Gender seems to be a hot topic in our society; many people feel the pressure to conform to a specific gender stereotype without really being aware of what they are or their influences on our perception. So what is a gender role? A gender role is the overt expression of attitudes that indicate to others the degree of your maleness or femaleness. A common gender stereotype in our culture has been that a woman’s place is as a homemaker, and caregiver, while men are expected to provide for their families.
In today’s world women have been able to shed some of the more traditional roles, however the “princess” ideal still abounds within the culture, through media and merchandise all aimed at little girls. Disney has had a major part in keeping the princess stereotype alive and well. Disney ventures include radio, television, film companies, and massive amounts of merchandising. The Disney Princess line was created in 2001 as a advertising and marketing campaign aimed directly at girls. The products that go along with the line also promote gendered roles by the messages they convey.
I am going to look at seven Disney princess films: Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Mulan. In these films I will be looking for their social role, character attributes, themes, and the characters resolution by the end of the film. These categories were adapted from a study I read on gender and animated films, (Dundes 2001). Another aspect I want to consider is what each of the princesses look like, their body language, clothing, and figures.
I know even before I re-watch these films that each princess is extremely thin, with tiny little waists, somewhat revealing clothing, beautiful faces, and seductive expressions. Considering these appearance factors I wonder how they affect young girls. The images reinforce the ideal that pretty girls need to be thin, and that physical appearance is highly important. When looking at the clothing the princesses wear, it does seem inappropriate to some degree for teenage girls to be wearing, and the Disney princesses are quite young.
The two that expose the most are Ariel who is wearing a seashell bra, and Jasmine who wears very revealing clothes that displays her stomach. All these princesses have unrealistic hair, it is always perfect, not one thing out of place. Another factor that they all have in common is a beautiful singing voice. The princesses are always walking around singing their happy hearts out. There seems to be some kind of special connection between princesses and animals. However they become the princesses friend in times of need, when the going gets tough, and oh yeah they have to be cute cuddly creatures or they are considered bad.
The so called villains in princess movies share a common trait, they are either old, fat, ugly, or a combination of all three. It is common in our culture to see an elderly woman and think she looks like a witch; I wonder where that idea came from? The princess is the focal point in the film, the “eye candy” so to say; everyone else is there to support her story. With exception of the prince, the supporting actors are no where near as “perfect” as the princess. The women that exhibit signs of strength and power, or any masculine traits, are the evil step-mothers, and sorcerers.
The princesses have to be overly feminine, soft spoken, and in search of a man, a prince or father figure, in order to be considered nice and appropriate. The princess must defeat these evil women so that good will reign, and she can live happily ever after with her prince. In the films Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Cinderella the step mothers are the essence of evil. Snow White’s stepmother is her only real obstacle, and she is extremely jealous of Snow’s rare beauty. You could say this movie has a theme of vanity that shines on throughout the film.
Toward the end, Snow’s stepmother tricks her into eating a poisonous apple, and thus Snow White falls into a deep coma, that only true loves kiss can awaken. Snow White is reliant on the help of the seven dwarfs, and if she did not have them in her life, she probably wouldn’t have been able to defeat her stepmother. Cinderella has challenges with her evil stepmother as well. Her father has been killed, and therefore is not a presence in the film. The stepmother has taken charge of the household, and takes it upon herself to treat Cinderella as a servant.
Little Cinderella has to do all the dirty work, while her own two daughters sit around and pamper themselves. Another reoccurring female character in Disney Princess films is the powerful sorcerer. For instance, in The Little Mermaid, Ursula the sea witch is dark mysterious and purely evil. Ariel is a mermaid who will do anything to become a human, so that she can attempt to be with the man of her dreams, Prince Eric. Ariel comes across as a naïve little girl, and puts her soul on the line, by selling it in exchange for legs.
This is a common attribute of the Disney princesses; they are naïve, young, pretty, and ultimately helpless. Within these films you can catch a glimpse of a class system intertwined in their makeup. For the most part all the princesses, with exception of Belle, are rich, and at the same time helpless, although you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at them. An example that illustrates this is in Snow White and Cinderella; they both come from rich backgrounds but their stepmothers treat them as if they were poor. They cook and clean and do all the domestic duties in order to please their wicked stepmothers.
Both of these princesses are shown to be weak and powerless against their stepmothers. In Cinderella, she never gets up the courage to confront her stepmom or stand up for herself. I will now properly introduce to you the princess that started it all, the fairest of by far, Snow White. Disney first released Snow White into the public in the1930’s. What set her apart was her stunning beauty, something she has no control over, but was born into. Snow white was never seen as anything more than a pretty face and a sweet nature.
She was at the mercy of men, the dwarfs, the huntsman, and the prince, to save her from an untimely death. Despite the warnings from the dwarfs, and her current situation Snow went ahead and ate the poisonous apple from the disguised witch. This only exemplifies Snow Whites weakness, and how easily she gives into temptation. Snow White has a few talents which include, cooking, cleaning, and singing. One of the most popular princesses, stayed out passed her curfew, came home missing a shoe, and had lied to her stepmother as to her whereabouts.
Cinderella is a princess that some would say is a rag to riches story. I mentioned her earlier as being born into wealth, which is true however she was treated as a servant and reaped none of the benefits. Cinderella is polite, obedient, delicate, and last but not least beautiful. She lived and tolerated years of abuse from her stepmother and stepsisters, never once standing up for herself. She is visited one evening by her fairy godmother, which turns her dirty, dingy clothes into a beautiful gown, and to complete the look, glass slippers for her dainty feet.
In order for Cinderella to win the princes love, she has to look her best, and be dressed like a royalty. It works, the prince falls in love with Cinderella at first sight, and he believes she is a part of the royal guests, and has no idea that she is really a servant. Aurora is a princess from birth, but due to a troublesome encounter with an evil Sorcerer, Maleficent, she has to rely on the help of a prince to save her from death, and restore her place at the thrown. In this film, there is a Queen who is desperate for a child, which plays into the expected maternal roles of women.
There is the sorceress that is powerful, wicked and egotistic, and of course the “damsel in distress” Princess Aurora. In the end a kiss is required from the prince in order to wake her up from her comma. Aurora’s singing voice is what first attracts Prince Phillip, but once he sees her it is love at first sight. Aurora is completely helpless throughout this film, and has to rely not only on the prince to save her, but three fairy godmothers as well. These fairs have to hide her from the world until she reaches the age of sixteen.
She is betrothed to Prince Phillip but does not realize that, and falls in love with the man, (Prince Phillip) in the forest. She becomes distraught and irrational once the fairies tell her she can’t be with this man. The princess with the most beautiful voice is Ariel. She is a mermaid who decides to trade in her tail and voice for human legs, and the possibility of true love. She utilizes the help of an evil sea witch in order to get what she wants. She has to sign a contract and in this has to be kissed by Price Eric or the spell will be broken and her tail will return.
Ariel is vulnerable and has to be taken in by Prince Eric when he sees her washed up on the shore. She cannot speak, yet this does not seem to bother Prince Eric, she is still a pretty face. When she is in trouble, she needs her father to rescue her; she cannot defeat the evil witch on her own. She can not do anything by herself, she has to have her father, Eric, or one of her sea friends there to tell her what to do, and otherwise she makes terrible impulsive decisions. Ariel’s only goal in life is to find her prince and marry him.
The “rags to riches” princess, better know as Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, starts to show a change in character. Belle has dreams of her own, she logs for adventure and romance. Belle is strong willed and determined, she does not rely on a man to get by. She does not need a kiss to be saved, or awaken from an evil spell; in fact the roles reverse in this story with Belle having to save the prince with her kiss. In the beginning she is shown to be somewhat of a nerd, a strange girl who likes to read, and is in no way grounded by reason.
She becomes a prisoner of the beast in order to save her father who had been captured. She has a hard time accepting her decision but befriends personified household items in the castle. Something unique about Belle is her ability to see through appearances, and fall in love with the beast based on his kind and gentle heart. By falling in love with the beast she is able to save the prince, and the castle from the spell they were under. Happiness in these animations is always tied to being rich and powerful or being married to a prince.
Their achievements are limited to being a princess or being a servant, and other than that they don’t have any goals set for themselves besides finding a prince and falling in love. Ultimately the main goal in these movies is to fall in love, and in a very unrealistic fashion. They put a lot of emphasis on romantic love, and play on it as a necessity in life. This really leaves the other relationships that the princess has as backups and of lesser value. Children are getting overwhelmed with these princess images not only in the films, but in television, and commercial merchandise.
They market to young girls, making the assumption that by purchasing the products you can attain the status of a princess too. The princess line is extensive, from diapers to bicycles, erasers to backpacks, clothes to bedroom sets, young girls dream of buying this stuff and transforming into a magical princess themselves. The idea of being able to magically “fix” their life may have a negative effects on children’s social development. The Disney princess sets young girls up to believe that all they have to do is wait for a magic kiss to change their lives.
And of course everybody wants to attain the level of beauty these princesses have, thin, voluptuous, and flawless. This could reinforce the idea that physical appearance is more important than hard work, intelligence, perseverance, and or creativity. The earlier Disney cartoons displayed a very high level of stereotyping in female as well as in male. As children watch these cartoons, they absorb these gender stereotypes and begin to apply them within their own frame of thought. As they grow older these ideas remain in their mind, which thus leads to further generation of stereotypical mindset.
Disney has begun to alter their characters to show a wider range. The princess Mulan is a good example of Disney changing the way they depict females in stereotyped gender roles. Mulan redefines the Disney princess by exhibiting strength and bravery. She is in no way a “damsel in distress” and is not relying on a prince to save her. She takes her fathers place in the war, and conceals her identity. She is disguised as a man, and begins training as a soldier. Mulan becomes the hero of the film, and saves the day for everyone. This is totally different from traditional princesses who are the ones needing to be saved.
Not only is Disney stepping outside the box in terms of gender, they are also introducing another culture and way of life in this film. Mulan has restrictions, and is not taken seriously by the other men, even when they have no idea that she is in fact not a man, her lack of physical strength is seen as a weakness. She has failed her family because she cannot properly act the part of a “bride” and pass the test her ancestors have set before her, so they cannot find her a suitor. Her lack of feminine qualities has made her undesirable and unattractive to the culture.
Disney movies create a magical mythical world that is purely fiction, yet their audience is mostly comprised of youth that are still learning and making sense of the world they live in. The Disney princesses show young children’ how special beautiful princesses are suppose to act and what they are capable of becoming. They have tremendous effects on children, especially girls. Realistically who doesn’t want to live “happily ever after”, but these films do not show practical ways of achieving a happy life. Instead of exploring their own lives, they get an idea of magically “fixing” their life by meeting a prince.
This affects children’s social development. The Disney princesses are portrayed as weak and powerless against their rich step mothers. They can not stand for themselves and need the help of a prince. They portray powerful women as evil people out to hurt others. The men are portrayed as brave and strong, and needed in order to survive. The Disney movies indirectly show a class system and appoint values on specific individuals. Children should see and understand that being poor does not necessarily correspond with being helpless and unhappy, the same goes for being a powerful woman, and this does not mean you have to be evil.
Disney has begun to change their female characters, and become less restrictive with gender roles. The princess Mulan is a strong female character, who has veered away from the traditional female roles. Disney has a strong hold in our culture and it does appear as though they are becoming aware of what the female character can be. In more recent films they have tried to overcome some of the stereotypes that plague the female characters, but clearly not all of them.