The “I Want” Songs of Disney Princesses

August 24, 2021

Do you ever cry in movie theaters? Or just tear up and find yourself blinking really aggressively?

We didn’t until grad school, when our emotional calibration went off the flipping rails, and Sara found herself sobbing at that “Lava” short that played right before Inside Out and Brittany had to ply her with paper towels from the bathroom. #dignity

After the Lava Incident, we’ve become hyper-aware of our tear ducts in a new way, and we’ve noticed something interesting. They’re most likely to show up during what Emily and Amelia Nagoski (the brilliant authors of Burnout, which we’ll be reading together during our new course, Rapunzel’s Circle: Fairy Tales and Burnout) call “I Want” songs.

According to the Nagoskis, “Every Disney heroine has an ‘I Want’ song, in which they explain what’s missing in their lives. Moana feels called by the ocean. Tiana is ‘Almost There,’ saving money to start her own restaurant. Belle wants ‘adventure in the great wide somewhere.’ The tradition goes all the way back to Snow White, singing ‘Someday My Prince Will Come.’ You can chart the progress of women in America by the things Disney heroines sing about in their ‘I Want’ songs.”

In other words, Disney is really good at capturing a sense of longing and articulating the desire for making meaning… and then setting it to deeply catchy music. A lot of Disney fairy-tale films are, essentially, quests for meaning. And we respond to that, because, even if we’re not single-handedly restoring balance to the ocean, we all intrinsically want and need to make meaning in our lives. 

We’re all hero(ines) in our own lives and stories. When we hear Ariel sing about her dream to see the human world or Mulan’s wish to show the world who she really is, we all resonate with their desire, even if our specific dreams are different – because we all share the need to make meaning, even as we chafe against the barriers that are often in our way.

As the Nagoskis say, “…like all heroines, we thrive when we are answering the call of something larger than ourselves, when all the commuting and laundry and picking up dog poop and repeating ‘No television until you finish your homework!’ has a meaning larger than the grind of daily routine… science has established that ‘meaning in life’ is good for us, the way leafy green vegetables and exercise and sleep are good for us.”

If “meaning” sounds annoyingly nebulous to you, that’s fair. It’s hard to pin down because it’s different for everyone. But, on its most basic level, “meaning” is “a power you carry inside you that helps you resist and recover from burnout.”

Meaning isn’t happiness, exactly, or at least it isn’t only about happiness. And, counterintuitively, it isn’t always about fun. 

Instead, it’s about drilling down to uncover the best in yourself and then seeking to use and develop that part of yourself. It can feel fleeting, inconstant, and challenging… and yet, it’s absolutely crucial for your well-being.

“Meaning, in short, is the nourishment experience of feeling like we’re connected to something larger than ourselves. It helps us thrive when things are going well, and it helps us cope when things go wrong in our lives.”

It’s about feeling connected. And through connection, feeling at home in the world and even, dare we say it, enchanted by its possibilities and magic.

Which is pretty poignant and beautiful and totally worth tearing up in a movie theater over.

So how do you get it?

You make it. 

And, with the Nagoskis help, we’ll talk about exactly how you can do that in Fairy Tales and Burnout. Just like Belle, Moana, Tiana, and, yes, even Snow White.

But if you can’t wait for the course to get started, we’ll leave you with this question from the Nagoskis, which will help you get to the heart of your meaning faster than anything else:

“What am I doing when I feel most powerfully that I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing?”

P.S. Registration for Rapunzel’s Circle: Fairy Tales and Burnout ends this Friday, August 27th, at midnight! Click here to join us!

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