When Tori Bowman had her first child, a daughter named Aubryn, she made some decisions about the type of media her child would consume.
One rule was cut and dried: no damsels in distress.
Bowman, a Seattle resident, mother and child lifestyle blogger, is concerned about the way media portray the archetypal princess as a royal but helpless protagonist who needs rescuing by a heroic, wealthy prince. So when Aubryn, now 4 years old, told her mother recently, "I just want to be a princess," Bowman determined her daughter would be exposed to a more empowered brand of princess.
Aubryn has never seen "Cinderella," "Snow White" or The Little Mermaid."
Instead, Bowman prefers films like "Frozen," "Brave" and "Tangled," and she said they have taught her daughter powerful lessons in bravery and courage.
"She likes the princesses and the pretty dresses, but now when she plays, she turns (these princesses) into superheroes and saves the day," Bowman said. "She's learned about sacrifice and ambition, and that it's more than just looking pretty in a dress."
Princesses are still a thriving component in modern entertainment, but audiences may very well be witnessing a royal revolution. If recent releases from studios like Disney are any indication, the themes found in these tales as old as time may be more congruent with the ideals of parents like Bowman.
This weekend, Disney's live-action adaptation of "Cinderella" hits theaters. And while it's still the classic story of a girl who overcomes a life destined for housework, solitude and cruelty when she fortuitously meets a prince, Disney's latest Cinderella is not helpless. She has strong moral character.
In a video interview with the Wall Street Journal, director Kenneth Branagh was asked if he was tempted to take the Cinderella story in the darker direction that is fashionable today. Branagh said Cinderella, played by Lily James, makes "wry observation of some of the kind of behavior she has to put up with" and could choose to be snarky in return. But the movie instead focuses on what Branagh calls her "purity of intention" — something the director said "is so unusual these days it could be refreshing."
"It doesn't make her stupid or naive or unsophisticated, but she believes in what her mother passes on: have courage and be kind," Branagh said in the interview. "It's very easy to say. It's really hard to do. It probably starts on any given day with a smile, and when people don't smile back you have a choice about whether you get grumpy like them or you do something else. Ultimately it's about, how do you see yourself? How do you want to feel about yourself?'"
The director said the movie makes a "full commitment to goodness and courage." With wit and spunk and guts, Cinderella is able to follow the path of "nonviolent resistance," Branagh said.
"Frozen" is on the short list of newer Disney princess films that seems to focus on more than just "some day my prince will come." In the Academy Award-winning song "Let it Go," Queen Elsa sings of empowerment and liberation from self-imposed limitations she felt obligated to conform to because of societal standards.
"Frozen," the highest-grossing animated film of all time and Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature, chose to look at the love between two siblings, sisters Anna and Elsa, rather than exploring the belabored idea of romantic love that sparks when prince meets princess. (A "Frozen" sequal was announced Thursday.)
Four-year-old Aubryn has started engaging in imaginative play, and Bowman has observed how themes and morals from "Frozen" translate into her daughter's playtime.
"Anna is brave and goes after her sister even though it could be detrimental to herself," Bowman said. "I see Aubryn stand up for her brother and take care of him."
Bowman included a "Frozen"-inspired book on her list of "5 Books That...Celebrate Siblings."
The princess culture is a thriving retail empire with everything from miniature princess garb to character toothbrushes and Band-Aids in its kingdom, and it doesn't seem to be losing steam.
In 2012, Pixar introduced the fiery-red headed Merida, the independent Scottish princess from the film "Brave." (The following year, a so-called princess "makeover" of the character led to criticism from parents online and even the film's writer/director.)
In 2013, Anna and Elsa captured the hearts of young girls worldwide.
According to the Daily Mail, "Frozen" merchandise became the top-seller for the 2014 Christmas season. In fact, the Daily Mail reported that 1 in 5 parents purchased "Frozen" paraphernalia for their children.
But perhaps that's just how former top Disney executive Alan Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products, envisioned it. According to a New York Times Magazine article, in 2000, Mooney took the Disney company for a ride — one colored pink and bursting with paraphernalia from glass slippers, bedazzled tiaras and sparkly ball gowns. It was the Disney Princess market.
The idea was sparked when Mooney attended a performance of "Disney on Ice," according to the Chicago Tribune, and was shocked at number of homemade princess costumes he saw among the sea of sparkly, young audience members.
Since then, the franchise has raked in more than $4 billion.
"Princess, as some Disney execs call it, is not only the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created; they say it is on its way to becoming the largest girls’ franchise on the planet," reads a New York Times magazine article, written by Peggy Orenstein, author of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter."
Orenstein is one of the many self-proclaimed naysayers of the princess franchise.
The anti-princess camp believes the "princess trope represented passivity, entitlement, materialism and submissiveness," reads an article in The Atlantic by a father determined to keep a wedge between his daughters and the glitzy magical worlds of animated royalty.
But even some of the most diehard of parents have succumbed to the inevitability of the princess phenomenon.11 comments on this story
"Sometime after my daughters' third birthday, I gave up," wrote Andy Hinds for the Atlantic. "My resistance to princess culture only made me look like a crank, and an impotent one at that. And frankly, my cold, black heart melted whenever I saw my little girls in their royal finery."
Meanwhile, Bowman feels confident in her media choices for her family: no damsels in distress.
"Thankfully because we've done this, she still loves pirates and other things just as much as princesses," Bowman said.
And according to her mother, if Aubryn were ever in distress, she would know how to save the day herself, thanks to a little help from her modern heroines.