Disney Princesses Are My (Imperfect) Feminist Role Models
With the recent success of Frozen and the anticipation of Moana, Caroline Siede examines the power of the Disney princess.
The Internet rejoiced at news that another Disney princess is on the way sooner than expected. Moana, Disney’s upcoming film about an ancient Polynesian princess exploring her Oceanic home, will now hit theaters in 2016 instead of 2018. The fan response was enthusiastic. Many expressed hope that Moana will continue the female driven-storytelling that made Frozen such a phenomenon. Others celebrated the fact that Moana will become the fifth Disney princess of color and the first of Polynesian descent. I’m ecstatic about Moana just as I was about Frozen. I’ve been a Disney fan since childhood, and it’s always refreshing to see a massive company adapt to the progressive tides. But are Frozen and Moana atypical Disney films? Are the princesses who came before Anna, Elsa, and Moana simply hurtful stereotypes of conventional domesticity? There’s no doubt that Disney is actively promoting diversity in both the storytelling and marketing of these recent films, but that’s actually nothing new. In a media landscape teeming with male-driven narratives, Disney has spent the past 75 years teaching young girls that their stories deserve to be told too. And that’s enough to make all of the Disney princesses my (imperfect) feminist role models.
One reason Frozen felt like such a revelation is that female-driven storytelling is a disappointing rarity, even in contemporary filmmaking. According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media, male characters outnumber female characters 3 to 1 in family friendly entertainment. In a study of recent family-friendly films, the Institute found that female characters make up a mere 30% of protagonists despite the fact that women constitute half of the population. From a young age girls learn that female characters—even well written ones like Hermione Granger and Princess Leia—are sidekicks, not heroes. That made it even more remarkable that Frozen offered two leading ladies. Furthermore, Frozen was an intentional subversion of the cultural understanding of the Disney princess as a helpless girl who needs to be rescued by a man. But Disney has been offering similar subversions long before Elsa encouraged the world to “Let It Go.” In fact, that’s been its mission from the beginning.
Considering the Disney princess genre includes 13 female protagonists introduced across 75 years of filmmaking, it’s no wonder there’s a bit of confusion about where to place these characters on a feminist scale. To understand the successes and failures of these individual heroines, we must examine them within the historical contexts in which they were created. Here’s a brief timeline of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ three most fruitful eras and the princesses created during them.
Classic Era [1937-1967]
- Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937)
- Cinderella (Cinderella, 1950)
- Aurora (Sleeping Beauty, 1959)
Renaissance Era [1989-1999]
- Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989)
- Belle (Beauty And The Beast, 1991)
- Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992)
- Pocahontas (Pocahontas, 1995)
- Mulan (Mulan, 1998)
Revival Era [2009-present]
- Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009)
- Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010)
- Merida (the Disney/Pixar collaboration Brave, 2012)
- Elsa and Anna (Frozen, 2013)
Interestingly, the image of the “Disney princess” is still irreparably tied to the three women who kicked off the genre despite the leaps and bounds Disney made in the subsequent Renaissance and Revival eras. (In Batman terms, that’s like arguing that both the campy 1960s series and Christopher Nolan’s dark take on the character can only be judged as a packaged deal.) Unsurprisingly, the princess films made in the 1930s-1950s reflect the sexist gender politics of that era. (After all, Snow White was released only 17 years after women earned the right to vote). On the surface, these films reinforce rigid gender stereotypes: Women are good at cooking, cleaning, and looking beautiful. Men are good at rescuing ladies and fighting monsters.
Yet it’s women who are the titular characters in these three films. The leading ladies get the memorable songs, the iconic costumes, and the emotional journeys, while their male love interests are generic—often unnamed—supporting characters. The princes may do the physical rescuing, but they are very much presented as “prizes” for our heroines to win (albeit through conventional means of being beautiful and suffering silently). While contemporary blockbusters struggle to populate their worlds with more than one token woman, these early Disney films offer a wide range of female characters. Snow White’s Evil Queen, Cinderella’s Stepmother, and Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent remain three of Hollywood’s most memorable female villains. And long before Frozen celebrated female friendships, Cinderella and Aurora relied on female fairies for help, guidance, and encouragement. These films troublingly imply that only beautiful women can be heroes, but it’s still a fairly progressive step to depict women as romantic leads, villains, and supporting characters all in one film.
Today we celebrate The Hunger Games, Lucy, and Divergent for proving that female-driven films can be blockbusters. But we’ve known that since 1939 when Snow White’s $6.5 million international gross made it the most successful sound film of all time. (It was quickly displaced by another female-driven blockbuster, Gone With The Wind.) Perhaps that’s why—after enduring a period of critical and commercial failure in the 1970s and 1980s—Disney once again returned to the princess genre to revitalize itself.
The Little Mermaid kicked off the Disney Renaissance and launched a whole new breed of more overtly feminist princesses. Ariel is feisty, adventurous, and defiant. She’s more recognizably flawed than the princesses who came before her and more adamant about achieving her dreams on her own terms. But as Disney’s first return to the princess genre in three decades, the film is very much a transitional one. While Ariel’s personality is more realistic, her narrative still follows the underdeveloped love-at-first-sight arc from the classic era. But with a bonafide hit under its belt, Disney pushed its feminist storytelling even further during the 1990s.
Belle is defined by her intelligence and love of reading. Princess Jasmine—the only supporting character in the entire princess line—openly declares she’s not a prize to be won. Mulan disguises herself as a man and saves China from invasion. Tiana goes from waitress to business owner thanks to her own determination. Merida and Rapunzel reject the limiting lifestyles their parents try to force on them. Like Snow White, these female-driven films found massive success at the box office, and like Frozen they actively subvert expectations of Disney princess storytelling.
And while Moana deserves ample praise for centering on a woman of color, Disney has actually done a fairly good—if delayed—job diversifying its princess line. So far the company has turned a Middle Eastern princess, a Native American chief’s daughter, a Chinese warrior, and a black business-owner into four of the most recognizable characters in pop culture with remarkably little fanfare. Meanwhile, we’ve yet to have a single superhero movie centered on a character of color.
Of course, these successes don’t give Disney a free pass. It would be insincere to argue these princesses are flawless role models. Their impossibly slender, stunningly beautiful looks reinforce limiting beauty standards. The plots of these films disproportionately center on romance and love at first sight. And with the exception of Frozen, all of Disney’s princess films were written and directed by men. In other words, these films are simultaneously powerful and problematic, none moreso than 1995’s Pocahontas. The film stereotypes Native Americans as “noble savages” with mystical connections to nature, rewrites history to give Pocahontas a white male love interest, and ends on a note of cross-cultural reconciliation that rings incredibly false when one takes into consideration the subsequent genocide of Native Americans by white settlers. And yet, Pocahontas remains pretty much the only mainstream story about a Native American woman in American pop culture. Amy Aidman’s 1999 study found that young Native American girls responded positively to seeing themselves represented onscreen. That’s a stark reminder that women and people of color must too often make compromises when watching entertainment: accept imperfection or settle for zero representation.
So why not write off these problematic princesses and find better role models? Part of the power of the Disney princess is that she is inescapable. As a massive conglomerate, Disney is able to give its princess line an almost frightening level of cultural ubiquity. Conventional wisdom holds that girls will watch male-driven stories while boys will simply ignore female-driven ones. But it was impossible to ignore Frozen last year just as it was impossible to ignore Snow White, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty And The Beast when they premiered. Stop a few hundred people on the street and they’ll likely be able to name more Disney princesses than American Girl dolls, Baby-Sitters Club members, or Legend Of Korra characters. It’s important to introduce young girls to well-written female characters in niche properties, but it’s equally important to teach young girls that their stories don’t have to be niche.
That’s because representation matters on a very concrete level. A 2012 study from the academic journal Communication Research found that while watching television increased self-esteem among white boys (who are overrepresented), it lowered the self-esteem of black children of both genders as well as white girls (who are all underrepresented). The author of the study points out, “Male characters are portrayed as powerful, strong, rational, and the main character, while in contrast, female characters are portrayed as emotional, sensitive, and more likely to be a sidekick or love interest.” Taken as a whole, the Disney princess line offers a surprisingly diverse view of the female experience, ranging from the traditionally feminine Cinderella to the more traditionally masculine Mulan. These women are powerful, strong, and rational, but they are also emotional and sensitive. Most importantly, they are the main characters in their own stories. Too few well-written female characters can claim the same thing.
Perhaps the most important skill parents can teach their children is how to consume media critically. The generation-spanning Disney princess line is full of successes and failures when it comes to female representation. That makes it the perfect starting point for conversations about history, gender roles, and representation. With a little parental guidance, children can learn to separate the positive qualities of these female characters (kindness, empathy, bravery, intelligence, ingenuity) from the gender stereotypes they promote. And that’s an invaluable skill for young girls (and boys) to learn.
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