Disney Princesses: Impact on Children, Especially Girls

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Disney animated film’s princesses have long been a type of entertainment for children. The series includes thirteen princesses such as Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Anna, and Elsa. Those ladies come to be considered princesses via different means, with some being born to royal families, some getting married to a Prince or the equivalent, and some who do not actually bear the title of Princess but eventually get treated like one after their adventure. The evolution of Disney's princesses has gone from dependent princesses waiting for princes to rescue to those independent women who fight for themselves and what they need. Through that evolution, we can see how the princesses are portrayed, their gender identity and how different races are presented. In this paper, I will argue how Disney has changed the presentation of princesses from those who need to depend on the men to be rescued to the more independent princesses and an overlook of gender identity as well as race's presentation.

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Disney princesses are basically divided into three categories based on their characteristics and the time they were produced including the classical princess, the renaissance princess, and the revival princess. Each period of the Disney Princesses can be compared to three periods of feminism but in a completely different way. As feminism is described by Haslam as the term to “identify both certain theoretical positions that inform cultural criticism and specific political activities, in this case, those oriented toward improving the social condition and political recognition of women”and the history of feminism is divide into “three periods, also known as the three waves of feminism”, instead of three different waves of feminism when “first wave of feminism was the period when women were fighting to be fully enfranchised—that is, to be recognized as citizens who have the right to vote”, second-wave feminism refers to the struggle for social and legal equality with men on the one hand, and a radical sense of a feminist and women’s identity—one completely separate from patriarchal and masculine visions of women—on the other”, and “third-wave feminism” is the period when “feminist activism and practices took on less universalizing roles, focusing on the particular needs of specific groups of women, often in conjunction with anti-racist, queer, or other activists in attempts to transform social practice” , each era of Disney Princesses corresponds to each different era of the woman. For instance, the first era happened before the 1980s when women were supposed to stay at home and do house chores without any rights for themselves. The second era was the period of the late 1980s to 1990s when the second and third waves of feminism took place, women start to rebel and speak for themselves to achieve happiness. Last but not least, the third era was from the late 1990s until now, it was not until then that modern women are much more capable to work against prejudice and start to be somewhat independent of men.

The earliest era of Disney Princesses is Western-based that consists of three of the original princesses – Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the title character from Cinderella, and Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. In all of their stories, the core values and representations are quite homogeneous since these films were produced from a time when family values were reinforced by successive world wars and the housewife was popular in American society. Despite the fact that the plots of these stories are based on centuries-old fairy tales, the Disney versions which are written and directed by men symbolize the ideal married and domesticated Western women have been omnipresent in these three decades. The attributes of these three princesses are partially reflected in their titles, for example, 'Snow White' is symbolic of innocence and purity, 'Cinderella' was made to represent for something that could blow away in reference to ash in a still breeze, 'Aurora' was later renamed 'Briar Rose,' the names all signify something gentle and beautiful, yet harmless. They are all described as kept women throughout the stories but their domesticity is quite comfortable. For most of their novels, Snow White and Cinderella are forced to work, but they whistle while they do. Snow White initially serves as a scullery maid under the malevolent Evil Queen and then willingly cleans the house of the dwarfs, or Cinderella is coerced by her stepmother, Lady Tremaine, into a life of servitude. Aurora also humming at the opening scene while dusting and sweeping. As stated by Heatwole, Naomi Wood has an announcement that fits into the context of the movies “the American Dream for Girls: rich and handsome Mr. Right”. Perhaps marriage is the ultimate salvation of the people they represent at the time. They all wait passively for a man arrives to save them from comas, or at least somebody to help them. Snow White welcomed a stranger that also kill her, Cinderella needed a Fairy Godmother to help her to go to the ball. If men in these tales had not come along to save them, Snow White would have died countless times, Cinderella would have remained a slave to her stepsisters, and Aurora would still be in eternal sleep. All of these details signify that these women need protection in their lives. On the other side, the more mature and independent women in these stories are the villain such as Snow White’s Evil Queen, Cinderella’s Lady Tremaine, and Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. They are all currently single and scornful to the young princesses’ charm and beauty. It can be seen from the audiences of the era that independent women who can determine her own decision without men are reckless, uncontrollable and evil.

The renaissance era was one of the most successful periods of Disney when the company returned with a series of uninspiring releases through the late 1980s and 1990s, followed by famous works such as Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and the title character from Mulan. The renaissance coincided with the manifestation from the late second-wave feminism to the beginning of third-wave feminism, which sought to make sense of among other things, the portrayal of women in the media. With the efforts in fighting against their patriarchal system of the renaissance princesses, they have diverse personalities and different contents, but they are all quite problematic. Ariel is seemed to be the most independent character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, according to critic Roger Ebert. However, despite her independence, she is quite problematic with all her actions: sneaking around, hiding human trinkets that she finds so fascinating from her imperious father, King Triton; taking dubious advice from her male friends Flounder, Scuttle, and Sebastian; deeply falling in love with Prince Eric that she willing to give up her life and her voice; abandoning her identity and culture to live happily ever after with the love of her life. Ariel's inquisitive, exploratory nature is seen as wrong to her mermaid-family and not appropriate in society. Despite being described as a beauty, Belle is judged as a ‘strange’, ‘funny’ and ‘odd’ by the townsfolk, she also has Stockholm syndrome when she falls in love with the Beast that imprisoned her, lucky for her that the Beast she falls in love with is actually a cursed prince who eventually returns to his original form when the curse is lifted by a true love kiss. Mulan is the first woman that is not white in Disney’s princesses’ collection. She saves China from the Huns and is offered a position on the Emperor’s council but she turns it down with the reason that she ‘has been away from home long enough’ and she wants to live with her loved one, Li Shang. 

Last but not least, the current phase of Disney – the revival princess – is due to Pixar's acquisition by the company and John Lasseter's subsequent rehiring in 2006. A new princess's prospect for a teenage audience has an empowered female lead as women are actively campaigning for wage equality. What is most interesting about this period in terms of gender representation is the rebranding of their princesses by Disney to appeal to a wider audience. After being underwhelmed at the box office by “The Princess and the Frog,” the word ‘princess’ was omitted from the titles, and more had to be offered to the male love interests. Pixar and Disney Studios president Ed Catmull claimed that “Rapunzel” was rebranded as Tangled as a ploy not to scare off boys. This has led to an evolution of the princess, most notably in the desexualized Merida of Brave, who shares more features with the men in her tribe than the women. The revival princesses, however, still find themselves stuck in traditional fairytale castles like Rapunzel and Merida, and in a hard-working life like Tiana. In “The Princess and the Frog” and “Brave”, the image of both classical princesses and revival princesses are depicted in order to emphasize the new characteristic in the revival one. Tiana, the first African-American princess who plainly dressed and disgusted by the romance of the story that Charlotte, the pretty little classical princess, finds so enchanting. Tiana actually had a dream, like what other women would have. She worked non-stop to make money for her own restaurant while society thinks she is crazy. She takes time and enjoys life while the other princesses are so blinded for love. This is something that is not represented in other movies. Moreover, Merida has changed the whole Disney Princess line because she never wanted to have a love life, just to be free and be who she is that she convinces her mother, Elinor - a classical princess, of how an independent woman should act. Rapunzel is not motivated by love as a central theme and she also exhibits more independent qualities . From those princesses, we can see that the revival princesses are hardworking and independent, the most modernized type of women in Disney’s history.

Furthermore, Disney’s princess representation also has great impact on children, especially girls. According to Wohlwend, “Children committed socially and emotionally to a dualistic model of male and female roles as they actively constructed and performed gender in their fantasy play and storytelling as well as in everyday classroom interactions”. Therefore, the portrayal of Disney’s princess can influence children's mindset of gender structures and roles. With the effort of education, Disney is learning to interpret a different race's new characters to have a different perspective on children. Regarding women's roles, they have made a better portrayal. They were clearly more intelligent and capable than seeing them in the earlier movies. 

In conclusion, it can be said that Disney has tried to build princess images to suit the tastes of audiences from time to time. The classical princesses represented the United States during the patriarchal period in which women could only do housework and all decisions were made by men. The renaissance princesses are more innovative thanks to the second-wave and third wave feminism. The revival princesses were a time when princesses were empowered and they no longer worshiped love as everything. We can see how the princesses are depicted, their gender identity and how different races are portrayed through the evolution of Disney's princesses become more capable, independent from love and can make decisions for themselves.


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