Disney Princesses

by Jess McCabe // 26 October 2009, 16:06

Via Sociological Images and Fiona A, this is quite an interesting (if not exhaustive) deconstruction of some of the issues with Disney princesses.

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Comments From You

gadgetgal // Posted 26 October 2009 at 16:20

I always hated Disney anyway (Looney Tunes was my thing), but I never watched another one of their films again when they did that hatchet job of The Little Mermaid - she's supposed to die, it changes the whole point of the story if they give it a happy ending!!

Helen S // Posted 26 October 2009 at 16:46

This gave me such a giggle! The only change I'd like to make is that Cinderella is only recognised by her 'prince' solely on her tiny feet (compared to the large 'ugly' feet sported by her stepsisters)

Jennifer Drew // Posted 26 October 2009 at 18:32

Ha Ha - so true, Disney's sole aim is to promote patriarchial misogyny wherein a girl's or woman's only reason for existing is to become some man's sexual slave. I suggest reading feminist fairy tales for a more realistic portrayal of girls' and women's diversity and intelligence.

Elmo // Posted 26 October 2009 at 21:00

until i was 7 i always hoped i'd grow up to be the little mermaid, until i realised that having a 15 inch waist probably wasn't going to happen- unless i was prepared to have my internal organs removed.

isn't it odd how women are so often vilified in fairy tales-evil queen, step mum, witch etc-yet, in the real world it is men who commit the majority of crimes and have the most power-any have any theories as to why women get this powerful, evil role in stories so often?

Laurel Dearing // Posted 26 October 2009 at 23:56

ack, these magazine versions dont have waists

Ms Chevious // Posted 27 October 2009 at 09:14

I've always had an issue with Disney's gender portrayal and the fact that women are only useful for being pretty and being 'chosen' by handsome Princes. The only popular fairy tale film I have any time for is Shrek - at least in that being yourself is OK and the Princess has *some* autonomy.

gadgetgal // Posted 27 October 2009 at 10:23

I just remembered a book I have called "The Practical Princess and Other Liberating Fairy Tales" by Jay Williams & Rick Schreiter that are really good for their portrayals of women in fairy stories and they're also written with children in mind, so they can replace a lot of the older out-of-date tales we usually tell the kids. Actually, I should mention it on the book section, I know it's not an adult book but it's worth getting hold of a copy anyway!

Jess McCabe // Posted 27 October 2009 at 10:27

@gadgetgal I'll add that to the children & young people's section of TFW bookshop too :-)

Troon // Posted 27 October 2009 at 12:20

Disney's princesses have always infuriated me, and I accept this is a minor point, by the way they remove women from politics to stress beauty and sexuality. Snow White's resonance with communities based on inhertance of land and power is obvious: she is heir to the throne, and her youth and potential to find sponsors (through marriage or the support she has at court) weaken the power of a queen who is forced to rely solely on the king's role. It's about active conflict between these two women within a highly confining patriarchial system, not whose the prettiest on the wall.

And it's not just Disney, don't get me started on Sybil kingmaker of Jersualem and preserver of her dynasty vs Kingdom of Heaven's Orlando-shagging give it up for my hubbie waif.

If we're adding alternative readings which counteract these aspects of fairy tales, could I suggest Gregory Macquire's 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister', which makes this point perfectly, as well as creating some convincingly driven (in both pleasant and unpleasant ways) women characters?

Jenna // Posted 27 October 2009 at 12:42

So very true. Like in reality, we're made to believe beauty to be a huge aspect of our personality - no beautiful female can ever suffer at the hand of an ugly/ old woman (Ursula, Snow White's Aunt et al) - and the Disney creators scream for our sympathy.

Non- lasting beauty is always made out to be this quality that reaches thousands of hearts. And of course the vomitous rescuing from privilege- boy a love story just has to entail.

Why can't a Disney princess be Jane Eyre (this character actually written by a woman)? Oh that's right, because then little girls would grow up believing beauty and a prince wasn't the be all and end all. So anti- patriarchy.

gadgetgal // Posted 27 October 2009 at 12:49

I remembered another resource for feminist fairy tales (couldn't remember her name at first so had to do a bit of googling!) but if you want alternatives try www.rosemarylake.com - she's re-written a lot of traditional tales to swap roles, and she's also written original ones where the male and female characters are both strong and have to work together. Oh and she's also included some non-traditional families in there too and resources for other works. For the parent at their wit's end about the sexism in this Disney-fied world it's worth checking out. And I have to say from experience that kids don't even notice the difference so long as it's a good story that gets their imaginations going!

Elmo // Posted 27 October 2009 at 17:07

ooh, if we are adding fairy tales suggestions, may i put forward "politically correct bedtime stories" -it points out the ridiculous sexism of all the fairy tales, and its also very funny

Victoria // Posted 27 October 2009 at 17:22

What's particularly frustrating is the way in which lip-service is paid to female independance in the more recent films. This is particularly true in Beauty and the Beast - a big deal is made of the fact that Belle is more interested in books than in marrying Gaston (but it turns out this isn't a point of principle, just a question of finding the right prince charming). And in The Little Mermaid Ariel sings about "women / sick of swimmin' / ready to stand", as though gaining legs is a kind of liberation rather than a sacrifice for the sake of her man. And then with Alladin, the sexism Jasmin experiences is more openly acknowledged cos you can blame it on the funny foreigners. You could almost fall for all this and believe the Disney corporation's heart is in the right place -I think I actually did when I was younger (which is why I am sad enough to remember lyrics from Disney film songs).

Laurel Dearing // Posted 27 October 2009 at 18:47

disney shows were so much better for girls! spinelli in recess, pepper ann and her sister, lor from the weekenders... and gargoyles, if you forgive the shape and outfit of the gargoyle ladies (its very hard not to draw monster men that look like monsters and female monsters that look like ladies with a strange look, even with a feminist mind in this culture) but its ethnically diverse, has good messages, about one in 4 is female, which is unusual for epic stories, this includes the hit squads sent out. id say one of macbeths was even butch. unfortunately you do play of good girl/bad girl and love interests with the main characters a bit but its really not the focus. in the second of third episode elisa takes out a four man unit by herself

Davina // Posted 27 October 2009 at 18:58

Can I just say, gadgetgal, thank you for those suggestions - they will help with my niece! Last time I saw her she'd just turned four and I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up: 'a mermaid or a princess... but then mermaids aren't real... so I'll just be a princess'. I told her that princesses don't really do anything, wouldn't she be bored? Maybe she'd like to be a doctor? Teacher? Pilot?

We finally settled on her being Mister Maker, as she's very arty (she didn't want to be Miss Maker though).

Anyway, I'm glad to know there are alternative princess stories out there.

charlotte // Posted 28 October 2009 at 10:58

ha, this is very funny, and sadly, very true. siiigh. and that image is my entire 90's childhood. it's funny not seeing it when you're little and just liking it for what it was - the prettiness and the fantasy. and now at the grand age of 22 seeing alll the sexism and alll the misogyny etc. oh damn you disney, i just can't hate you but i hate the aforementioned. bah, i'll always love fairytales. keen to read these 'updated' versions too.

earwicga // Posted 29 October 2009 at 11:29

And here are the princes! http://www.buzzfeed.com/awesomer/disney-princes-deconstructed-cci

Tbh, I never had a problem with Disney princesses before all the marketing started. Just a fairy tale, not real life. But now, due to the extreme marketing of Disney princesses to little girls it takes on a much more sinister feel. I can't believe anybody pays for the Disney channel, which is basically just an advertising - including the programmes.

Karen // Posted 29 October 2009 at 19:24

Once upon a time, there was a lady who was treated badly by an evil-minded father, a bad prince and lots of evil he-trolls. Lots of the he-trolls hurt the lady because she wasn't male gaze beautiful and because she wasn't a princess. So to show them all, the lady became a succesful engineer, found a lovely partner who helped her when she was sad and felt she was beautiful in her own way. She didnt want to be a princess so she grew into an empowered all-encompassing-beautiful swan instead. The end. Right then Disney, what do you make of that one then!?!

Samara // Posted 30 October 2009 at 09:18

I'm sorry but Princess Jasmine rocks.

"How dare you! All of you! Standing around deciding my future? I am not a prize to be won!"

sarah wilson // Posted 31 October 2009 at 14:27

ok, well one, i'm not 'anti-feminist', but you have to chill. they're disney princesses! they're kids stories, and sleeping beauty, snow white and cinderella are centuries old- what did you think they'd be about? also, jasmine, ariel and belle are smart, beautiful and defied convential. belle refused to marry gaston, ariel stood up to her father, and jasmine refused to be married. i think that's something to be proud of, not to herald as sexist.

cycleboy // Posted 01 November 2009 at 12:13

Interestingly, I once read that the stories the Grimm brothers collected often had wicked mothers and they toned it down for public consumption to step-mothers. Also, they left out the sex; eg in Rumplestiltskin, when the hero eventually finds his love she has a baby. In the altered version, no mention is made of how the baby was conceived.

On a similar note, I once played in the musical 'Annie Get Your Gun', set in Bill Hickock's 'Wild West Show'. I disliked the scene where she throws the shooting match with Frank Butler so he will fall in love with her. In fact, the real story was so much more interesting. Annie won the match and Butler stepped down and became her manager AND married her (or she married him). Anyway, it seems they did live happily ever after with him taking the back-seat role. A man well before his time, it seems. (Mind you, I've no idea who did the washing up.)

aimee // Posted 01 November 2009 at 13:21

@sarah wilson:

Okay, I see your point, but ultimately all the characters you mentioned are defined by men. They are rescued by men, their purpose is fulfilled when they hook up with the men. For real strong female characters that could really inspire young girls, watch a studio ghibli film like Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke or Tales From Earthsea. There's no benign, sweet, vomitous little princesses whose sole purpose is to look pretty, have a relationship with a man and wear nice dresses there.

aimee // Posted 01 November 2009 at 13:26

I must defend Disney on one thing, though... Lilo and Stitch! My 2 year old son absolutely loves Lilo and Stitch. It has strong female characters, and the only animated transvestite character i've ever seen outside of hentai... It's awesome. I love it.

Dara // Posted 01 November 2009 at 15:09

I loved the 'Princess Smartypants' books. A great alternative to the usual passive princess character.

Clarissa // Posted 01 November 2009 at 15:32

Sarah Wilson - yeahh, but what you're doing is essentially picking crumbs off the table.

These things aren't being marketed hundreds of years ago when such roles would be relevant, they're being perpetually marketed to female children now. Such role models are a huge problem, especially when targetting females at the youngest, most impressionable age.

earwicga // Posted 03 November 2009 at 17:54

@ aimee
Totally agreed! Lilo and Stitch is one of my very favourite films and I have continued to watch it long after my boys have grown out of it.

Luckily Lilo has escaped the title Princess though - therefore is 'allowed' to be a more rounded character (pun intended).

Aimee // Posted 04 November 2009 at 11:04

@earwicga:
I love it! It's the only thing my little boy wants to watch. It represents people of all body types. Lilo is an excellent strong female charachter, as is her sister. The bit I enjoy most about it is the alien, who quite obviously identifies as male but pretty much always wears 'female' clothes and it's very rarely mentioned. It's excellent!

FeminaErecta // Posted 04 November 2009 at 13:14

More alternative Princesses- 'The Wrestling Princess and Other Stories'
'Princess Polly to the Rescue', 'The Paperbag Princess',
Slight bugbear- Jane Eyre, yes she focussed on her education and Bronte explored within the character the idea that both women and men's lives can be self-determined, but these ideas are more to do with class, the idea that women of the lower orders can be worthwhile as people. She still marries her man that she manages to snare by being gentle, good and intelligent (like Belle et al.) rather than travel the world and spread her beliefs as a companion to StJohn. And she doesn't exactly start a feminist revolution, breaking down the doors of the establishment when she hears about the treatment of Bertha. I love her, don't get me wrong, but I wouldn't describe her as an explicitly feminist heroine.

Jenna // Posted 04 November 2009 at 14:46

FeminaErectica, I agree... I don't believe she's a feminist heroine, as she seems repulsed by Bertha, loves the dominant aspect of Rochester etc etc... But she probably wanted the novel to be taken seriously by the Victorians and popular so couldn't break down patriarchy's door.

By comparing Jane Eyre to Disney princesses, what I meant was that, despite how she looks in films, she's constantly described as ugly. She doesn't have to gain our sympathy and good- will as a female by just being beautiful, a.k.a Belle et al.

p.s. to me Jane Eyre is a feminist novel, just because of the ending. She only goes with Rochester once he's much weaker, poorer and submissive to her. She refuses a life of being dominated by St. John. Overall she's more in the driving seat than most females written about today, let alone back then.

I get the impression Bronte had to be sneaky to get any feminism in. Of course mad women were too much for Victorians.. Bronte couldn't stray the line too much there with plotting a whole book of sympathy for Bertha. Wide Sargasso Sea on the other hand..... (as good a book as Jane Eyre too)

FeminaErecta // Posted 04 November 2009 at 15:45

Wild Sargasso Sea is brilliant! You should also read Charlotte Perkins Gilmore (I think...)'s The Yellow Wallpaper, for what the Victorians really thought of madness!
However, one slight thing, my view of feminism as I see it isn't that women should dominate men but that everyone regardless of their sex/gender are treated equally by society as a whole and are offered the same chances and oppertunities...I wouldn't say that Jane going back to Rochester after he has lost his sight and his status (not that the two are combind) is her being an independent feminist, she marries him because she loves him and, now his wife is dead, she can, not because he is now 'weaker' than her. If it were me I'd have told the lying so-and-so where to get off and become the next Mrs Livingstone...actually having just read a biography of Mary Livingstone I think maybe Jane did have the right idea!
The point is that the Victorians had a totally different set of values to those illustrated today, and that Disney, by throwing up these old Grimm's Fairy Tales princesses as role-modeals for small children hardly show positive moden role models- where's Disney's 'Chancellor' range? I want to see an Angela Merkel dressing up kit and stationary set!

Jane // Posted 04 November 2009 at 18:25

@Jenna - Charlotte Bronte having to sneak in feminism - agree. But she had to write as a MAN to get the book even published! Remember Jane Eyre is written by one Currer Bell, and was received with open arms by the Victorian public. Until it was discovered that Mr Bell was in fact a parson's daughter and suddenly people were whispering about the 'unnatural passions' in the book.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 04 November 2009 at 22:40

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZB69Q80c0D0 was a cute series. jane and the dragon. used to have some books i think! i think the characters all have a lot too them whether feminine or not. this isntone of the better quality vids

Kaeles // Posted 29 November 2009 at 22:42

Don't get me wrong, I think that women should be portrayed in a stronger and more positive light, ala miyazaki's characters, but I grew up watching disney movies and reading old fiction in which it is expected that men should treat women well, all and any women.

Now, the problem with this is that the women are usually treated less respectfully and "wholly dehumanized and stripped of self power" by the authors of the stories. Instead of showing how men could treat women who are strong and responsible and exist for their own sake, we get princesses that need a prince to become anything worthwhile. If you look at it from the mens point of view, ignoring that they portray women as weak, chivalry still rules their actions.

Now we get things like twilight where the main character is an even emptier shell only existing for a pseudo prince who doesn't even act chivalrously .

And I'm a guy. Anyhow, the whole point is, the disney movies are meant to be, meant being the keyword, harmless fairy tales, and as we learn to move past these silly sexist ideas that once gender is better/worse (though there are differences, these should be looked at with pride, and not derision by both sides) than the other, then we can move into solving even larger worldwide issues.

aimee // Posted 01 December 2009 at 16:34

"(though there are differences, these should be looked at with pride, and not derision by both sides) "

I think you're wrong.
There are differences between people. There are not differences between gender, or race, or class. These are all far too wide reaching assumptions and too huge generalisations to make. Individuals are different from eachother. Women are different from other women, men are different from other men. TO say men are different from women is to ignore that.

I think that small issues like these ARE important and as we address them, we address, by default, larger ones.

Charley // Posted 16 February 2010 at 23:22

I think this is a bit unfair. I'm a huge fan of Disney, so will naturally defend them, but this is a rather quick brush over that doesn't really consider other aspects of the Disney heroine.
Snow White was made to appeal to a huge audience, and the characters love her because she is kind, she has motherly and compassionate qualities, though perhaps there is some truth in the arguement, as she was made to look perfect. Does that mean any decent qualities are valid when presented by a pretty face??

Belle is intelligent, a quirk, unnaware of her beauty and who is made to feel outcast because she chooses to read books and not marry a big bully of a man (Gaston).

I notice how Esmeralda is missed out, the gypsy from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who inspires people and puts up a blimmin' good fight for what she believes in, not to mention sticking up to the baddie.

Nani and Lilo, sisters from Lilo and Stitch, look after each other through hardship, near poverty, and aren't necessarily beautiful - Nani has a thicker body shape that suggests strength and Lilo is a little oddity who is herself and determinded to love Sitich throughout the whole film.

And now we have Tiana, Princess and the Frog, a girl so focused on archeiving her dream of a restaurant, and in the end against all odds, gets there with a man she accidentally fell in love with.

So I think it's a tad of a brush over, there are other factors like the times the films were made in. Disney is getting older and wiser in its character casting. But to be honest, when you imagined the fairytale princess, did you really expect a developed, rounded person, or a vague thing resembling a human in a fantasy unreal landscape?

Oh and the real triumph in Cinderella, is her escaping the tyranny of her stepmother and being free, there is no mention from the Prince citing her as beautiful, he just falls head of glass heels, as they do in these FAIRYTALES.

Jess McCabe // Posted 17 February 2010 at 15:35

@Charley I suggest checking out Feminism 101 then revisiting this.

Also see this post on why popular culture is important.

As a general point, something doesn't have to be couched in entirely negative terms to be a stereotype or damaging - it's a misunderstanding of the critique of women's representation in Disney films to say "but look, they have good qualities!"

carly // Posted 21 February 2010 at 17:55

@ Jess McCabe. No it's not, because the point of this article is saying- check out all their sexist qualities! but you're ignoring everything that makes them good people, and good women. And in the end, I don't know anyone that was psychologically affected by waching cinderella as a child.

Francesca Hughes // Posted 20 March 2012 at 11:55

My only problem with this list is Belle. As much as people in the Sociological Images thread have commented that it wasn't about her beauty, you can't hide the fact that Belle was still the stereotypical Disney version of beautiful.

But... I also think that Belle taught me that it was OK to be nerdy, independent, and seek adventure. In fact it wasn't just OK: Belle took no notice whatsoever of what people said behind her back. She just got on with what she enjoyed doing, and was very happy. (My younger years might've been happier if I could've adopted the same attitude.)

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