Feminism and the Disney Princesses
The History of The Disney Princess
One of the most iconic concepts from the Disney corporation is the “Disney princess.” From a marketing standpoint, in can be argued the primary demographic focus of the company has been aimed a young girls since its inception. There have been exceptions to this of course, especially in recent decades. Still, many of the films associated with the company have young female leads. Since many films were based on classical fairy tales or myths, these women were traditionally the generally accepted view of a princess. They were usually women who found themselves in trouble and were rescued by a man at some point. Essentially, they were beautiful damsels in distress and not much else.
Recent discussions have brought up the notion that these characters and their respective films may have a negative impact on the young viewers, male and female. Should women like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty be role models for future generations? Some have claimed films such as Cinderella or The Little Mermaid are anti-feminist in some regard. Here, we shall be exploring some examples of how this may be, but also some counterpoints in how Disney has improved on this over the years.
The Blandness of Snow White
Generally, the most anti-feminist views could be more prevalent in the decades preceding the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. Many of the female protagonists were bland and only defined by exterior beauty. Snow White for instance, was stated as being “fairest of them all.” Here, physical beauty was the primary fuel for the queen to attempt an assassination. When the huntsman spares her or when the dwarves take her into their home, it could be perceived this was at least initially due to her beauty. Now, Snow White was a compassionate individual who managed to contribute to the household and improve the lives of her new family members. Sadly, this is the only positive attribute she had besides her beauty. Her most defining characteristics are primarily superficial. Even her purpose within the household was primarily to do housework.
At the time the original film was created, women were still little more than second class citizens. In a historical context, they had only achieved the right to vote two decades earlier. Beyond the success of the suffragist movement, not much had been done to allow women equal status as men in the work force. The main expectation was for a women to remain within her home, clean and raise children. It was still very difficult for a woman to attempt self actualization, even if education was encouraged. Snow White is a clear example of what was expected of young women at this time. Be pretty and be nice. That was it.
Interestingly, some of the most classic villains are women. Most would argue they are generally more iconic than most of their male counter parts. This is a perhaps less so in earlier films. The evil queen in Snow White is possibly even more bland than her step daughter. While it is true that she does have presence and power to offer a counter point to the young heroine, she is so one dimensional that she’s practically anti-feminist herself. This is mainly due to her motivation. What is it after all? She is jealous of a younger and prettier woman who simply receives more attention. For a supposedly clever woman with wealth and power and beauty of her own, the fact that her motivation is so petty creates a very negative and simplistic view of what motivates women. Now while it could be argued that she is also a product of the times, a societal view which does carry on to this day, she still represents an ultimately weak and simplistic view of a female.
The Pattern Continues
In the following decades, similar examples of simplistic portrayals of women in Disney would continue to be shown. Let us next consider the primary message of the film Cinderella. Cinderella herself is very similar to Snow White, with just a touch more personality. Though it was primarily due to the circumstances of a domineering parental figure, Cinderella spends most her life in servitude. She is confined to the house and does menial chores. Now what is the solution the film offers for her to break free from these shackles? A fairy godmother arrives to allow her the means to go to a party, wear an expensive dress and meet the man of her dreams. In this tale, how does she attract a potential husband? Much like Snow White, simply being pretty. This creates the message that what a young women should strive to do is look good enough to attract a mate. Conversely, any boys watching may assume that’s what women are ultimately like and psychical beauty is of the most value.
Sleeping Beauty follows the same basic pattern as the two previously mentioned films. Aurora herself is possibly the blandest Disney princess of them all. She is easily ensnared by the villain of the film and demonstrates no real personality beyond a pretty face and a serviceable singing voice. Much like Snow White, this film has an iconic villain. Malificent is one of Disney’s most intimidating forces. However, we must observe the motivation for an antagonist. What is it? She wasn’t invited a party. That’s it. One of the most evil villains in the history of the company simply wasn’t invited to the coronation. This isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself. However, it does suggest a certain fickleness that is perhaps unbecoming of such a villain. This could be waved away as an example of how petty she is, but it does create another very simplistic view of female behavior and motivations.
A New Era Begins
In recent decades, Disney has shifted their attention to created more well rounded stories and complex characters. At the forefront of this has been the portrayal of female leads. While some cases have been made that these young women suffer from Disney’s tendency to simplify these characters, obvious improvements have been made. This became more noticeable in the late 1980’s, during the beginning of the company’s return as a leader of family entertainment and animation in general.
The film that lead this movement, The Little Mermaid, has come under the most controversy of the more recent Disney films. This is mainly due to the actions and motivations of the main character, Ariel. The young mermaid has a fascination with the human world. She even lays her eyes upon a man for the first time and instantly falls in love with him. While this could be explained as adolescent infatuation, it is presented as “love.” This could easily be misinterpreted by young viewers. Even worse, Ariel is tricked into giving up her voice in order to be allowed the roam the land and gain the attention of this young man. Feminists have criticized this plot point for a fairly obvious reason. By sacrificing her voice, Ariel is essentially giving up her identity. She’s giving up her ability to express herself as an individual on equal footing. True love is implied here as being little more than silence and servitude to her male counter part. While Ariel is better written than most Disney princesses that preceded her, she still suffers from a very similar behavior.
The biggest counterpoint to this is the fact that Ariel is portrayed as a more realistic adolescent girl. She is inquisitive and impulsive, but at the very least show’s some initiative beyond staying stuck in a castle. She has dreams of exploring and transcending her current lifestyle. That’s much more than previous princesses demonstrated. Some could also make the claim that the film could be suggesting the romantic connections involve more communication that the vocal. This is a nice notion, but since Ariel doesn’t really do much beyond smile pleasantly, this isn’t really the strongest argument. While Ariel was more well rounded that those that came before, the plot of the film still leans towards suggesting superficial attributes towards feminine behavior and general motivations.
Belle Sets New Standards
The next few films would feature female leads who were more independent, free thinking and presented on equal footing with their male counterparts. The first of these was Belle of Beauty and the Beast. Belle is shown right away as being intelligent and educated and not particularly interested in men. While other women are swooning over the bachelor Gaston, Belle doesn’t give sway to his aggressive attentions. Belle only becomes a “princess” by circumstance. Interestingly, though she is portrayed as a beautiful young woman, the primary theme of the film suggests the importance of inner beauty. After all, the fact that Belle may be physically attractive is not a crucial factor to the plot. She is shown as being compassionate and patient. This is why the relationship between Belle and the Beast is one of the best developed in the Disney canon. They actually have time to overcome differences, learn from one another and eventually love each other. Previous to this, most princesses simply looked beautiful and that was enough to entice young men to be interested. With Belle we actually have a realistic and well written role model for young men and women.
Even in films with males as leads, women were beginning to show more independence and genuine personality. Two of the best examples are within Aladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Aladdin had Jasmine, a princess who defied expectations up to that point. She refused to be a political pawn for her father or Jafar. She wasn’t concerned with romantic connection initially. Rather, she wanted to pursue some form of self-actualization. This is an excellent role model for women. Jasmine stresses the importance of independence and self-reliance over hormone influenced pursuits that often distract adolescents. Jasmine’s mentality would greatly influence the trend of how feminine goals would be portrayed later.
Esmerelda of The Hunchback of Notre Dame presented a different form of complexity. Being both a woman and minority in foreign nation, she must constantly resist the forces that are constantly trying to oppress her. She shows great skills in dealing with Frollo and his minions and was willing to speak her voice when Quasimodo is being tortured in front of a crowd. While she is somewhat reduced to a damsel in distress by the end the film, she is presented as being fleshed out individual who builds a mutual friendship with the male lead rather than a romantic one.
Mulan and the Future
The most dramatic shift perhaps came with 1998’s Mulan. Mulan is struggling with the image that her family and society have imprinted on her. She must be presentable as a bride to uphold her family honor. However, when her aging father is called upon to military service when the huns invade, Mulan takes it upon herself to impersonate a man and take her father’s place. This is a complete challenge to gender roles which is fairly progressive for Disney. There is a romantic connection in the film, but it’s not the main focus for once. Here, Mulan is trying to make something of herself without obtaining male compaionship. Mulan doesn’t align with traditional views of feminine behavior. Rather, she challenges these views. Mulan cares more about upholding her duty and saving her father than romantic connections. This doesn’t imply that she doesn’t care about such things but rather that she has higher priorities. She is shown of being capable of taking care of herself moreso than any other “Disney princess” in the traditional sense. Mulan is therefore the greatest leap forward for strong female characters in Disney.
The company has continued with female characters who are typically better written as role models and as characters in general. The most recent examples can be seen in The Princess and the Frog as well as the major hit, Frozen. Both films show women who go against the typical views of the Disney princess in a number of ways. Disney has truly had some issues with creating well rounded female characters in its history. However, over the decades the company has shown a great deal of improvement. It could be stated that they have provided their audiences with some of the best female characters in animation and perhaps all of film history. There are still some improvements to be made for consistency, but Disney has proven several times that they are hardly anti-feminist in their agenda.
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