By Max Huberman and Delaney Garcia
As one of the most prominent companies in the entertainment industry, Disney has an immense impact on our society today. More specifically, this includes how our views of gender roles are defined and practiced. Throughout the last few decades, the youth in the United States have been inspired by characters in their favorite movies and have taken social cues from these figures who they tend to view as role models. Many of these characters are princes and princesses and have evolved over time to fit the mainstream. While many of the first princesses were created and influenced by traditional feminism, with concepts such as the damsel in distress, with more time they shifted to create characters that represent more modern feminist ideals. We argue that because of their impact on young viewers, Disney is attempting to rewrite the traditional image of Disney princesses, like Cinderella, by rejecting emphasized femininity and changing the white portrayal of princesses, through the film Mulan. We will use images from a traditional princess, Cinderella, and images from the 1998 film Mulan, which show the characters engaging in ways that reinforce and reject gender norms.
Disney princess movies have been a staple in American childhoods since their emergence in 1937. Disney and its princess phenomenon has proven to have a powerful influence on children and society as a whole in shaping our values and norms. To begin, it is important to acknowledge the evolution of Disney princesses by discussing how the earliest princess characters represented traditional feminist values of the time period. The first Disney princess tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), drew on associations of traditional femininity. This was portrayed through a female protagonist who embodied “the domestic expectations of pre-World War II women.” (Stover, 2013, p. 2) Snow White demonstrates Hollywood’s trend towards passive figures that exemplify the concept of emphasized femininity. Disney’s next princess release came in 1950 with Cinderella, which highlighted the shift in mainstream cultural thinking during the post World War II era. The Cinderella storyline shows the desire for women to return to family matters, while allowing men to “embody the ideals of hard work and ambition.” (Stover, 2013, p. 3) In order to adjust to the ever changing societal trends, Disney became eager to capitalize on the “‘new’ women of the 1950s. This resulted in the release of Sleeping Beauty (1959), where “Disney attempted to retain traditional ideals of femininity while speaking to a changing generation.” (Stover, 2013, p. 3) While it is clear that each of these movies demonstrate how traditional princesses embody rigidly defined gender roles of the time period and emphasized femininity, we will use Cinderella to dive deeper into these themes.
To understand the storyline of Cinderella, it is important to start from the beginning. After the death of her mother, Cinderella’s father remarries a wicked woman with two overly jealous daughters who become her stepfamily. Cinderella is soon subjected to a life of servantry in her own home. While she is dressed in rags and consumed by chores, Cinderella’s natural beauty is apparent but goes unseen in her household. Her character aligns directly with the time period as many believed that a woman’s place was in the home. Women during the 1950s assumed the role of housewife and were expected to stay at home, perform household chores, and take care of the children. Cinderella is expected to perform similar tasks and is confronted with consequences when she fails to do so. Although Cinderella is not a wife or mother, her character embodies many of the characteristics that describe emphasized femininity as well as the strict gender roles and stereotypes that were promoted at the time.
As the story progresses, Cinderella’s dreams of a better life become a reality when her Fairy Godmother appears. With help from Fairy Godmother, the magic cleanses her and transforms her into a glamorous bachelorette. Her new image gives her the opportunity to attend the Prince’s ball, where she has the chance to change her fate. This highlights the idea that a woman’s value is based on her appearance. If Cinderella were to attend the ball prior to her transformation, in her raggedy attire, her chances of making a good impression on the Prince would almost be non-existent. This instance shows how her character promotes these traditional stereotypes and gender roles.
Lucky for Cinderella, her transformation works to her advantage at the ball when she meets the prince and they instantly fall in love. Without knowing anything about her, the Prince falls in love solely based on her appearance. This scenario can be very dangerous for audience members, young girls in particular, as the focus is primarily on our unrealistic beauty standards. It sets an example for young girls that in order to be well liked, they must “please everyone, be very thin and dress right.” (Orenstein) It also shows how men expected women to look their best and be presentable to satisfy their own male pleasures. It is clear that Disney’s idea of the “perfect woman,” should not be an example for a real woman, especially for young girls. Through these different scenes in Cinderella, it is clear that traditional princesses embodied the gender norms and stereotypes of the time period. As time went on Disney adjusted to the times by creating new princesses that offered a more modern and progressive take on these themes, which will be explored through Mulan.
The introduction of Mulan as a princess was huge news during its 1998 release. She was the first Asian princess of Disney. At a time when Asian representation was low, Mulan was the film that would bring some much-needed representation for Asian girls. The film was a success, bringing in “$304 million worldwide at the box office,” making it likely for Disney to continue producing more movies with non-white characters (Chen, 2020). Mulan’s impact was mostly seen in the beauty standard that was presented to Disney viewers. The image that was created by princesses like Cinderella was that white, blonde, blue-eyed girls were the standard for beauty. Mulan is an example of the progressive shift towards the inclusion of “non-white, non-American female heroines (Stover, 2013, p. 5). Along with the release of Mulan, there were Barbie dolls, figurines, toys, and other merchandise (Chen, 2020). Asian girls could now see someone more like themselves on screen and Mulan enforced the idea that beauty does not come in any single form or race.
Mulan depicts the story of a young girl who disguises herself as a man to replace her injured father in the war. We see her struggle and succeed in the war, as she goes against what is expected of her. In this image, Mulan has just wiped away half of her makeup, symbolizing her rejection of gender norms. She has just come back from a failed meeting with the matchmaker, whose job it is to set up young women with a husband after they show qualities of emphasized femininity. Instead of wearing her makeup a certain way and being set up for marriage, Mulan is looking at who she truly is. She is rejecting the qualities of a traditional woman that are “culturally constructed markers of femininity” (Limbach, 2013, p. 117). Although she does not want to let her family down, she knows that the typical role of a woman is not meant for her. Mulan breaks away from the mold that Disney has previously created, that a woman should be happy to dress up and rely on a man. This creates a wider range of ways in which a woman can behave and challenges the previous stereotypes. The song that accompanies this scene, “Reflection,” lets us know Mulan’s inner thoughts, which show she does not fit the image that society is trying to place on her. This inner struggle to bring honor to her family and stay true to herself can appeal to young viewers who, before this movie, didn’t feel represented.
Image: Ketagalan Media
Mulan is seen fighting, no longer disguised as a man, but as herself. She defies the traditional role of a princess by not being subservient. She joins the fight against the Huns and performs dangerous maneuvers, getting further than any of the male warriors. Through this, Mulan changes the way that a princess is seen. Princesses can be brave and fight for their own freedom, instead of waiting for a man to save them. She gets rid of the damsel in distress trope by being her own hero. Since “media exposure helps develop a child’s concepts of social behavior and norms,” Disney is rewriting those norms through Mulan’s character (England, Descartes, & Collier-Meek, 2011, p.566). Having a strong princess affects young female viewers, who now see that they do not have to be subservient or find happiness through a man. As Mulan is fighting, which is traditionally seen as more masculine, she is rejecting emphasized femininity. Being seen as a strong warrior goes against the traditional ideals of a woman and shows that women can do anything a man can do, especially since the image shows she is fighting as a woman. Mulan shows that Disney is constantly trying to improve the princess image for a “post feminist audience by consciously addressing gender issues” (Stover, 2013, p. 5).
In this image, the Emperor of China and the soldiers are seen bowing down to Mulan. Including this scene in the movie was a step in breaking down the barriers that separate men and women. Men are seen as strong and worthy of respect, while women are cast aside and looked down upon. Having the men, especially someone in a high position of power like the emperor, bow down to a woman, shows that they are also worthy of respect. Traditionally, Disney princesses were seen as kind and gentle but were never placed in any position of power. Cinderella was treated like a peasant until she married the prince and received a higher status. Mulan brings something new to the table by letting audiences know that women should be respected just like any man. Earlier in the film, Mulan is told that she cannot bring honor to her family unless she behaves like a lady, gets married, and has sons. Disney princesses, like Cinderella, have shown the “narrow ideal of marriage as the happiest of endings for young women” (Stover, 2013, p. 1). Mulan’s happy ending comes when she saves China by fighting, not by starting a family. This image proves that women do not have to fit those old-fashioned roles by showing how Mulan brought honor to her family and her country through her strength and bravery. This new image of what a princess is, shows the “attempts by Disney to broaden their market appeal towards postmodern diversity while catering to the new expectations of its female audience” (Stover, 2013, p. 5).
After looking at the evolution of princesses through Cinderella and Mulan, we can see how Disney is making an effort to eradicate gender roles and the emphasized femininity. Mulan challenges the docile and damsel in distress portrayal that Cinderella set for young girls, by showing a braver and more rebellious side. We also see the inclusion of Asian characters, whose box office success prompts Disney to continue the inclusion of different races and nationalities in their films. Although Disney still has a way to go with diversity and defying gender norms, Mulan is a “step towards creating more diverse female images for young female audiences” (Stover, 2013, p. 8). These changes occur in the face of a growing feminist society and because of how films affect young impressionable viewers.
- Chen, B. X. (2020, September 4). ‘Mulan’ 1998: A Moment of Joy and Anxiety for Asian-American Viewers. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/04/movies/mulan-animated-1998.html.
- England, D.E., Descartes, L. & Collier-Meek, M.A. Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses. Sex Roles 64, 555–567 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7
- Limbach, G. (2013). “You the man, well, sorta”: Gender binaries and liminality in Mulan. In B. Cheu (Ed.), Diversity in Disney films: Critical essays in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and sisability (pp. 175-199). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
- Orenstein, Peggy. “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Dec. 2006. Web. 1 July. 2021. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/magazine/24princess.t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&>.
- Stover, Cassandra (2013) “Damsels and Heroines: The Conundrum of the Post-Feminist Disney Princess,” LUX: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Claremont Graduate University: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 29.