I think I understand what little girls used to dream about. Work hard, be pretty and eventually a prince will sweep you away to a vastly better world. I know this because I've watched every Disney Princess movie. Over and over and over again.
Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), Aurora (1959), and Ariel (1989) were all separated from their mothers and tormented by stern female authority figures. But all four remained sweet, beautiful and chaste. And all four eventually had a valiant and handsome prince carry them off without anything resembling a courtship.
But Ariel was the last of a dying breed. In 1991 Beauty and the Beast introduced us to Belle. Like her predecessors, she was sweet, beautiful and chaste. However her male counterpart was not a handsome prince, but a selfish jerk cursed to mope around his castle in the form of a furry and top-heavy beast who kidnapped Belle's father and then blackmailed her into a life of slavery. Belle's raison d'etre was not to better herself, but to find a way to fall in love with this monster and - more importantly - teach him how to love her back.
Since then, America's girls have watched Tiana follow roughly the same script, but with a frog. And they've been introduced to Jasmine and Rapunzel, both of whom are beautiful, powerful princesses who inexplicably fall for petty crooks.
Post-1991 Disney princesses are not the equals of their male counterparts. They are their superiors. They are more attractive and more aggressive. Which makes me think teen boys these days must have it awfully easy. Wear slouchy pants and smoke pot and eventually some gorgeous girl will offer you adoration, money and a blowjob.
If I'm overreacting, I blame Atlantic essayist Caitlin Flanagan. She's one of those writers who thinks stating opinions strongly turns them into facts. But her apocalyptic descriptions of modern teen sexuality worry the hell out of me:
Fellatio, which was once a part of the sexual repertoire only of experienced women, is now commonly performed by very young girls outside of romantic relationships, casually and without any expectation of reciprocation... Nowadays girls don't consider oral sex in the least exotic—nor do they even consider it to be sex. It's just "something to do."
This was not the way things were when I was in high school.
It's not female empowerment that scares me. (Although I wouldn't define casual blowjobs as empowering.) It's male apathy. With Disney as their tutor, modern girls are taught to marry their lessers and then try to brush the boys towards greatness through some combination of seduction and guilt.
There is a drastic flaw with this system. Ninety percent of the things teen boys do, they do to impress girls. If the girls no longer need impressing, teenage boys have no reason to rise above mediocre.
One of Flanagan's most powerful pieces is the unfortunately titled essay The Passion of Alec Baldwin. I may have read it more times than I've watched The Little Princess. No small feat, that.
A girl wants a story to build her life on, the original story of the great love that brought her here. She wants things a boy never will: the dried flowers from her mother’s bouquet, the glass ashtray from the honeymoon hotel, the telling (over and over again) of the way her father insisted to the charge nurse that there had to be, somewhere on that maternity ward, a private room for his wife.
Perhaps this is why the princes that fell for first-generation Disney Princesses never had a backstory. Nobody cared. Boys don't need backstories. They need swords. Meanwhile, Snow White and her friends had missing matriarchs, aging tormentors, fairy godmothers, animal friends, hobbies, lovely singing voices, cottages in the woods, and so on.
But modern fairy tales fail our children, encouraging our daughters to spend their adolescence making out with losers and our sons to spend their lives pursuing nothing much at all.
With less and less help from society, parents must be more and more vigilante. They have to tell their children that the fairy tales have got it all wrong. They must find a way to explain why casual sex is the province of adults. And they need to tell their daughters this: "Marry a prince, not a project. Marry a man who does not need saving."