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Representation of women and romantic expressions in Disney princess movies

With the first generation of Disney Princess movies, the manifestation and establishment of several female archetypes is distinctly obvious. These archetypes can each be defined by several similar properties, which can be analyzed according to whether they are physical attributes or personal characteristics. Such archetypes work together in an intersubjective manner, to shape the way we see different types of women, both in the realm of Disney and in the real world.

The archetypal roles in these early Disney Princess films are that of the Princess, the Evil Guardian, the Fairy God Mother and the Foils. The Princesses include Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle and Jasmine. The Evil Guardians include the evil stepmothers and the wicked witches. The Fairy Godmother is present in a number of movies. The Foils include evil stepsisters and the other female characters in the movies.

Physical appearance: On one hand, the unifying physical attributes of these Disney Princesses include:

  • Extremely hourglass figures, voluminous hairdos and symmetrical faces.
  • Catering to Western society’s dominant images of beauty:

Cinderella and Princess Aurora, characters from the 1950s, both have blonde hair. This coincides with Hollywood 1950s’ era of classic blonde bombshells, with the rise of Marilyn Monroe, and a multitude of other blonde celebrities, such as Barbara Lang, Barbara Nichols, Joi Lansing, Diana Dors and Mamie Van Doren. (Jordon, 2009) This applies to a character like Jasmine as well, who represented an alluring Oriental exoticism, highly appealing to the target Western society. The Evil Guardians, on the other hand, are starkly different from the princesses.

They tend to be:

  • Shockingly frail
  • Maleficent, the disguised Queen and Lady Tremaine
  • Unhealthily large
  • Ursula.
  • Disfigured
  • Disguised Queen
  • Heavily made-up
  • Arched eyebrows and red lips which create very piercing expressions
  • Wear dark or dull long drapes and capes.

The visible theme here, is the embodiment of evil. Their inner cruelty is physicalized, suggesting that a cunning character can be identified by one’s appearance. This is highlighted by the fact that the Evil Guardians look distinctly different from the Fairy Godmothers who are plump and wear coloured cloaks, and when placed next to the Evil Guardians look far more endearing. When studying the personal characteristics of the princesses, it is evident that they share many similar qualities.

The princesses are:

  • Domesticated
  • Provide for their evil step-sisters or dwarf friends in a very devotedly homely fashion.
  • Highly prized by men
  • Presumably for beauty and domesticity
  • Not just by courters but fathers as well
  • In Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, the princesses’ fathers dote on them.
  • Strong relationships with their fathers, with the maternal relationship being essentially non-existent, without the presence of a biological mother in any of the movies.
  • Naive
  • Finding themselves in difficult situations, after being tricked by villains
  • Possess little or not agency
  • Dependent on men to save them
  • Damsels in distress
  • Friendships with the animals
  • Organically drawn to the princesses’ good characters.
  • Do not have any close female friends.
  • Ariel’s sisters in Little Mermaid, Cinderella’s evil step-sisters in Cinderella and the barmaids in Beauty and the Beast all exist as the Foils in the movies.

They all appear:

  • Ditzy
  • Desperate for male attention
  • Inadequate.
  • Serves to elevate the princesses’ desirability even more.

The Evil Guardians are all:

  • Distinctly jealous of the princesses
  • Spiteful
  • Perpetually scheming
  • Evil accomplices
  • Stark contrast to the princesses’ animal friends
  • Usually harmful animals such as eels or crows, or supernatural constructions, such as the magic-mirror in Snow White.

In sharp contrast, the Fairy Godmothers are:

  • Benevolent
  • Constantly genial.
  • Associated to clean magic
  • Unlike the Evil Guardians with supernatural affiliations
  • ‘Maternal’

These women who place these young girls before their own needs emerge as good, doting mothers. This ties the image of portly elderly women to the notion of being motherly?—?a notion subscribed to by many.

Image may not have been started by Disney, but certainly perpetuated by it.

Vain women solely concerned with their own advancement (the Evil Guardians) are never good mothers. The image of a vain woman, donned in make up is tied to the idea of a bad mother.

Hence, these archetypes are distinguished from each other in overt ways. The princesses possess all that the Evil Guardians lack in personality and appearance. They garner the attention that the Foils fail to draw. The characteristics attached to the categories appear almost mutually exclusive. Young girls who admire the princesses are thus driven to simultaneously detest the Evil Guardians and look at the Foils with disdain. Accordingly, a hierarchy is constructed, where some categories of characters appear far more worthy of the audience’s admiration than others.

As we have seen, all the Disney princesses display the common feature of being endowed with natural beauty that defines them as princesses. This simplistic equation of natural beauty to notions of goodness means that the princesses’ identities and value are often determined by their beauty and sexual appeal. Femaleness and femininity are equated to beauty, which is then equated to being a woman’s key to happiness. “Happily ever after” comes almost as easily and naturally to them as their beauty does. What results is a kind of “beauty contest motif” (Rollin, 1987), in which the beautiful get their reward, and the ugly never find happiness. There is an implication that females who do not fit the “natural” standard of beauty should accept their fate and not actively seek beauty lest they fall prey to vanity, a negative quality associated with villainy in the films. Other typical traits the princesses possess like grace, domesticity, and an almost child-like naivete are interpreted as desired feminine characteristics of kindness and purity (Shor et al., 1999). However, what is problematic in this portrayal is that their naivete, in particular, has the effect of infantilising them while the emphasis on their physical appeal sexualises them.

In contrast, the villains are always portrayed as ugly and often preoccupied with vanity, which is then associated with greed and malicious intent. This quality is especially distinct in female villains and manifests in their plots to imprison or eliminate the princesses, thus quelling their jealousy. In Snow White & the Seven Dwarves, where the Queen is determined to kill Snow White so that she alone can be “fairest in the land”. In Cinderella, the stepmother regards Cinderella’s beauty as a threat to her plans for her own daughters’ advancement in society. Notice also that the villainous femme fatales of Disney are the women who actually do take the initiative to empower themselves. However, due to their portrayal as spiteful, calculating, and fundamentally bad, female power is cast in a very negative light. Intellect and cunning in women mostly manifests itself as the tool of the scheming and manipulative. Ursula, for all her evil intent, is still admittedly a very strong woman?—?she knows what she wants and goes for it. She displays a political cunning that enables her to overthrow King Triton, the very embodiment of male patriarchy in The Little Mermaid, but is eventually defeated and killed by Prince Eric. Evidently, ambition is a very dangerous thing for females to possess in the world of the Disney Princess.

As such, this further reinforces the schism between the beautiful-is-good and ugly-is-evil dichotomy that Disney Princess films portray. These very simplistic and neat categories allow the audience to quickly identify who the heroes and villains are through a “judging the book by its cover” sort of mentality. Finally, the most common theme that runs through all the Disney Princess films is that of romantic love. Specifically, entering a romantic relationship or getting married is presented as the princesses’ ultimate goal in attaining happily ever after. Notice that females were the leads only in romantic films and always ended up getting married or romantically attached. Furthermore, in a 2003 analysis of 26 Disney films, love at first sight was a theme in 18 of them, with very little information given about how romantic relationships were maintained (Tonn, 2008). Even when heroines like Belle and Ariel start off independent and free-spirited, they are eventually brought back into the patriarchal system when they fall in love. Not only does this reinforce heterosexual normativity, it also implies that a woman, no matter how strong, is only complete when she finds and gets her man.

The early Disney Princesses (Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora) lacked agency and greater emphasis was placed on the princesses’ physical attributes than on character development. However, as feminism and women’s rights gained greater prominence, this early range of Disney Princess films attracted much criticism and prompted Disney to change the ways they portrayed their subsequent princesses. Various cultural influences and social developments in terms of female rights play a large part in the formation of new moral codes and new definition of femininity as seen in these later Disney Princess productions.

Different forms of sexualization of the Disney Princesses are observed in these later films. These modern princesses have significantly more skin exposure as compared to their earlier counterparts. Ariel and Jasmine, produced in the late 80s and early 90s respectively, bare their midriffs, while Belle, Mulan, and Pocahontas are portrayed in states of undress at certain points in the films. This conforms to the idea of “sex sells” and open sexuality which are some of the most important elements of the 1980s and 1990s clothing design (Ewing, 1992.). A newfound sense of agency can also be identified in these modern princesses. It is evident that they are more empowered as they can make their own choices and thus decide their fate. Ariel makes the choice of trading her voice for a pair of human legs while Jasmine willingly seduces Jafar in order to rescue Aladdin. Joining the ranks is Mulan, who rejects every aspect of being an ideal woman in her society and decides to disguise herself as a man to take her father’s place in army.

These princesses are also empowered with intelligence and wisdom. As opposed to the earlier princesses who lack character development, Belle is portrayed as an avid reader while Pocahontas is well respected by her tribe and has a strong spiritual connection with nature. With these later productions, Disney can be said to be addressing the issues of feminism. It does that by endowing the princesses with assertiveness and intelligence and with more say in matters. Evidently, with the onset of feminism and female empowerment in the 1970s, the portrayal of subservient female characters as seen in the earlier films no longer appeals as the epitome of femininity. The later princesses appear to represent society’s shifting attitudes toward gender roles, in particular, the empowerment of women.

Although many of the female characters, such as Pocahontas and Mulan have found a new independence where relying on a “male rescuer” is not as essential as before, the ideals of happiness portrayed in the Disney Princesses series still depends largely on overcoming obstacles to fulfill romance eventually, rather than merely on saving the day. Also, the female characters mostly still conform to the Western ideologies of beauty and empowerment, such as hourglass body types and standing up for their own individual rights. No matter how deviant these later princesses are and have arguably matured in their independence, their “happily-ever-after” endings are the same as the earlier princesses’. They are still undermined by the fact that they cannot exist as an self-empowered individual and have to depend on their men to make them whole, thus still operating within the system of patriarchal hegemony and heteronormativity. The Disney Princess films, in their adaptation of fairy-tales, have made drastic alterations to the original stories. These alterations are deliberate, conscious choices that highlight so-called “desirable” feminine traits and values.

Through the analysis of the evolution of Disney Princesses across time, it is apparent that gendered ideologies portrayed in the films are also largely shaped by societal values at the moment of production. Rather than introducing original ideals of femininity, the Disney Princess series include, reflect, and reinforce the socially reckoned ideals of femininity across the different eras. Repeating these motifs in films then sets up certain narrative expectations which feed into normative concepts of female identity. That is no surprise that Disney princess films do contain a prevalence of romantic expressions and that there is a transition over time from classic through transitional to modern films in terms of overall number of ideals and challenges expressed. In general, analyses revealed that idealization of other was the most prevalent ideal of the four across all films in the three eras, and the transitional era contained half of all the ideals expressed in all the films combined. Further, ideals were three times more common than challenges in classic films, whereas ideals and challenges were expressed equally in transitional and modern films. In general, across all three eras, challenges were most commonly met with punishing and negative reactions, whereas ideals were most often rewarded. Finally, there were no sex differences in terms of ideal expressions, but male characters were the dominant romantic pursuers in 9 of the 11 films.

Perceptions and stereotypes about idealized romance, love, sex, and relationships are found in popular media and begin to be absorbed by viewers at a very young age. These perceptions can mold and shape expectations in media consumers over time to reflect how they believe two people should interact in real life when they first meet. Young people, in particular, are vulnerable to the influence of images and stereotypes perpetuated in the media, which has prompted a need for extensive research on the implications of media and romantic relationships on young viewers. Since the late 1930s, romantic films have been a popular film genre because they provide a sense of escape from reality. Romantic relationships are idealized, perfected, and portrayed so that everything has a way of working out in the end. Hence, reliance on romantic films for applicable knowledge in everyday life, coupled with the fact that these romantic films portray an idealized—rather than realistic—concept of romance, makes it important to study just what kinds of messages are being watched by viewers.

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