Photo credit : With thanks to

Be a Moana, not a Cinderella

This summer our national teams have demonstrated repeatedly that we are a force to be reckoned with in women’s sport. Our female cricketers, lacrosse and rugby players, footballers and athletes have taken centre stage and excelled. They have been role models for our future generations, encouraging girls to aim high, believe in themselves and work hard to achieve their dreams.

I was asked by the BBC to comment on the Football Association’s collaboration with Disney and their ‘Dream Big Princess’ campaign. This campaign was originally launched in 2016 with the premise that for every girl who dreams big, there’s a princess to show her it’s possible. As the mother of twin five year old girls, I find the Disney factor intriguing.

So immersed have I become in this topic that I even did an assembly to the Senior School on the Dream Big Princess campaign. I related my concerns that one of my daughter’s obsessions with dressing up as Cinderella would encourage her to sit around in later life waiting for her prince to rescue her. I’m delighted she has now opted instead to dress daily as Moana, the lead in the recent Disney film of the same name – who travels long and far to save her island’s future. My other daughter’s love of all things Elsa (from Frozen) has also caused me to ponder. Yes it is wonderful to see a female lead in a film (two female leads in Frozen’s case) but Elsa runs away from her problems to hide in an icy castle rather than looking to address her feelings and the impact of her actions on others. Anna, her sister, on the other hand is tenacious and loyal – although even she falls for the first gentleman who says that he likes her.

That Disney princesses are all flawed reminds us that you don’t have to be perfect to be a role model. I do though draw the line at Cinderella. I know some will argue she promotes women’s rights in the workplace… but it’s by asking for a day off and a frock! Hardly a strong endorsement of empowerment in my view. Give me a go-getting Moana any day, and for the truly fearless, let’s not forget the bow and arrow toting, Princess Merida, a bold and spirited breath of fresh air from, Brave, Disney’s  collaboration with Pixar. Merida’s curiosity does get her into a few scrapes, but it is her fearlessness that really brings about change.

Building spirit and character is central to our aims at Putney High School, as we equip our students with the firm belief that there are no limits to what is possible and that any door is open. I continually say that I want our students to develop a strong voice, to challenge, to debate, to engage and stand up for themselves – Princess Merida would certainly have approved! Our Opening Minds programme teaches critical thinking, debating and logic and theoretical knowledge to all year groups. Our PIE (Putney Ideas Exchange) and PIE+ series bring in leading minds from an exceptionally broad range of fields, further inspiring our young learners to pursue their knowledge and to explore their curiosities.  On 9th October we will welcome over 50 ‘big thinkers’ to Putney for our PIE Squared conference – a feast of inspiration and creativity for the whole school.

There is no doubt much to be praised in Disney’s Dream Big Princess campaign; it was devised after all to help children “realise their ambitions”; to be politicians, astronauts, scientists, athletes and to aim high with confidence. But let’s not forget the other key ingredients to success. Putney students, although certainly ambitious, are possibly one of the most compassionate and caring group of students you will find. With initiatives such as our successful, Big Sisters programme and trained Peer Mediators in place, there is much we do at Putney to help girls to achieve their goals beyond the two-dimensional inspiration of animated constructs.

As heroines that champion boldness and ambition over simply being “the fairest of them all”, Merida and Moana do seem to be evidence of a happy evolution at Walt Disney HQ. Let’s hope it’s just the beginning, and that the fairytale ending to this story is not long in the making.

Suzie Longstaff, Headmistress, Putney High School

Photo credits: With thanks to Disney

Further Reading:
Dream Big Princess campaign
Jennifer Lee blog
Craig McLean

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