wicked wiles princess disney cinderella gender feminism representation analysis
Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Wicked Wiles – What Do Disney Princess Films Teach You About Being a Woman?

This article was first published on the Fanny Pack Blog. Read the original post here and follow Fanny Pack to read updates on this series before they are published here.

Introduction

Disney’s iconic Princess catalogue of fairy-tale inspired films began right from the company’s cinematic debut in 1939 with Snow White – the first ever animated feature-length film, and it’s first critical and commercial success.

74 years later, the runaway success of Disney’s latest addition to its signature genre – Frozen – has proven that the allure of being a Princess hasn’t lost its shimmer for the latest generation of Disney-weaned audiences. Despite being a very specific brand, Disney Princess’ official website summarizes its intentions quite broadly:

Wicked Wiles Disney Princess Analysis Gender Politics Fanny Pack iwantedwings

Nothing in this mission statement is purposefully negative or harmful, just as none of Disney’s films are. And yet, as open and expansive as it encourages young girls to be, there is also an inhibiting factor straight from the offset – this is a gender specific genre according to Disney, and as such, limiting to both genders. Little boys have apparently nothing to learn from watching them and are almost always stereotyped as the strong, courageous, adventurous men. Whilst little girls must seek guidance and inspiration from them in the form of ‘happily ever after,’ dreaming of a handsome prince, perfect wedding days or coming to the realization that almost every princess is white, with long blonde hair and blue eyes.

Laura Bates from the ‘Everyday Sexism’ book, talks about one of the “earliest manifestations of childhood sexism is in the almost surreal segregation of children’s toys” and this also transpires into the films. Laura acknowledges the “attempts to subvert the stereotypes in recent years with Tangled and Brave, showcasing strong female heroines rather than the typical ‘damsel in distress’… however they remain stubbornly problematic.”

Looking at theses films and toys in isolation, it may seem a little over the top. So what if girls like fashion, makeup and boys? But, as Laura Bates says, “the sheer saturation of tween culture with these characters and images creates a powerfully dictatorial consensus about who girls should be, what they should be interested in and how they should look.” The question is how is this influencing the way our daughters, sisters etc. see themselves, and how does it impact their future choices?

This being the case, just what do little girls learn about their gender from 74-years worth of Disney Princess films? And, is that lesson a positive, negative, or neutral one?

Over this series of blogs, I hope to discover the answers to these questions by watching each film in the Princess genre in chronological order of release and analyzing each one using my own criteria:

Wicked Wiles Disney Princess Analysis Pop Culture Gender Politics Fanny Pack iwantedwings Feminism Is the villian female, and if so, what are her motivations? 3 How do the female characters interact with each other? 4 Who drives the plot? 5 How do the male characters treat the female ones? 6 Does the princess have characteristics beyond her princess role?

At the end of each article, I will give the film a ‘Gender Representation Classification’ stamp – Positive, Negative, or Neutral – in a similar way that films are rated for age. It is important to add that my criteria has nothing to do with whether each film is cinematically ‘good’ – these questions are specific to whether each film has good gender politics; although I suspect there might be a point of correlation between the two. I should also add that I – like most – am a HUGE Disney fan, but I will be trying my absolute best to forget any preconceived opinions about each film before watching it so as it be as unbiased as possible.

The final note is the list itself. Now, there is an official Disney Princess roster that I will be using, but I have also made my own additions. This includes any animated or partly-animated Disney Studios film (including Disney/Pixar) that prominently features a female character (human or non-human) that is either a Princess; becomes a Princess; or of Princess status equivalence – i.e. Pocahontas is included as she is the daughter of the Chief of her tribe; Nala is included as she is part of the Pride’s royal family and [SPOILERS] becomes Simba’s wife.

Here is the list I will be writing about in the next few months. (in chronological order of release):

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Princess: Snow White

Cinderella (1950)
Princess: Cinderella

Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Princess: Aurora

Robin Hood (1973)
Princess: Maid Marian

The Little Mermaid (1989)
Princess: Ariel

Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Princess: Belle

Aladdin (1992)
Princess: Jasmine

The Lion King (1994)
Princess: Nala

Pocahontas (1995)
Princess: Pocahontas

Mulan (1998)
Princess: Mulan

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Princess: Kida

Enchanted (2007)
Princess: Giselle

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Princess: Tiana

Tangled (2010)
Princess: Rapunzel

Brave (2012)
Princess: Merida

Frozen (2013)
Princess’: Elsa & Ana

Coming up next in the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. 

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8 thoughts on “Wicked Wiles – What Do Disney Princess Films Teach You About Being a Woman?

  1. I used to watch Disney movies, and I especially loved Robin Hood, so I’ll be looking forward. I just feel the need to say that in my watching these movies, I have yet to encounter any act of sexism. So why is there the need to dig further to see if there is, if it doesn’t affect us at all? Thank you. ^^

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    • Girl, Independent says:

      Im looking forward to this too! I have to say, just because you’ve not noticed any sexism, might not mean it’s not there….as i’m remembering Robin Hood myself, all I can remember is that the boys got to be adventurous and the girls got to be damsels in distress. It’s not explicit sexism, it’s more gender stereotyping than anything else. 🙂

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      • Well, I don’t know what image Disney wanted to portray in this movie, but there were little girls who were just as adventurous and energetic as the little boys. And Maid Marian and Robin Hood were real historical people, and that is their story. Maid Marian is not any less of Robin Hood just because she was “rescued”; she had what she wanted in the end. She wanted Robin Hood, and he wanted her, and they all had eachother. From the way I saw it, each end was satisfied, and that is enough. Now, having not been as gallant in this epic as was Robin Hood, even as a child, I had not assumed it was not in her potential to be, and so do the girls I grew up with. They thought the same as well.

        I am in no means demeaning your endeavour, and I am sorry if it caused any harm. It’s just my opinion on this topic. I will look forward to your next posts. Thank you. ^^

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  2. “Nothing in this mission statement is purposefully negative or harmful, just as none of Disney’s films are.” You lost me right there. Do you know any Disney history? The man himself was a Freemason and a Satanist. I’ve written a few posts on Disney, etc, myself but I didn’t go as in depth as I could have, or as others already have.

    While I, also, think a film by film analysis could be interesting, without knowing the history of the man or the company, anything we see as negatives of the films will be merely scratching the surface of the true intentions behind it. Just something to keep in mind. Cheers.

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  3. It would be interesting to see how gender portrayals intersect with class and race. A ‘happy ending’ seems to be tied to achieving wealth and status (through marrying a man), to being something special, a princess. What effect does this have on women’s self esteem? Does this play into consumerism and a neverending search for more? I’m less qualified to speculate on race, but how are characters like Pocahontas, Mulan, or Jasmine represented differently to Aurora, Cinderella or Snow White? What does that tell us about expectations placed on women? What about Maleficent, the Queen in Snow White, Ursula? How do they represent women? What messages about femininity and sexuality do they perpetuate? Is it significant that the princesses are young women and the villains are aging?

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