By: Christine Bergmann and Alexis Cantu
Since the beginning of the Disney princess franchise, female gender roles have evolved both with the times of the production and with the cultural contexts in which the princesses are in. In these films we see the princesses influenced by love interests, family, and culture. Disney Princesses continue to stay iconic and influential to girls and boys around the world for their beauty, character and interesting stories that carry on from generation to generation. The Disney Princess have come a long way not just in the looks department but by their dependency on relationships that were linked to hegemonic masculinity and femininity. It is interesting to see the different dynamics of each princess and how it relates to gender roles, as well as how it has changed over time. From Snow White and Cinderella with the boy saves girl love plot to Moana and Raya, girls following their own journeys and breaking the mold they are expected to be in. We can see the stories and characters of the princesses evolve to be more inclusive, diverse and representative of society.
Snow White was the first Disney Princess ever to be created. She set the mark on what the standard of “Princess” should look like and act like: kind, gentle, white, and straight. Her name is based on her skin color, “White.” In Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference by Audre Lorde, she discusses how “As white women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone” (1980). This shows that making the first princess based around her skin color and seen as perfection created a damaging narrative.
The relationship between her and the prince also set the narrative trope of a princess needing to be saved by a man to happily ever after. Snow White representing emphasized femininity and feminine roles. Until recent years, the kissing scene depicted was seen as iconic. However, with the “Me Too” movement, people began to question if the kiss was “not consent” because she was asleep (unconscious) and the prince was a stranger who she sang to once? Either way, Snow White represented how a woman needed saving to obtain true love. Disney is coming out with a live-action Snow White in 2022, the lead played by a Hispanic actress, not a white woman. I am interested to see if any adjustments are made to the story to reduce emphasized femininity and controversial kissing scenes.
Cinderella, made in 1950 is the second film in the Disney princess franchise. In the movie we see that Cinderella is passive, kind, and beautiful; she fits into the emphasized femininity. She dreams of getting out of her current situation because it is abusive and makes her sad. She dreams of falling in love and gets the opportunity to when she meets her fairy godmother who turns her from a housemaid to a princess, or at least changes the clothes she wears. Cinderella is stuck in her way of life but is saved by Prince Charming. She is unable to save herself but dreams of a happily ever after, which “lines up with the social views of women during that time that idealized marriage and the role of being in the home making babies and caring for the husband,” (Barber, 13). The magic and dream come true comes from the love found. Cinderella is found by Prince Charming, not because he recognizes her face, but because a glass slipper fits her foot. Cinderella is subject to exterior emphasis, such as beauty and class..
The Little Mermaid was released right before the postfeminism period of 1990. The little mermaid portrays a teenager who wants to defy her father’s orders because she has fallen in love with a man she has only seen for his looks of hegemonic masculinity: he is good-looking, straight, and a muscular sailor. However, at the beginning of the movie, Ariel saves the prince from drowning instead of saving her. Despite this action, the Disney princess gives up her voice for legs to become a human. In this image, we see Ariel’s voice being literally sucked out of her. She gave up everything, her body, and lifestyle, for a man, who ultimately needs to save her from the villain, which falls back into the narrative of a woman needing saving—reinforcing the male protagonist as the robust and active character that’s willing to sacrifice his life to save the female. The prince did fall in love with her, but it is unfortunate that he ultimately fell in love with her purely based on looks because they had no form of communication. Another point to add is, Ariel is the princess with the least amount of clothing. Her character is a mermaid, so her costume makes sense. In this image, we see her transformation from a mermaid to a human, where she ultimately ends up nude on the beach and has to make a dress for herself. However, According to Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, to the male gaze, this scene could “build up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into satisfying in itself” (Mulvey).
Beauty and The Beast was my first introduction into the ‘abduction as romance’ trope. Released in 1991, the story elicits mythical gender norms in the abduction as romance trope. Belle, the female main character, is white, physically small and kind. The Beast is big and aggressive, the physical and behavioral characteristics of an actual beast. In the relationship between the two we see Belle’s personality work to soften the Beast, commonly seen in this kind of trope as “the right kind of woman” who is able to soften the rough edges. In the story Belle also has another suitor, Gaston. His character and the Beast serve to compare the two men, both with flaws but with the Beast being the nicer option of the two. Gaston possesses “the sort of masculinity that is deliberately drawn to give way to the problematic character of the beast,” (Zarranz, 57). Belle is seen as different from other women in the movie due to the fact that she reads, this gives her independence but yet she is still at the mercy of the Beast throughout the film. It is interesting to see the dichotomy of Belle’s character as we see her both break mythical gender norms and fulfill them.
The movie Mulan, released in 1998 was unique due to its cultural and gender norm exploration. In the movie, Mulan is subjected to both cultural and gender norms. In a commentary of the film and its regards to the social significance of the film, we find that Mulan was also subjected to its audiences, “to [the movie’s] respective ethnic/racial communities…as well as to the presumably Western gaze,” (Reily, 55). She is expected to portray herself in a way that aligns with emphasized femininity, she is to be passive, small, light skinned and a good wife. Mulan rejects these expectations from the beginning, she is not comfortable with the thought of being married off and the role she is expected to take. Mulan takes the opportunity to go to war in order to protect her family, but she does this dressed as a man. In this Mulan goes against the female normal expectations and instead adopts the male gender role. She performs a male’s duty of going to war, but this is a role she is more comfortable with taking. In the picture referenced, Mulan shows the duality of her role with both the female and male role she portrays. Mulan breaks the mythical gender expectations and creates her own role. Mulan’s love interest does not take away from her own identity and independence, she is still able to fight and make her own decisions.
This image promotes how Frozen was not solely focused on a Disney princess relationship with a prince but sisters’ relationships. The storyline of Frozen starts with Ana finding a man she wishes to marry, following the typical route of a girl wanting a prince. However, in the end, Ana’s love saved her sister Elsa, despite Kelly writing in her article from Feminist Media Studies that there is “cultural demand for a white male protector to serve as both guardian and avenger of white women” (2008). Women/femininity are often portrayed as passive, nurturing, and physically weaker than men, despite Ana defeating the enemy. Additionally, the characters in Disney movies are often assumed to be straight and cisgender. However, fans have theorized the Elsa is gay. Having a gay princess/queen would be the first for Disney but does not align with the previously followed trope. Although Elsa has not been confirmed to be gay, some of the film’s voice actors have spoken out about wanting that. Fans were upset by Frozen 2, as they felt queer baited by Elsa, as Disney could hint that she is gay but still no tangible signs.
Moana, released in 2016, was a break away from the Disney princess mold. In contrast to the earlier Disney princess films, Moana was not a love story in the traditional sense. Instead, Moana explores love in regards to Moana’s culture, people and family. Moana as a character breaks away from the emphasized femininity and gender roles we see in other Disney princess movies. Moana is a woman of color, who is not passive or the damsel in distress in need of saving. Instead, Moana can be described as an independent, brave, adventurous, and curious character. In the picture referenced above, we see Moana in a stance that radiates her confidence and character. In the picture she also wields the oar of her boat that she uses to sail her own boat. The plot of the movie follows Moana as she goes on an adventure to save her island. Along the way she meets Maui, the male character pictured in the image. He is the demigod hero who is able to lend his talents to aid Moana in her journey. Moana and Maui do not share a romantic relationship that we usually see in Disney princess films, but rather a friendship where each shares their strength and knowledge to help in their quest. Moana is one of the newest Disney princesses who breaks the typical gender roles assigned to women.
Raya is the newest Disney princess recently released this month. Raya is the first Disney Princess that has no love interest or a male partner as a sidekick. In the movie, Raya, and a female dragon are the main characters who work together to save the people. Raya does not fit the stereotypical Disney princess look or the gender performativity of a woman. Raya could be seen as following the “Dragon Lady” stereotype because she is Asian, seen as a threat to the other tribes. However, there is no white male lead acting as the villain. Raya does embody the qualities attributed to women by being emotional because of the loss of her father and does tend to talk a lot, but more is just vocal. However, I believe she is the farthest Disney has come so far exiting the emphasized femininity stereotype because she is of Asian descent, has more of a masculine look being muscular, fit, and knows how to fight. Raya has no assistance or savings from a man other than her friends.
The Disney Corporation has been alive for almost 100 years, and as with the times, change has come as well. The princess stereotype may have started off focusing on emphasized femininity but gradually has been altering the storyline and looks of the female leads to reject that trope and show a princess does not have to look or act a specific way to deserve that title. The relationship between a male figure has been dwindling as well. The storylines have shifted to the princess and her character growth journey instead of the end goal being a happily ever after relationship. More recent princesses like Moana and Raya have opened a new door for Disney Princesses, shifting the way people may think about Princesses and how they should be portrayed. Disney has changed its stories to align with present day society. In the past 10 years we have met a new generation of princesses that have broken the past mythical gender roles and have stepped into a new era of individualism.
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Kelly, C. R. (2012). Feminine Purity and Masculine Revenge-Seeking InTaken(2008). Feminist Media Studies, 14(3), 403–418. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2012.740062
Lorde, A. (1980). Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. https://www.colorado.edu/odece/sites/default/files/attached-files/rba09-sb4converted_8.pdf
Skretting, K. (1997). Laura Mulvey: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Norsk Medietidsskrift, 4(02), 124–126. https://doi.org/10.18261/issn0805-9535-1997-02-10
REILLY, C. (2016). CHAPTER FOUR: An Encouraging Evolution Among the Disney Princesses? A Critical Feminist Analysis. Counterpoints, 477, 51-63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45157186
Zarranz, L. G. (2007). Diswomen strike back? The evolution of Disney’s Femmes in the 1990s. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/26682270_Diswomen_strike_back_The_evolution_of_Disney’s_Femmes_in_the_1990s