Disney plays a large part in socializing young girls as to how women should act. For a long time, Disney films have featured princesses in ways the fall in line with the ideal of emphasized femininity. From Snow White to Belle, they were white, heterosexual, upper class, and able bodied. The first Disney princess of color doesn’t appear until Jasmine and from here we can observe a stark contrast in how their femininities measure up against each other. Using an intersectional approach, we analyze women of color in Disney films and how they differ to the emphasized femininity ideal set by the white princesses before them.
Snow White is the first princess ever released by Disney, and she sets the example for decades of other princesses to follow. Snow White is pale, thin, and fragile, and carries her body in a dainty manner. While singing to her animal friends, she holds her pinky out and is light on her toes, almost gliding around the room as she does chores around the house. She is caring and emotional, and exists as capable only in the domestic sphere, tending to the house’s needs as well as to the seven dwarves in the story.
At the film’s climax, Snow White is poisoned by an apple and falls into a deep slumber. The plot is written to where she has no agency to save herself from the situation. As evident in the photo above, Snow White achieves her “happily ever after” by doing nothing. She lays sleeping in a glass coffin, and is saved by a prince, who rescues her from death with a kiss.
More white princesses come to follow Snow White, and it isn’t until 55 years later that Disney releases its first princess of color, Jasmine. Jasmine is an Arabian princess that falls in love with a robber named Aladdin. At first glance, Disney doesn’t stray too far from emphasized femininity. Apart from not being white, Jasmine is upper class, able bodied, and thin. She wears heavy gold jewelry, a hairband set with a blue gem, and lives in a lavishly decorated palace. Her build is very similar to previous princesses, with a fragile figure and an impossibly thin waist. But in contrast to Snow White, Jasmine’s character is more adventurous. She exerts a more assertive femininity in that she doesn’t simply wait for things to happen to her but instead takes matters into her own hands, escaping the palace in an attempt to live life on her own terms.
Pocahontas follows Jasmine as Disney’s second woman of color protagonist. Pocahontas is a Native American woman who falls in love with the English settler named John Smith. Pocahontas’s character design is a greater departure from previous examples. While she is clad in a feminine dress, revealing bare shoulders and legs, Pocahontas’s build is more athletic than that of Snow White and Jasmine, as seen with her broader shoulders and thicker thighs. Throughout the movie she is seen running, climbing, and exploring her world independently, with a sense of curiosity and adventure. Additionally, her femininity is marked as that of the other, that is, she is characterized as exotic. The photo above shows her being literally discovered by John Smith while hidden in a thick fog. This contrasts emphasized femininity, where women who belong to this category are seen as the norm or default.
Yet another step farther from emphasized femininity is Esmeralda, the gypsy from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the first of the lead Disney women to be of lower class. In this photo, is clad in simple and tattered clothing, her hair is unkempt, and her face is bare of any makeup. Further, she confronts her antagonists directly, standing up against Frollo, the justice minister who wants to eliminate gypsies.
“Emphasized femininity…can be ‘displayed’ episodically, as an aspect of ‘doing gender’“ (Dilley, Hockney, Robinson, Sherlock 2014). The photo above shows just that, with Esmeralda performing her way into a closer version of emphasized femininity. She compensates for her lower class by wearing flashy gold jewelry and attempts to be seen as even more feminine with her extremely low-cut dress.
After Esmeralda, follows Mulan. Mulan is a daughter of an upper middle class army veteran. In the beginning, she is forced to act like a woman manner, memorizing Chinese characters, wearing makeup, pouring tea and so on. In contrast, she is free-spirited. She doesn’t like to follow rules that she hesitates to go matchmaking.
She is responsible that she serves army for her aged and disabled father. She is fearless and brave and is shown leading an army of men. She is also smart. For example, when the enemy army ambushes at a snowy mountain, she cleverly uses a cannon to cause an avalanche that buries them.
Disney movies depict women of color as brave, strong-willed, smart, displaying a more assertive type of femininity. This contrasts with Disney’s early depictions of white princesses, as seen in Snow White, where they had little to no individual agency and instead relied upon their “Prince Charming” to come and rescue them. These differences in representation can be more clearly understood through an intersectional approach. Emphasized femininity can only be truly achieved by white women, so women of color must attempt through other ways to come close.
Dilley, R., Hockey, J., Robinson, V., & Sherlock, A. (2015). Occasions and non-occasions: Identity, femininity and high-heeled shoes. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 22(2), 143–158. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350506814533952
Weber, B. R. (n.d.). Intersectionality. Keywords for Media Studies, 111-113. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1gk08zz.37