Thanks to Disney, many young girls have female role models. From Snow White, to Belle, and to the most recent, Moana, Disney created a “Princess Culture” in an attempt to create girl power through their movies. The definition of “Princess Culture” began with princesses falling under the stereotypes of women, but has developed in to letting go of the housework to find their own strengths. Despite Disney’s influential heroines, stronger girl power is needed.
Princess’ To Pay Attention To
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is about a princess who works as her stepmother’s maid. The Queen wants Snow White dead, but she escapes to the forest to find a small cottage owned by seven dwarfs. The dwarfs instruct Snow White to not talk to anyone. The evil Queen disguises herself and offers Snow White a poisonous apple. She takes a bite; falls in to a deathlike slumber and can only be awaken by “true love’s first kiss.” A prince passing by wakes her with a kiss and invites her to live in his castle.
Cinderella is a fairytale story about a cheerful young woman, working as a maid for her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. Meanwhile, the King throws a ball in hopes of Prince Charming finding a suitable wife. Cinderella ‘s stepmother and stepsisters rip her dress but her Fairy Godmother provides her with a new outfit and transportation to the ball. At the ball, she unknowingly dances with the Prince. After finding his missing princess, the Prince and Cinderella marry.
Beauty and The Beast about Belle, a book-loving and adventurous girl who befriends a Beast. Lost in the forest, Belle’s father seeks shelter in the Beast’s home but is kept prisoner. Once Belle finds Maurice, she bargains to be prisoner instead. Maurice runs to the village for help. After the battle, Belle finds the Beast wounded and professes her love for him causing the spell to be broken. With everyone in human form again, the Prince and Belle live happily together in the castle.
Mulan presented a young woman who became an honourable warrior. After an attack on The Great Wall of China, the Emperor requests one man from each family for battle. Despite her family’s wishes to stay home to focus on finding a husband, she enlists in the army in place of her father. Disguised as a male, she reports to training camp, lead by Shang. While fighting the Huns, Mulan’s true identity is revealed bringing her shame. After defeating the Huns, she receives gifts from the Emperor, which she presents to her father. Seemingly, Shang returns Mulan’s helmet and has dinner with her family.
Frozen introduced a princess with magic that manipulates ice. After growing up apart due to an accident, the time comes for Elsa to be crowned queen of Arendelle. Elsa accidentally unleashes her powers, unknowingly causing Arendelle to fall under an eternal winter. Her sister Anna searches for her in the mountains because she is the only one who can break the spell. Realizing that her magic is controlled by love, she is able to save her sister and Arendelle.
Moana is about the daughter of Motunui’s chief, who was chosen by the sea to bring Te Fiti’s heart back. However, her father believes it is too dangerous for her to be on the water; instead, she should focus on finding her true calling. Moana embarks on an adventure with Maui where she fulfills her destiny by returning Te Fiti’s heart back, which heals the ocean and islands of the poison. Moana returns home where she finds her place in the community.
A “Princess Culture”
Disney’s franchise created a “princess culture” which has expanded through many princess films. The “princess culture” is a representation of girlhood. Princesses act as role models for young women. The rise of “Princess Culture” means a throwback to the docile, marriage-focused princesses of the past, arguing that it is a continuing and prolific source of “psychologically unhealthy” and “economically” detrimental” attitudes (Heatwole, 4). Although, princess films give hope for a happy ending and demonstrate different personalities of females, it enforces stereotypes of women. According to Hains, “stories about princesses have long underscored he presumed weakness of females and implied that helplessness is romantically desirable. These tales reflected and implied that helplessness is romantically desirable (Heatwole, 4). In other words, stories of princesses show the weakness in women, never their strengths. They are never independent because there is always someone to “rescue” them. Hains goes on to say that these tales reflected the way our society encourages girls to learn dependency and helplessness, believing that a man will someday take care of them (Heatwole, 4). In many princess films, the princess may seem like she has everything together but in the end they need a man to fulfill their journey. It demonstrates to the audience that women need a man in their life instead of relying on their self. Many scholars suggest that “Princess Culture” is coded with traditional patriarchal values, white privilege, and unrealistic standards of beauty at the forefront (Heatwole, 4-5). “Princess Culture” follows a patriarchal system that limits the importance of the princess role to beauty and household chores. In other words, the “Princess Culture” is seen as representing women as only being passive, only knowing their way around the home, and their happiness comes from marriage. “Princess Culture” has limited many female roles and does not fully show the strength of women.
Fortunately, Disney has attempted in allowing its princesses characters to show a variety of strength in women. Disney presents three different types of princesses: the Classical Princess, the Renaissance Princess, and the Revival Princess. Each type of princess portrays numerous stereotypes of women, but has progressed over time to show how independent women can be. The Classical Princess represents kept women, but they are content to be so – they are comfortable in their domesticity (Higgs, 2016). The Renaissance Princess fights against her patriarchal system, is not as passive, domesticated and vacuous, but reinforces many of the same old values as the classical princess (Higgs, 2016). Although the Revival Princess is independent and hardworking, they still live in a patriarchal society. The roles of Disney princesses have slowly evolved from helpless housemaids to heroines.
The Classical Princess
The Classical Princess can be described as a damsel in distress. The expectations of these princesses were to be able to do housework and find a suitable husband. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs it was clear that men were not expected to do domestic work, nor did they have the ability to do so. Snow White rescued the dwarves in a traditionally feminine way, by cooking and cleaning and acting as their surrogate mother (England et al., 563). The only thing that Snow White could offer for shelter was housework because that is what she was capable of. Snow White represented the stereotype of women only knowing their way around the house. In Cinderella, the princess did domestic work as an act of submission. She accepted, without complaint the hard labour her step-mother assigned, and always sang and smiled pleasantly while working (England et al., 563). Although she was bullied, Cinderella pushed through the work making it seem as though she enjoyed doing all the housework. Despite Cinderella showing that women are capable of doing all the house chores, she is illustrated as passive because she does not stand against her bullies. Both Snow White and Cinderella follow the patriarchal gender norms where women are expected to follow simple commands and are only knowledgeable of domestic work. These princesses do not think for themselves, they accept what comes to them. In the end, the princesses are content with marriage. It is portrayed that the princes saved the princesses from their cruel families through their hand in marriage. Love may conquer all, but there is nothing else to fulfill the princess’ dreams than marriage. The Classical Princess represents women who cannot stand on their own because they are too reliant on men. The early Disney princesses portrayed all the stereotypes of women who cannot be the heroine in their own life.
The Renaissance Princess
In this era of Disney, princesses have gained a bit of strength and are able to stand on their own. These princesses are representative of women who attempt to breakaway from domestic life, but continue to obey orders from men. For example, the villagers characterized Belle as strange because she was more interested in reading than finding a husband (England et al., 564). Belle portrayed the intellectualness of women, and showed signs of not falling for the first man to give her attention. Mulan also showed a female who would not be tied down to her household. Mulan displayed athleticism and leadership as a heroine (England et al., 564). Through Mulan, women demonstrate traits that do not fall under female stereotypes. These women are intellectual and are capable of more than just housework. They are aware of the world outside of the home but continuously live for expectations set up by males. However, these princesses still live by patriarchal rules. Belle wants to explore the world but instead stays with the Beast to break the spell. Nothing changes for Mulan when she goes back home; she is still expected to find a suitor. Although both princesses make sacrifices in helping others, their journey ends with a man keeping them content. Renaissance Princesses have been given more freedom in the sense that they can make choices for their self. However, their choices lead them back to the stereotype that a man is needed to complete their journey.
The Revival Princess
The Revival Princess shows a change in Disney’s “Princess Culture” where females are heroines with their own adventure. Women used to take care of the house and children, which are skills showcased by Classical and Renaissance Princesses. Women now, however, are expected to maintain such feminine traits, and also to incorporate aspects of “male” traits such as assertiveness, if they are to succeed outside of the home (England et al., 563). In other words, the Revival Princess represents girl power. This is shown through their independence, their determination, and the fact that people are reliant on them, not the other way around. In Frozen, Elsa’s adventure is to claim her independence. Although alone in the mountains, Elsa is fierce and does not back down when her ice castle is attacked. Moana is also independent, and like Elsa, must work hard to make a name for her self. Although Moana’s destiny was chosen for her, she is the one who devises the plan that restores Te Fiti’s heart. Successfully, Elsa and Moana demonstrated girl power through their independence and bravery to save their villages resulting in reliance on them as heroines. Disney has transformed modern day princesses in to super heroes by giving them their own journey where they get to be the lead and do not rely on anyone else but their self. Revival Princesses work hard and are given a chance to create their own path. The “Princess Culture” as clearly evolved from being dependent on others to being smart enough to depend on their self. Revival Princesses are more than a female in a dress.
Growth for Girl Power
Disney has come a long way from producing princess movies always ending in marriage to princesses becoming heroes. As the “Princess Culture” continues to represent girlhood, the definition of this notion has also changed. The “Princess Culture” once taught girls that housework and finding a husband would guarantee a happy ending, but the modern day princess show females to think for their self and that they are in control of their lives. Despite Disney’s change in developing princesses as heroines, there is still a need for more girl power. Disney princesses represent salient, powerful, attractive characters who tend to be portrayed as conforming to gender stereotypes and are rewarded for their gendered behaviour (Coyne et al., 1911). The role of princess has been developed but continue to display female stereotypes. The Revival Princesses may appear to have gone against the original “Princess Culture,” but there are minor stereotypes that go unnoticed. In Frozen, Elsa may be bold in showing that females are not helpless, she falls under Disney’s stereotypical definition of beauty. The typical princess is portrayed as young and attractive, large eyes, small nose and chin, moderately large breasts, prominent cheekbones, lustrous hair, and good muscle tone and skin complexion (Coyne et al., 1911). According to Disney, this classifies as acceptable beauty. It defeats the purpose of girl power because it excludes other types of attractiveness. Moana may to be the first princess to not fall under this type of beauty but she does conform to the stereotype of a male rescuing the female. She may have returned Te Fiti’s heart, but she had helped from egotistical, muscular Maui. Moana used Maui as guidance on her adventure to fulfill her destiny. Although there was no marriage in the end for these princesses, they have not fully stirred away from the initial meaning of “Princess Culture.” Therefore, Disney is in need of princesses that represent a variety of women. In other words, Disney needs to create more relatable female characters by producing multicultural females in leading roles displaying different types of beauty. As the lead role, these princesses need to be seen more on their own through journey’s without the help of a man. A princess is more than another girl in a dress looking for their place in the world; they are role models. The modern day princess needs to teach girls that a happy ending is not guaranteed through marriage, it is promised through hard work. In hopes of revising “Princess Culture,” Disney should work against the patriarchal gender norms that created the “Princess Culture.”
Through numerous films, Disney has created a “Princess Culture” to represent girlhood. Disney princess films have provided roles models for young girls; however, it has its fair share of displaying stereotypes. With the first few princesses, they presented submissive women who relied on marriage. However, Disney attempted to change this image by showing intelligent women who would do anything to protect their family but receive nothing in return. Then, Disney finally created princesses who become super heroes. Although princesses have left behind the expected housework and the reliance on men, there is still space for Disney to improve the “Princess Culture.” In other words, there is a need for more female leads that fight against the patriarchal norms. Princesses deserve to create their on destiny that will fulfill on their own.
• Coyne, Sarah M., Linder, Jennifer Ruh., Rasmussen, Eric E., Nelson, David A., Birkbeck, Victoria. “Pretty as a Princess: Longitudinal Effects of Engagement with Disney Princesses on Gender Stereotypes, Body Esteem, and Prosocial Behaviour in Children.” Child Development. 2016. Vol. 87, Issue 6. p1909-1925. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.12569
• England, Dawn Elizabeth., Descartes, Lara., Collier-Meek, Melissa A. “Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princess.” Sex Roles. Vol. 64, Issue. 7-8. April 2011. pp. 555-567. https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs11199-011-9930-7.pdf
• Heatwole, Alexandra., “Disney Girlhood: Princess Generations and Once
Upon a Time.” Studies in the Humanities. Vol. 43. Dec. 2016.
• Higgs, Sam., “Damsels in Development: Representation, Transition, and The Disney Princess.” IFeb, Screen Education. Issue 83. Spring 2016. p62-69.
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