Disney movies are a big part of our culture, and have affected our perceptions of the world. Social developments have changed the way Disney presents minorities in their movies, and had an impact on the themes of the movies, the characters’ personalities, and the messages in the movies. We examine in particular the effect of Feminism on the portrayal of Disney Princesses.
Feminism is a range of social and political movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equality of the sexes in the political, economic, personal, and social aspects. Generally, the history of feminism is divided into three periods called “waves”. The first wave began in the early 19th century and continued to the first half of the 20th century, promoting women’s right to vote. The second wave began in the 1960’s and campaigned for legal and social equality for women. The third wave was in the 1990’s, and was characterized by struggles for individuality and diversity. Today, we are in the middle of a fourth wave, combating rape culture and sexual harassment, but Disney has not been affected by it yet.
Corresponding to the waves of feminism, people split Disney princesses into three “ages”:
“The classic age” from the 30’s to the 50’s of the 20th century.
“The Renaissance age” mostly from the 80’s and 90’s.
“The modern age” is the 21st century.
It is important to realize that it takes years to make an animated movie. Therefore, in our analysis we will focus on the social norms before the movies were released, rather than at the time the movies were released.
The Disney classic age and the first wave of Feminism
Snow White (1937) is the first Disney princess. Snow White is gentle, has a pale skin, small body, and soft, high pitched, voice. She is passive and acts as a victim. Throughout the movie, she moves between ‘owners’ – her stepmother at first, then the dwarves, and lastly, the prince. She cannot solve her problems on her own, and has to rely on the men to save her. She is also in a lot of trouble for something she cannot control. In “Feminisney: ‘Snow White’ — First and Worst” Sean Randall criticizes the movie: “So, this film ends up being what is probably the worst Disney film in terms of feminism because the characters are largely non-existent, the film very solidly puts chores like cooking and cleaning as the woman’s duty (Snow, when she sees the dwarves’ dirty shack, assumes they’re children with no mother to clean)… and the entire conflict comes from the evil stepmother… being incredibly vain and incredibly jealous of another woman’s looks.”
In Cinderella (1950) Cinderella is gentle, has a small body and small feet. When she loses her shoe, Cinderella hopes the prince will find it, and tries to stay positive. She is a victim, as Snow White was, and she, too, is saved by a relationship. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella is active and makes choices that lead to her rescue. In “What’s Wrong With Cinderella”, Peggy Orenstein says: “Cinderella is a symbol of the patriarchal oppression of all women, another example of corporate mind control and power-to-the-people!”.
Aurora is “The Sleeping Beauty” (1959). Aurora has only 16 lines in the whole movie, so we do not know much about her. We know that she is physically small, and that she is gentle. We also know that unlike Cinderella and Snow White, Aurora and her prince show equal interest in each other, and that she was never abused. Leigh Butler explains in “How Sleeping Beauty is Accidentally the Most Feminist Animated Movie Disney Ever Made” that even though Aurora barely appears in the movie, it shows the fairies as three strong, independent, co-mothers, who raised a young girl to be a friendly, happy, and elegant child.
We see that even though the classic age princesses were varied, they carried similar characteristics partly correlated with the values of the first wave of feminism. Snow White was a survivor. Her only choices were between performing an action or dying. Cinderella, on the other hand, could have lived the way she did for many more years, but she succeeded in saving herself, by hoping for a better future, and by performing small actions. Aurora, in contrast, had a wonderful life, and no reason to change it. Regardless, she chose to explore the world around her, which led her to meet her prince, but also to get the almost fatal prick.
Disney movies show portrayals of abusive families like Cinderella’s family and Snow White’s stepmother. In the first wave, one of the rights Elizabeth Stanton demanded was women’s safety from their husbands, who could be abusive. On the other hand, the abusers in the movies are older women and the savior is the husband. Also, all the princesses fight against oppression, like the first feminists did.
In conclusion, the classic age princesses’ stories and personalities seem to have been somewhat affected by the first wave of feminism.
Disney’s renaissance and second wave Feminism “The personal is political”
According to Britannica, whereas first-wave feminism focused mainly on overturning legal obstacles to gender equality, second-wave feminism focused on a wider range of issues: family, workplace, reproductive rights, and gender based discrimination. The feminist activist and author Carol Hanisch coined the slogan “The Personal is Political”. She believed women’s cultural and political inequalities to be inextricably linked. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique” criticized the idea that women could find fulfillment only through childrearing and homemaking. From 1989 to 1999 Walt Disney Animation Studios returned to producing successful animated films, after a long period of less successful movies. This was called the Renaissance age.
The Little Mermaid (1989) tells the story of Ariel, an independent, headstrong, and determined young mermaid princess, who spends most of her time outside the palace. She wishes to leave the ocean despite her father’s disapproval. At the age of 16, she becomes infatuated with a human prince named Eric, and does everything she can to be with him. Ariel’s key personality traits are her sense of adventure, kindness, boldness, and curiosity.
The original Andersen tale ends with the Mermaid dying. The message in the original story was to frighten girls and encourage them to stay in their comfort zone. Disney decided to disregard the dark aspects, and make a film where Ariel’s rebellion against her father is encouraged. Just like the second wave idea of breaking the status quo.
Roger Ebert wrote that “Ariel is a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently”. However, Tamara Weston of “Time” wrote that while Ariel is less passive and more strong-willed than her predecessors, she still “gives up her voice to be with a man”.
In Beauty and the Beast (1991) Belle is labeled an outcast because of her free-spirit and passion for books. Like Ariel, she is yearning for adventure outside her comfort zone. Her key personality traits are her vivid imagination, kindness, and passion. She often refuses to be mistreated, humiliated, or controlled by anyone. While Ariel needs to deal with her overprotective dad, Belle needs to deal with a close minded society. In the spirit of the second wave Belle fights against the unfair treatment she receives.
Stephen Hunter wrote that “Belle is no passive fairy tale princess, but a real live girl, with a spunky personality and her own private agenda.” However, critics tend to agree that in spite of Belle’s independence Beauty and the Beast remains a romance about a girl who finally meets her ideal man.
In Mulan (1998) she is introduced as a free-spirited outcast, who is unable to follow rules. During her time in camp (as Ping), Mulan proves to be fierce, both physically and mentally, as well as self-reliant, and strong-willed. Mulan is rebelling against the expectations to be gentle and feminine.
Mulan was praised for breaking gender roles. Mimi Nguyen says the film “pokes fun at the ultimately repressive gender roles that seek to make Mulan a domesticated creature”. Other critics however, like Nadya Labi, pointed out that Mulan needed to become a boy in order to accomplish what she did.
The main feminist critic of all three princesses was their dependency on men. Ariel and Belle broke the status quo for a man. Mulan needed to pretend to be a man to accomplish what she wanted, and only by disguising as a man did she realized that she is stronger than she thought.
The modern age of Disney princesses and the third wave of Feminism
The modern age of Disney’s princesses began in 2009. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the third wave of feminism emerged in the middle of the 1990s and lasted until 2010. This wave was based on the achievements of the previous waves. The first and second waves managed to change existing power structures, but women were still considered weak, passive, and dependent on men to help them.
Kathleen Hanna, a third wave feminist, said: “BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.”
According to the “Roll Credit” website, the modern era of Disney princesses began in 2009 and has lasted to the present.
In The Princess and the Frog (2009) Tiana is an African American girl who dreams of opening a restaurant of her own. When she finds a frog which claims to be a prince, and promises to solve all her problems in exchange for a kiss, Tiana kisses it. She turns into a frog, and goes on a journey with the frog she kissed in order to find a way of becoming human again. At the end of the movie Tiana and the frog marry, and when they kiss, they turn back into humans. As humans they open a restaurant and fulfill Tiana’s dream.
The movie received positive feminist criticism and compliments for Tiana’s active character. “Tiana is a resourceful, hardworking heroine who is a strong role model and is one of the first Disney heroines who does not have to be rescued by a man.” says S. Jhoanna Robledo on the website Common Sense. She also adds that Tiana is an admirable role model for kids, being the first Disney African American princess.
Tiana believes in hard work and does not wait for a man to solve her problems. She is willing to do anything it takes to make her dream come true, despite the racism and sexism she is facing. These characteristics do not suit the traditional perceptions of women and portray Tiana as a feminist character. Tiana’s dream is a new kind of dream – she wishes to fulfill her professional potential and open her own restaurant, in contrast to the traditional princesses, who dream of marrying a prince.
In Tangled (2010) Rapunzel is a princess who was kidnapped by evil Mother Gothel in her infancy. At the end of the movie, Rapunzel is crowned as a princess and marries Flynn.
Phil W. Bayles in “One Room With a View” writes that Rapunzel is a strong and active woman. She depicts feminine power by hitting Flynn with a frying pan, and by using her long hair to tie him up, two feminine properties which are used differently than expected. These actions show that women can be independent and defiant without acting like men. Bayles emphasizes Rapunzel’s hobbies. Beside cleaning, baking, and brushing her hair, Rapunzel also maps the stars in the sky, plays chess, and even learns ventriloquy. When Disney animators shows Rapunzel performing these tasks, they portray a broad-minded character, who breaks the traditional gender roles. Bayles also notes Rapunzel’s journey is special because Rapunzel herself initiates it. However, Natalie Wilson wrote in Ms. Magazine that Rapunzel is moody and overemotional, two negative properties usually assigned to women. Wilson criticizes Rapunzel’s appearance. She is a thin, Caucasian girl, with long blond hair, which presents a non-realistic beauty model.
In Brave (2012) Merida is the princess of a Scottish clan. When she reaches the age of 16, her mother demands that she choose a prince and marry him. Merida refuses, and runs off to the forest.
According to Caitlin Flynn on Bustle website, Merida is a decent role model because she does not live according to the expectations of others, but finds fulfillment by practicing archery and riding a horse in the woods. Caitlin praises Merida’s independence and her ability to survive. Merida does not rely on anyone else to fix her problems: When her mother insists she should get married, Merida does not let her future be determined for her, and goes to find a solution. In addition, when her mother is in bear form, Merida defends her from her father, and takes care of her mother and herself as they sleep outside. Equally important is the end of Merida’s story. Merida does not marry a prince but finds her ‘happily ever after’ as a single woman. Many people consider Merida the most feminist Disney princess.
However, we see Merida as an inadequate role model. Although we agree with her decision to fight the marriage her mother arranges, we believe the way she chooses to act is wrong, because she refuses to deal with her responsibilities as a princess. When she disagrees with her mother, Merida decides to run off, and does not handle the consequences of her choices. She presents her objection to marriage in a very aggressive way, which almost causes a fight. Children should learn to solve their problems by talking to other people peacefully, not by disrespecting others.
Disney princesses of the modern age have some common characteristics. They are all active. They save the man who accompanies them many times. Unlike the first and second age princesses, the third age princesses are powerful and independent; they do not fall in love immediately when they meet their prince, but spend some time getting to know him.
Another new attribute the third age princesses have are their wishes. They all have modern wishes: Tiana wishes to open a restaurant, Rapunzel wishes to see the “floating lights”, a metaphor for the world, and Merida wishes to fulfill herself, and be free from obligations and marriage. Unlike the first and second age princesses, their goal is not to marry a prince.
The modern age princesses manage to achieve their goals whilst keeping their identity as women, whereas second age princesses are powerful when they act like men. Mulan had to disguise herself as a man in order to protect her family, while Merida stands up to her mother and fixes her problems without acting as a man or being assisted by one.
The modern age of Disney also has flaws. The major flaw is the appearance of the princesses; they have unrealistically small waists and long limbs. Hopefully Disney will present beauty in a way that will allow every girl to feel comfortable with her body.
In the Classic Age movies, the princesses are presented as victims, powerless over their lives. The classic age princesses were all saved by their princes. Also, all the princesses were Caucasian and unnaturally skinny. Yet, the princesses made choices and had a minimal level of control over their lives, which corresponds with the voting and property rights the first-wave feminists fought for.
The princesses of the Renaissance Age were all trapped in a situation they are unsatisfied with, but instead of being passive like the classic age princesses, they rebelled against those conditions. They are bolder and less “ladylike”, more passionate, bold, and active. And yet, they always ended up with a man, and the love story was a big part of the movie.
The princesses of the Modern Age demonstrate feminine power by setting modern goals, which are not related to men. They are less dependent on men, and are no longer victims of the situation, but rather responsible for the problem they then have to solve. However, there are still issues with body image.
Disney is an important component of modern culture, and has affected both children and adults around the world. Throughout the years, Disney princesses have been role models for many young girls. Disney creates their princesses to model the acceptable norm in society. Therefore, as the feminist movement changes those norms, the princesses change accordingly.
The feminist movement affected other characters in Disney movies, for example, female villains, but this is a topic for another article.