The Walt Disney Company has been creating magical fairy tales since the early 1900s and is a trusted brand synonymous with wholesome, family entertainment (Wasko). Over time, this reputation has resulted in the Disney brand’s huge financial growth and influence on audiences worldwide. (Wohlwend). As the largest global media powerhouse in the Western world (Beattie), Disney uses its power and influence to shape the perceptions and ideologies of its audience. In the twenty-first century there has been a proliferation of retellings of Disney fairy tales, and Kilmer suggests that although the mainstream perception is that these new iterations promote gender equity, new cultural awareness around gender stereotypes, and cultural insensitivity, this is illusory. Tangled, for example, was a popular film selling over 10 million DVD copies and positioned as a bold new female fairy tale character; however, academics took issue with this position, writing articles entitled “Race, Gender and the Politics of Hair: Disney’s Tangled Feminist Messages”, “Tangled: A Celebration of White Femininity”, and “Disney’s Tangled: Fun, But Not Feminist”, berating the film for its lack of any true feminist examples or progressiveness (Kilmer).
One way to assess the impact of Disney is to look at the use of shape shifting and transformation in the narratives – particularly those that include women and young girls. Research shows that girls and women are often stereotyped and sexualised in the mass media (Smith et al.; Collins), and Disney regularly utilises body modification and metamorphosis within its narratives to emphasise what good and evil ‘look’ like. These magical transformations evoke what Marina Warner refers to as part of the necessary surprise element of the fairy tale, while creating suspense and identity with storylines and characters. In early Disney films such as the 1937 version of Snow White, the queen becomes the witch who brings a poison apple to the princess; and in the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty the ‘bad’ fairy Maleficent shapeshifts into a malevolent dragon. Whilst these ‘good to evil’ (and vice versa) tropes are easily recognised, there are additional transformations that are arguably more problematic than those of the increasingly terrifying monsters or villains.
Disney has created what we have coined the ‘princess bubble’, where the physique and behaviour of the leading women in the tales has become a predictor of success and good fortune, and the impression is created of a link between their possession of beauty and the ‘happily-ever-after’ outcome received by the female character. The value, or worth, of a princess is shown within these stories to often increase according to her ability to attract men. For example, in Brave, Queen Elinor showcases the extreme measures taken to ‘present’ her daughter Merida to male suitors. Merida is preened, dressed, and shown how to behave to increase her value to her family, and whilst she manages to persuade them to set aside their patriarchal ideologies in the end, it is clear what is expected from Merida in order to gain male attention. Similarly, Cinderella, Aurora, and Snow White are found to be of high ‘worth’ by the princes on account of their beauty and form.
We contend, therefore, that the impression often cast on audiences by Disney princesses emphasises that beauty = worth, no matter how transgressive Disney appears to be on the surface. These princesses are flawlessly beautiful, capable of winning the heart of the prince by triumphing over their less attractive rivals – who are often sisters or other family members. This creates the illusion among young audiences that physical attractiveness is enough to achieve success, and emphasises beauty as the priority above all else. Therefore, the Disney ‘princess bubble’ is highly problematic. It presents a narrow range of acceptability for female characters, offers a distorted view of gender, and serves to further engrain into popular culture a flawed stereotype on how to look and behave that negates a fuller representation of female characters. In addition, Armando Maggi argues that since fairy tales have been passed down through generations, they have become an intrinsic part of many people’s upbringing and are part of a kind of universal imaginary and repository of cultural values. This means that these iconic cultural stories are “unlikely to ever be discarded because they possess both a sentimental value and a moral ‘soundness’” (Rutherford 33), albeit that the lessons to be learnt are at times antiquated and exclusionary in contemporary society.
The marketing and promotion of the Disney princess line has resulted in these characters becoming an extremely popular form of media and merchandise for young girls (Coyne et al. 2), and Disney has received great financial benefit from the success of its long history of popular films and merchandise. As a global corporation with influence across multiple entertainment platforms, from its streaming channel to merchandise and theme parks, the gender portrayals therefore impact on culture and, in particular, on how young audiences view gender representation. Therefore, it could be argued that Disney has a social responsibility to ensure that its messages and characters do not skew or become damaging to the psyche of its young audiences who are highly impressionable. When the representation of gender is examined, however, Disney tends to create highly gendered performances in both the early and modern iterations of fairy tales, and the princess characters remain within a narrow range of physical portrayals and agency.
The Princess Bubble
Although there are twelve official characters within the Disney princess umbrella, plus Elsa and Anna from the Disney Frozen franchise, this article examines the eleven characters who are either born or become royalty through marriage, and exhibit characteristics that could be argued to be the epitome of feminine representation in fairy tales. The characters within this ‘princess bubble’ are Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Elsa, and Anna. The physical appearance of those in the princess bubble also connects to displays around the physical aspects of ethnicity. Nine out of eleven are white skinned, with Jasmine having lightened in skin tone over time, and Tiana now having a tanned look rather than the original dark African American complexion seen in 2009 (Brucculieri). This reinforces an ideology that being white is superior. Every princess in our sample has thick and healthy long hair, the predominant colour being blonde. Their eyes are mostly blue, with only three possessing a dark colour, a factor which reinforces the characteristics and representation of white ethnic groups. Their eyes are also big and bulbous in shape, with large irises and pupils, and extraordinarily long eyelashes that create an almost child-like look of innocence that matches their young age. These princesses have an average age of sixteen years and are always naïve, most without formal education or worldly experience, and they have additional distinctive traits which include poise, elegance and other desired feminine characteristics – like kindness and purity. Ehrenreich and Orenstein note that the physical attributes of the Disney princesses are so evident that the creators have drawn criticism for over-glamorising them, and for their general passiveness and reliance on men for their happiness. Essentially, these women are created in the image of the ultimate male fantasy, where an increased value is placed on the virginal look, followed by a perfect tiny body and an ability to follow basic instructions.
The slim bodies of these princesses are disproportionate, and include long necks, demure shoulders, medium- to large-sized perky breasts, with tiny waists, wrists, ankles and feet. Thus, it can be argued that the main theme for those within the princess bubble is their physical body and beauty, and the importance of being attractive to achieve success. The importance of the physical form is so valued that the first blessing given by the fairies to Aurora from Sleeping Beauty is the gift of physical beauty (Rutherford). Furthermore, Tanner et al. argue that the "images of love at first sight in the films encourage the belief that physical appearance is the most important thing", and these fairy tales often reflect a pattern that the prince cannot help but to instantly fall in love with these women because they are so striking. In some instances, like the stories of Cinderella and Snow White, these princesses have not uttered a single word to their prince before these men fall unconditionally and hopelessly in love. Cinderella need only to turn up at the ball as the best dressed (Parks), while Snow White must merely “wait prettily, because someday her prince will come" (Inge) to reestablish her as royalty. Disney emphasises that these princesses win their man solely on the basis that they are the most beautiful girls in the land. In Sleeping Beauty, the prince overhears Aurora’s singing and that sets his heart aflame to the point of refusing to wed the woman chosen for him at birth by the king. Fortunately, she is one and the same person, so the patriarchy survives, but this idea of beauty, and of 'love at first sight', continues to be a central part of Disney movies today, and shows that “Disney Films are vehicles of powerful gender ideologies” (Hairianto).
These princesses within the bubble of perfection have priority placed on their physical and sexual beauty (Dietz), formulating a kind of ‘beauty contest motif’. Examples include Gaston, who does not love Belle in Beauty and the Beast, but simply wants her as his trophy wife because he deems her to be the most beautiful girl in the town. Ariel, from The Little Mermaid, looks as if she "was modeled after a slightly anorexic Barbie doll with thin waist and prominent bust. This representation portrays a dangerous model for young women" (Zarranz). The sexualisation of the characters continues as Jasmine has “a delicate nose and small mouth" (Lacroix), with a dress that can be considered as highly sexualised and unsuitable for a girl of sixteen (Lacroix).
In Tangled, Rapunzel is held hostage in the tower by Mother Gothel because she is ‘as fragile as a flower’ and needs to be ‘kept safe’ from the harms in the world. But it is her beauty that scares the witch the most, because losing Rapunzel would leave the old woman without her magical anti-aging hair. She uses scare tactics to ensure that Rapunzel remains unseen to the world. These examples are all variations of the beauty theme, as the princesses all fall within narrow and predictable tropes of love at first sight where the woman is rescued and initiated into womanhood by being chosen by a man.
Disney’s Progressive Representation?
At times Disney’s portrayal of princesses appears illusively progressive, by introducing new and different variations of princesses into the fold – such as Merida in the 2012 film Brave. Unfortunately, this is merely an illusion as the ‘body-perfect’ image remains an all-important ideal to snare a prince. Merida, the young and spirited teenage princess, begins her tale determined not to conform to the desired standards set for a woman of her standing; however, when the time comes for her to be married, there is no negotiating with her mother, the queen, on dress compliance. Merida is clothed against her will to re-identify her in the manner which her parents deem appropriate. Her ability to express her identity and individuality removed, now replaced by a masked version, and thus with the true Merida lost in this transformation, her parents consider Merida to be of renewed merit and benefit to the family. This shows that Disney remains unchanged in its depiction of who may ‘fit’ within the princess bubble, because the rubric is unchanged on how to win the heart of the man. In fact, this film is possibly more troublesome than the rest because it clearly depicts her parents to deem her to be of more value only after her mother has altered her physical appearance. It is only after the total collapse of the royal family that King Fergus has a change of patriarchal heart, and in fact Disney does not portray this rumpled, ripped-sleeved version of the princess in its merchandising campaign.
While the fantasy of fairy tales provides enthralling adventures that always end in happiness for the pretty princesses that encounter them, consideration must be given to all those women who have not met the standard and are left in their wake. If women do not conform to the standards of representation, they are presented as outcasts, and happiness eludes them. Cinderella, for example, has two ugly stepsisters, who, no matter how hard they might try, are unable to match her in attractiveness, kindness, or grace. Disney has embraced and not shunned Perrault’s original retelling of the tale, by ensuring that these stepsisters are ugly. They have not been blessed with any attributes whatsoever, and cannot sing, dance, or play music; nor can they sew, cook, clean, or behave respectably. These girls will never find a suitor, let alone a prince, no matter how eager they are to do so. On the physical comparison, Anastasia and Drizella have bodies that are far more rounded and voluptuous, with feet, for example, that are more than double the size of Cinderella’s magical slipper. These women clearly miss the parameters of our princess bubble, emphasising that Disney is continuing to promote dangerous narratives that could potentially harm young audience conceptions of femininity at an important period in their development. Therefore, despite the ‘progressive’ strides made by Disney in response to the vast criticism of their earlier films, the agency afforded to their new generation of princesses does not alter the fact that success comes to those who are beautiful. These beautiful people continue to win every time.
Furthermore, Hairianto has found that it is not uncommon for the media to directly or indirectly promote “mental models of how a woman should look, speak and interact with others”, and that Disney uses its pervasive princess influence “to shape perceptions of female identity and desirability. Females are made to measure themselves against the set of values that are meted out by the films” (Hairianto). In the 2017 film Beauty and the Beast, those outside of the princess bubble are seen in the characters of the three maidens from the village who are always trying to look their very best in the hope of attracting Gaston (Rutherford). Gaston is not only disinterested but shows borderline contempt at their glances by permitting his horse to spray mud and dirt all over their fine clothing. They do not meet the beauty standard set, and instead of questioning his cruelty, the audience is left laughing at the horse’s antics. Interestingly, the earlier version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast portrays these maidens as blonde, slim, and sexy, closely fitting the model of beauty displayed in our princess bubble; however, none match the beauty of Belle, and are therefore deemed inferior. In this manner, Disney is being irresponsible, placing little interest in the psychological ‘safety’ or affect the messages have upon young girls who will never meet these expectations (Ehrenreich; Best and Lowney; Orenstein).
Furthermore, bodies are shaped and created by culture. They are central to self-identity, becoming a projection of how we see ourselves. Grosz (xii) argues that our notions of our bodies begin in physicality but are forever shaped by our interactions with social realities and cultural norms. The media are constantly filled with images that “glorify and highlight some kinds of bodies (for example, the young, able-bodied and beautiful) while ignoring or condemning others” (Jones 193), and these influences on gender, ethnicity, sexuality, race, and religion within popular culture therefore play a huge part in identity creation. In Disney films, the princess bubble constantly sings the same song, and “children view these stereotypical roles as the right and only way to behave” (Ewert). In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana’s friend Charlotte is so desperate to ‘catch’ a prince that "she humorously over-applies her makeup and adjusts her ball gown to emphasize her cleavage" (Breaux), but the point is not lost.
Additionally, “making sure that girls become worthy of love seems central to Disney’s fairy tale films” (Rutherford 76), and because their fairy tales are so pervasive and popular, young viewers receive a consistent message that being beautiful and having a tiny doll-like body type is paramount. “This can be destructive for developing girls’ views and images of their own bodies, which are not proportioned the way that they see on screen” (Cordwell 21). “The strongly gendered messages present in the resolutions of the movies help to reinforce the desirability of traditional gender conformity” (England et al. 565).
The princess bubble is a phenomenon that has been seen in Disney’s representation of female characters for decades. Within this bubble there is a narrow range of representation permitted, and attempts to make the characters more progressive have instead resulted in narrow and restrictive constraints, reinforcing dangerous female stereotypes. Kilmer suggests that ultimately these representations fail to break away from “hegemonic assumptions about gender norms, class boundaries, and Caucasian privileging”. Ultimately this presents audiences with strong and persuasive messages about gender performance. Audiences conform their bodies to societal ‘rules’: “as to how we ‘wear’ and ‘use’ our bodies” (Richardson and Locks x), including for example how we should dress, what we should weigh, and how to become popular. In our global hypermediated society, viewers are constantly exposed to princesses and other appropriate bodies. These become internalised ideals and aid in positive and negative thoughts and self-identity, which in turn creates additional pressure on the female body in particular. The seemingly innocent stories with happy outcomes are therefore unrealistic and ultimately excluding of those who cannot or will not ‘fit into the princess bubble’. The princess bubble, we argue, is therefore predictable and restrictive, promoting female passiveness and a reliance of physical traits over intelligence. The dominance of beauty over all else remains the road to female success in the Disney fairy tale film.
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