Exploring Privilege with Sofia the First

Originally appearing in the Apex Publications blog (now defunct), May 2014

I’m a mom so I end up watching a good deal of children’s TV. Some shows are better than others, but all in all the recent crop of kids’ programming is overall pretty good. They have good production values, interesting storylines, and teach valuable life lessons without getting preachy.

Case in point, Disney Junior’s Sofia the First. A quick primer: Sofia and her mom, Miranda, were commoners in the village. King Roland (who we assume is widowed but so far as I know, no mention has been made about what happened to the spouse of either of the adult characters) falls in love with Miranda and they get married. Poof, Sofia is now a princess with two royal step-siblings James and Amber (fraternal twins). Sofia appears to be about 6-8 years old but talks like she’s twelve, James looks and acts about ten, whereas Amber looks 10-12 but talks like she’s 14. So I have no idea how old these kids are supposed to be but they are all in the same class at Royal Prep Academy, a posh school where all the royals of Enchancia and surrounding kingdoms send their kidlets.
So, from the get-go, viewers are faced with a fish-out-of-water story. Sofia doesn’t know a thing about being a princess, but Amber does. She’s been royal her entire life. Amber is the embodiment of the “princess” stereotype. She’s shallow, self-absorbed, spoiled, elitist, cliquey, and has a set of two princess besties who form the snotty mean-girls club at the school. She is the very essence of privilege, if something is not a problem for Amber, she cannot fathom why it would be a problem for anyone else. She takes over Sofia’s tea party and makes it all about her, she harasses the head butler (who is voiced by Tim Gunn and is made of awesome!) on his ONLY day off ever, and generally makes sure she is the center of attention at every turn. Because, princess.
But the interesting part about this is how Amber is treated. No one is cruel to her, although she clearly deserves a taste of her own nasty medicine. Her brother puts up with her but still teases her in a loving way, her daddy the king is a total soft touch and you can see how she got spoiled, but Sofia doesn’t know her and has no reason to put up with her shenanigans. She is constantly calling out Amber for being a brat. In fact the show could be called Sofia Calls Amber Out On Her Privilege For 24 Minutes Each Week and that would be a pretty accurate assessment.
The prime example being the slumber party episode where Sofia gets to invite her two best friends from the village, Ruby and Jade, up to the castle for the night. Amber of course has Hildegard and Clio and needless to say, it would be a very short episode if the whole thing goes well. The village girls and the princesses don’t blend well, each group having their own very specific ideas of what a slumber party should be like and each group refusing to see the other side. Mostly, Amber deciding how the party is going to go, Jade and Ruby failing miserably at meeting her ridiculous expectations, and someone ending up crying in the bathroom. Oh wait, that was me, nevermind. So Ruby and Jade opt to go home rather than put up with Amber’s bitchiness and Sofia is caught in the middle, wanting the princesses to think she’s cool but also not wanting to alienate her friends. Mama Miranda gives Sofia a stern talking-to about how to treat one’s best friends (one of the few times that 1. An adult appears and 2. Actually involves themselves in the plot) and Sofia abandons the princesses to have a village girl style sleepover in her own room. Amber, of course, sets off to complain about the noise and realizes the girls are having way more fun than she and her friends are having. Amber and Sofia have a talk about fun, Sofia convinces Amber and company to try their kind of fun (since everyone had done things Amber’s way all night) and BIG SURPRISE! they all realize that being snotty and mean isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.

So, Amber gets redeemed. Regularly. She apologizes to Sofia (and in this case, the village girls as well) and gets down off her high horse to be goofy and actually *gasp!* have fun like a human, not a “princess.” Amber is not a mean girl in actuality. But she’s so damned coddled and pampered that she cannot help but be self-centered. She literally knows of no other way to be. So instead of taking the easy “evil step-sister” route, the showrunners have decided to make Amber a three-dimensional character with merits and flaws who works hard throughout the larger story to overcome her shallowness. She gets called out on her privilege time and time again, but she never gets villainized, never gets painted with too broad a brush. She remains a likable character, with her moments of honesty, charity, and earnestness becoming all the more poignant knowing just how far she has come from the “mean girl” she was at the show’s beginning. (Spoiler: by season three, she has prettymuch made the snotty Amber a façade and has actually become rather nice, but isn’t quite willing to let that part of her personality go…yet. What will season four hold for our heroes??)
At its heart, Sofia the First is a show about social interaction and aimed at girls (while Jake and the Neverland Pirates, aimed at boys, is about counting and problem-solving, but that’s a rant for another time). And I think the idea of gently calling someone out on their privilege is a good lesson for kids to learn. Sofia makes Amber aware of her selfishness and Amber comes around, takes responsibility, and apologizes for any hurts she has caused. She grows as a character. I think she could have been easily handled as a two-dimensional brat stereotype, but she isn’t. She’s a real person (in a manner of speaking). And she is also a bit subversive in that she is casting down that “princess culture” archetype in a Disney cartoon about what it is like to become a princess. Amber is like the last of a dying breed, of princesses: pretty and perfect and shallow and uninteresting, while Sofia exemplifies the modern ideals of princess virtues: honesty, loyalty, charity, friendship, kindness, etc. In fact, I find Sofia goody-two-shoes always-saves-the-day-somehow to be vastly less interesting than Amber who is flawed and has a lot more room to grow. (Although it is always awesome to see someone [gently] lay the smack-down on Amber! And teaching kids how to take a stand without resorting to being a jerk themselves is a big plus in my book!)

But I think the lesson in all of this, as storytellers, is that even the characters made to be examples of what not to do can still have a lot of interest, they can have motivations and desires that govern their actions, even if those motivations and desires are not always immediately apparent. If a 24 minute kids’ show aimed at 2-6 year olds can have nuanced and sometimes morally ambiguous characters, there is no reason in the world that given a larger scope and more sophisticated audience, that we can’t expect the same of ourselves and our peers.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some cartoons to watch!

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