Despite it’s appearance, Sofia the First is one of the most feminist kid’s programs I’ve seen in a long time. If you haven’t watched the show, it’s very easy to assume that it is just another pile of girly fluff in a long line of Disney merchandise marketing schemes. I certainly assumed that before I was forced to watch an episode while babysitting my friend’s toddlers, but then I went home and Netflixed the whole series.
Why? Sofia the First not only addresses problems that would never appear on a show aimed at boys, but the lively and tenacious main character reminds us that being a princess isn’t all tiaras and ballgowns: it’s a position of leadership.
The first episode of the series takes Sofia through her first days at Royal Prep. Being a newly crowned princess by virtue of her peasant mother marrying the King, you’d assume that the storyline of this episode would be fraught with insecurities and fumbling attempts to ‘fit in’. And indeed Sofia does deal with social pressures, but refreshingly she rebuffs them at every turn!
Sofia wants to join the Flying Derby team, (aka. pegasus racing). When she expresses this to her new princess step-sister, she is treated to an elaborate musical number on what is a ‘princess thing’ and what is reserved only for boys. But instead of being swayed, she ends the number with a solo that insists ‘anything can be a princess thing’. Her independence is then validated firstly by the King, who insists that her new step-brother help her with her flying; and secondly by her mother, who encourages her to keep trying when she loses faith that she will be able to make the team. She obviously ends up winning the try outs and making the team, even changing her traditional step-sister’s mind about what can be ‘a princess thing’.
We consistently assume that princesses are frivolous creatures, whose only interests are in clothes and tea parties. But the only reason we assume these things is because that’s the advertised image that sells clothes and tea cups. However, historically castles were staffed mostly by men. So royal and noble ladies of the house were in charge of performing domestic duties, rather than maids. Princesses were also queens in training and not only were they expected to be able to run things while the King was away, their additional tasks were as vital as they were varied, (to learn more check out Christine de Pizan):
- Conducted meetings of diplomacy with heads of state.
- Navigated peace treaties and alliances through matchmaking.
- Managed the food and resource stores of the castle to ensure they had enough to get through winter.
- Handled mass purchasing of domestic resources.
- Managed and delegated servants’ duties in running the castle.
- Supervised the health and childcare of the royal family.
- Constructed clothing and heraldic banners for the royal family.
The show may not address these realities directly, (it is Disney), but they certainly are not shy about showing her leadership capabilities. In one of my favorite episodes, “Princesses to the Rescue”, Sofia’s step-brother, James, wanders off with a princely classmate to try and take the treasure of the Jade Tiger. Ignorant of the warnings associated with this legend, the two boys fall into the tiger’s trap. When Sofia wants to join the rescue party, the King tells her to stay behind as the journey is too dangerous. But lo and behold the King and the other prince’s father also fall into the trap, leaving Sofia and her two enlisted friends as the only remaining hope of rescue. Sofia learns as much as she can about the tiger’s cave before she embarks, then proceeds to lead the two girls through an obstacle laden secret path. Both girls want to give up as soon as they see the each obstacle, but Sofia, (with a little help from Mulan), inspires them to use their princess skills in creative ways to overcome them and save the boys, (who readily apologize for underestimating their talents). So not only have the writers solidly put Sofia in a position of leadership, but they also show males commending her talents and maverick compulsion to help others.
Since Sofia is framed as a natural leader, the show has the unique opportunity to show that female strengths and tactics make equally effective management qualities. Nurturing is a quality we associate with women, as we are often charged with rearing the young. Yet because of this association with motherhood, we regularly devalue it as a necessary component of leadership. When Sofia is partnered with Vivian, (the princess who is so shy she rarely speaks), to give a presentation to the class, Sofia helps her find her confidence through strengths she already has. If this were a story about an army squad who’s captain helps a lag behind find his confidence so they can all overcome an obstacle, the quality would certainly not be classified as ‘nurturing’, but it would absolutely be seen as an integral ability of a leader. When Sofia decides to make their presentation through song so that Vivian can get through the stressful ordeal using the one skill she does have confidence in, it reminds us that women’s extensive experience with nurturing makes us equally as suited to command positions as our male counterparts.
Female community and support is also often a theme of the show, as Sofia gets advice not only from her mother and friends, but also from magically summoned visions of past Disney princesses. The classic trope of females in vicious competition over male interest is trounced in this very interesting confession from Cinderella:
Instead of further setting the rambunctious Sofia against her disapprovingly traditional step-sister, Amber, Cinderella shares that she regrets not being able to form a true sisterhood with her step-sisters and encourages her to treat Amber with understanding empathy rather than animosity or cowed compliance. Feminists often diminish the power of empathy in persuasion and social change, primarily because it is a strength that was cultivated in oppression. When a woman was oppressed by a disagreeable father or husband with no viable method for direct rebellion, she often had to persuade him with her empathic skills to grant her the freedoms she could not find otherwise. Even though this tactic isn’t as emotionally satisfying as anger or violence, it is equally and often times more effective. Through Cinderella’s encouragement, Sofia manages to find a way to befriend Amber and save the day without compromising who she is.
This show is heartwarming, sweet and consistently feminist, reminding us that just because princesses wear ballgowns doesn’t mean they can’t problem solve, unite others and lead them save the day. I hope that the more we find feminist qualities in Sofia, the more we can start to see them in the other princesses we grew up with. Even the most sexist of fairy tales, can still feature a fearless women who had the courage to try for something better.