need sparkles, and sparkles distract from the heroines. In fact, though, Trumble's drawings don't so much satirize princesses as, rather wonderfully, validate them.

In some cases the satire works. Turning Anne Frank into "The Holocaust Princess" (later changed to "Diary Princess")* is, baldly tasteless, as Trumble intends. The princess narrative of wealth, prestige, and gutsy triumph sits very uncomfortably next to the persecution and mass tragedy of the Holocaust. The cute, sparkly, flowery dress and big-eyed cheer comes across as inappropriate, ghoulish irony; her blank cheer almost seems to mock Frank's real life. Disney stories of spunky girl power overcoming evil fall painfully flat in the face of the gas chambers.

But while the princess iconography may not work for Frank, it works fine in other instances—like Gloria Steinem, reimagined as the “Trailblazer Princess." Trumble draws Steinem as a full-on glam '70s disco princess, with giant, clunky round glasses; flaring pants spangled with stars; a crazy, amazing purple belt; and hands eloquently positioned for disco-dancing or karate-chopping. She looks cool, confident, and super-fabulous. I have trouble imagining that Steinem herself (who was, after all, a fan of Wonder Woman) wouldn't find it thoroughly appealing. This princess isn't a satire or a trivialization. She's a tribute.

That's the case with pretty much all of the other drawings as well. There's Princess Marie Curie (the "Nobel Princess") with her test tube smoking heart shape clouds, and Princess Rosa Parks (the "Equality Princess") with her dorky glasses and severe spangled jacket over billowy skirt, both serious and vibrant. Hillary Clinton's billowy pants and insouciant pet dove seems less like a sneer at princesses than like an unusually charming campaign poster ("Princess 2016"), while Princess Susan B. Anthony ("Suffrage Princess") in a starry Victorian dress looks ready to go out and overthrow some patriarchy, stylishly. Even Harriet Tubman ("Abolition Princess"), holding a rose and dressed in red, white and blue, seems less like a trivialization than like a defiance. Why shouldn't freedom fighters be glamorous too? (Thus the success of Beverly Jenkins's Underground Railroad romance.)

As I've noted before, the discomfort with princesses often seems to be a discomfort with those things considered feminine—frilly clothes, romance, sparkles, kittens, and sunshine. Making Gloria Steinem a princess is supposed to be silly and artificial because traditional femininity is silly and artificial.

But, as it turns out, making Gloria Steinem a princess is not silly and artificial. Instead, it is awesome. Which suggests, first of all, that femininity is, or can be, awesome. It can be smart, or fierce, or courageous, just like masculinity can. In his caption for Princess Malala Yousafzai, Trumble writes, "She risked all for what she believed in, for education and equality for young girls everywhere! But never mind that … Look! Sparkles!" In the drawing itself, though, those feminine sparkles don't make Yousafzai less determined. On the contrary, they seem part of the determination and the commitment. Gloss them as cynically as you will, but if you put stars on Malala Yousafzai's dress, those stars mean hope.

Trumble, then, hasn't shown that princesses are superfluous; instead, he's inadvertently highlighted the potential of their appeal. Little boys (and little girls) like to imagine they can shoot force bolts like superheroes; little girls (and little boys, too) like to imagine they're glamorous like princesses. You can say little boys are too violent and little girls are too frivolous if you want, but the truth is that both force bolts and glamour are fun, and it's pretty natural to want both. Admittedly, too much of anything can be a problem; you don't want to solve all your problems with force bolts, and you don't want to end up paralyzed in the grip of a one-size-fits-all glamour. Which is why Trumble's drawings end up being, despite themselves, so inspiring. He doesn't demonstrate that princesses are stupid. Rather, he shows that princesses, like girls (and maybe the occasional boy, as well) can do anything—and sparkle while doing it.

* This post has been updated to reflect that Trumble later changed the name of his Anne Frank princess cartoon.