This weekend when I traveled to Disneyworld to run in the Disney Princess Half Marathon, I was apprehensive due to my complicated relationship with the princess theme. I was also excited because there is still a little kid in me who loves Disney.

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The first time I went to Disneyworld, my mom’s cousin was having a Disney wedding and I was 7 years old. In one of my most vivid memories, I remember wrinkling my nose at the formalwear my parents were putting on to go to the wedding and relishing in the fact that my brothers and I got to stay with the Disney babysitter and play games outside. My dad teased me: “When you’re a big girl you’re gonna want to wear a fancy dress too. You’re gonna say, ‘Daddy, can I have this prom dress? It’s ONLY $100!'” I remember this so clearly because at the time I so vocally, strongly denied I’d ever be that silly. $100 for a dress?! I was very vocal in my denial.

10 years of patriarchal societal conditioning (and economic inflation) later, my high school prom dress was $229.

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Like so many American children, I was programmed from a young age to love Disney. We got Beauty and the Beast on VHS from my Pop Pop when I was 4 years old and I danced with joy for the rest of the day. Remember how early I learned to read? Remember it was because I was so jealous my brother got to go to kindergarten? I LOVED reading. I treasured it like gold. So I loved Belle – I loved that she was more in love with her books than that dude Gaston, and when the Beast gave her a giant library, I was in love with him too. It was automatic love and relatability.

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And Ariel? I had this pair of green tights when I was in kindergarten, and I used to watch The Little Mermaid and stuff both my legs into one of the legs of the tights and pretend I was Ariel, watching from the floor with my makeshift fin, doing swimming motions and some awkward version of the Worm. I would hop around and hop off the furniture like I was diving into water. I loved the ocean before I could even walk steadily. My dad used to have to chase after me on family trips to the beach so my diapered little butt wouldn’t get caught up in the ocean I was running straight into. I wanted to be a mermaid so bad. I actually always liked the movie less when it moved to on land – I loved watching the fluid motions of the mermaids in the water. To this day when I’m in a pool I automatically imagine myself a mermaid. 

So when I visited Disneyworld for the second time, with my boyfriend at the time, at age 21, I was ECSTATIC. I had grown up loving Disney, I was stoked! We stood in line for Snow White, who I never even liked as a little girl, and I was tickled pink when she pointed to my then-boyfriend and said, “So you are the Princess of Maryland. Is that your Prince Charming?”

ImageIf I didn’t even like Snow White as a little girl, why was I so excited by this moment?

I was in the first serious relationship of my life – on this trip my then boyfriend and I debated whether we’d come back to Disney for our wedding – and we were working pretty well at this point. Our dynamic? Pretty locked-and-loaded the dynamic pattern of our lives. I was used to being a Daddy’s girl, a pampered privileged white girl from almost-Potomac, Maryland, and he had had to be more responsible than the average little kid most of his life. He actually told me one of the things he loved about me was how in touch I was with my inner child. It worked well for a while, being codependent on each other for what we were used to – until I started asking for a better story.

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Because as we know from which my favorite Disney princesses were/are and why, I’m pretty predisposed to wanting independence and adventure.

I didn’t quite understand it back then, but my growing frustration with the relationship later on was also me coming out of a pretty scared and helpless place in my life. When I graduated college and got out into the real world, I was scared, and dating someone so cool, calm, collected, responsible, and mature made me feel safe, like a fairy tale princess before and after the conflict. So Disney’s tropes worked for me – they were downright romantic! This trip to Disneyworld came at a point in my life I was at my most content with being taken care of and treated like a princess – I got to say the word about which ride I wanted to go on, and my then boyfriend’s Disney and travel savvy got us there.

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But as we know from Disney, trouble comes when you start seeking adventure, right? When you want to try something you’re not used to, explore the great unknown? I was growing increasingly scared I wasn’t prepared for the real adult world, and therefore increasingly scared of losing my guide – the boyfriend I’d had since college, where it was safe. I panicked about the sheltered history of my life and took a giant leap, and my “great wide somewhere” was Peru. I returned more frightened than ever. I was terrified.

I also didn’t know yet I had entered into a very self-fulfilling pattern of fear, depending on safety, therefore needing safety more cycle of never-ending anxiety.

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Very unhappy princess.

Fast forward through a breakup, a meltdown, finding my career calling, a getting-back-together, an evermore thirst for independence in me, a second and final breakup, a lot of unpleasant emotions, grad school confirming my career path, finding running, and a lot of therapy, I’m a much happier and content person. I’ve lost a lot of dead weight along the way, too, and I’m not just talking about body fat.

And I’m still a feminist, more than ever. Just not an angry one (anymore).

Which is why I don’t hate Disney. I just don’t love it. I question it.

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So how does a feminist have fun during Disney Princess Half Marathon weekend? A couple of ways:

1) I was in Florida, and so blinded by sunshine that this kind of happened.
2) There is, for all Disney teaches us about female vs. female competition that I hate and try to actively choose not to engage in (though I fail big sometimes), an actual very strong atmosphere of sisterhood going around the race. Only a few buzzkill drama queens dampened this at times.
3) Running. It may be a Disney race with character stops, music, and other distractions, but respect the distance. Running is empowering, and this feminist loves feeling empowered, wherever I am.
4) Embrace the tutu. I was both excited to play dress-up and dreading it. It was when I realized, as I was slipping on the Sparkle Skirt and the tutu, that what I wear does not define how dead and killed I was about to crush the Glass Slipper 19.3 mile challenge, that suddenly the tutu actually felt empowering. The dress doesn’t make the girl – what she does makes the girl. The dress simply tells you what she likes to wear – it doesn’t tell you why.
5) Telling my old arch-nemesis Cinderella about the time she blew me off when I was 7 and how her movie bores me, and not falling prey to her pretty smile. But being nice about it. Kind of.

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But mostly?

5) Making Disneyworld my own. The first trip was on my parent’s control. The second trip, I was entirely dependent on my then boyfriend to navigate it. This time, not only was I tangibly taking control by making all my own arrangements and finding things on my own, but I was also emotionally confronting my last associations with Disneyworld as I ran into Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. I wasn’t there on a vacation for someone else’s agenda. I was there to run the place, literally.

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Brave.

Will I runDisney again? Absolutely. I think there are very redeemable things about Disney – like I mentioned in my last post, we have the power to control the stories it tells. Think of it this way: Sometimes it can feel like we’re moving backwards in feminism, like the now viral LEGO ad shows, but it’s Marketing 101. If the “girl” toys stopped selling, LEGO would stop making them.

If you want to change something, don’t buy it.

Angry about runDisney prices? Go through a charity – you raise money for an awesome cause and you send Disney a message you’re more concerned with making the world a better place than giving them more money.

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I raised $1,900 for Noah’s Light in pursuit of a cure for pediatric brain cancer. Which Disney princess did that again?

Angry about the mob to sign up? Marketing 101, again – it’s higher perceived value. People hear about how fast these races sell out, they feel like they’re missing something and THEY want to be a part of it too. Celebrate if you get a spot, sure, but you’re making it worse by FREAKING OUT.

Angry about lack of diversity and feminism? Keep asking for it. There was no Merida when I was 5. More notably, there was no decent mother-daughter relationship in Disney like the one Merida and Queen Elinor eventually arrive at through the arc of their journey together (at least of the movies I’ve seen, granted, I haven’t seen all of the most recent ones). Think of who and what there might be when I’m 35 or 45 if we keep asking for and buying the brave, fearless, adventurous heroines.

Angry about the walkers keeping you from running a faster race? Um, sign up for a different company’s race. One less person running Disney because of complaints = lower perceived value. See above Marketing 101.

I was raised without Merida and turned out to be a pretty critically thinking feminist, albeit after a bumpy ride, because I was also fortunate enough to take advantage of an education that taught me how to be discerning of the messages I was being sent by the media I consumed.

Is Disney evil? No. Is it the best thing ever? No.

I’m in control of my own experiences: I narrate my story.

Will I runDisney again? Sure. But if I don’t get into a race, I run for me, not Disney. There’s always another race and I run because I love running, not because I love Disney.

Will I let my daughter experience Disney? Absolutely.

Will I also teach her how to narrate her own life story and be her own hero, like Grace’s grandmother did?

Absolutely.

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Shang didn’t make a man out of Mulan. Mulan made a hero out of herself.

Normal old race recaps of Enchanted 10K and Princess Half to come. But for now –

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