Amy Alkon has a piece about Disney Princesses and the wisdom of fairy tales over at Quillette. Recommended. Some of the comments are valuable, but it is surprising that the site does not yet attract a better slate of commenters.
I have long heard the standard criticisms of Disney's princesses, and some have merit. In particular, the stories often don't have the frightening and uncomfortable bits enough, not compared to older versions of the stories. Folk tales, like folk songs, have lots of homicide and disfigurement, betrayal, uncanny creatures, and powerful figures of evil intent. Disney tamps that down some. There is also now a standard formula that each one is a friend of animals and a Spunky Gal. Yet the other usual complaints about how terrible this all is for male/female relationships and girls' image of them selves are no longer convincing to me. There's just too much going in all of these movies, all the way back to Snow White, that runs the other way.
Yet there is one bit about princesses in general, even more than the pretty dresses and things to wear in your hair, that doesn't get enough mention. They get to tell everyone else what to do*. If you listen to actual girls playing, who gets to be the princess and who is relegated to being the prince, or the talking animal, or the magical helper is significant. This is a big part of what girls are playing at, and why they admire princesses so much. I can see why folks might object to the focus on beauty and clothes, but these have always been what poor girls desired. Isn't it more the wealthy and educated girls who can afford to have disdain? So too with the dolls and coloring, perhaps. But the movies also focus on courage, cleverness, kindness, and other virtues. I have written similarly on fairy tales before with other branchings - the post includes links to some of the things that Lewis and Tolkien said on the subject.
*Similarly, one of the draws for Barbie was that she gets to do whatever she wants. She buys whatever clothes she wants and no mother tells her not to; she buys sports cars, gets credit for working at any of a dozen jobs without actually doing anything, has a boyfriend that can be picked up and put down at will.