I first learned about Sofia the First because of this story that was doing the rounds on social media about a father, whose son wanted the short movie on DVD, reacting to a jerk who acted like it was a bad thing for the son to like a princess show.
About a month or so later, Sofia the First came to Malaysia on Astro, on both The Disney Channel and Disney Junior. I was keen to watch it, and welcomed watching it with my boys if they so desired. I hadn’t been averse to my sons watching “girl” shows before, but the kid in the story certainly made me think my kids might also like it.
Another month or so later, and Sofia the First returned as a TV series. For the most part, I think it’s got some great messages for kids. My eldest son sometimes has a problem with being a sore loser when playing games, and so I was able to discuss that with him by referencing “The Tri-Kingdom Picnic,” the episode in which Sofia’s step-brother James is also a sore loser (and a sore winner), and Sofia teaches him how to behave. I like the way Sofia challenges gender lines by taking interest in activities that are, on the show, deemed “only for boys” or at the very least activities that her step-sister Amber doesn’t wish to participate in (such as the games in the sore loser episode). I like the way Sofia tends not to to listen to what other people say about others – trolls, another princess, her village friends, a witch – and takes it upon herself to find the good in other people. There are great lessons in friendship and acceptance, here.
But there have been a few things that have bothered me. One was “Baileywick’s Day Off,” the episode in which Baileywick’s birthday is constantly interrupted, and he acts like being the castle steward to the family is the only thing he cares about – he actually doesn’t like having time off! I worried that it’s teaching the lesson that people in lower class positions love being there, and you don’t really need to show them respect. Whilst the family of royals do make it up to him in the end, Baileywick’s attitude about his job seemed inaccurate, so it bothered me.
However, I’ve recently been thinking about how to articulate my concerns with the episode, “The Princess Test.” What I discuss below may contain major spoilers, if that sort of thing bothers you and you wish to avoid them, because I want to explore things with an audience of readers who may not have seen the episode, nor wish to watch it.
At first it mostly bothered me that the test’s major components focused on posture, fan waving, and having the perfect looking dress, because what kind of message does that send? However, Sofia doesn’t attend the test, as she stops to listen to “Mrs Higgins,” the school librarian, who asks her to help her carry some books home. Whilst the other princesses say they can’t help because they would be late for the test, Sofia chooses to. On the journey, Sofia worries about her dress, and losing her fan. When it turns out that Mrs Higgins is actually one of the fairy teachers in disguise, the princesses learn what the biggest component of the test was – testing the ability to help someone in need, stressing that this is more important than having the best posture, fan waving ability, or nicest dress. Compassion is a good trait, and I respect that.
The lesson is thus (as quoted from one of the teachers):
“A true princess always helps a person in need.”
But the issue I have is that it is followed immediately with this (quoted by a second teacher):
“Even if it means giving up something very important to you.”
The problem with this quote is that it reinforces the ideology that everyone else’s needs/wants/desires are more important than your own. Now, it may have played out differently if Sofia had already been run ragged attending to things others desired… but how can we know that? And what if it hadn’t actually been part of the test? Is it saying, “Helping someone else is more important than going to school, because girls don’t really need an education”?
The thing that bothers me about the test, both in the general princess activities, and the acts of kindness, is that it doesn’t suggest that it is a good thing for princesses (or, anyone watching it who identifies with the princess characters, or knows someone who might) to be individual, and to have their own dreams to pursue. It’s a very rigid lesson about how a “princess” should behave.
I also don’t like that it doesn’t cover the fact that when people aren’t able to tend to self-care, or pursue their own dreams and interests, it makes it that much harder to care for others. Sure, that might have been a more complex issue to deal with in a 22 minute program, but maybe it’s something that could be looked at in a future episode.
So, overall, I much prefer the episodes where Sofia is encouraged to pursue her own interests (like pegasus racing) rather than conforming to a rigid template.
What sorts of lessons would you like to see explored in “princess” shows/movies marketed at young girls?